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Bomb Targets Saudi Police Headquarters

Times Staff Writer

A massive suicide car bomb tore through a police headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, on Wednesday afternoon, killing at least four people, wounding 148 and turning the wrath of Islamic militants directly on the Saudi government.

The attack apparently signaled a radical new tactic in the string of suicide bombings and shootouts waged by militants against the oil-rich kingdom this last year. It was the most brazen strike yet, designed to kill scores of Saudis in the heart of the capital on a bustling workday. The dead were two Saudi security officers, one civil servant and an 11-year-old Syrian girl.

“This target, a totally Saudi Arabian location, is a big blow to whatever claims they have that they’re against only the Americans,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a media advisor to Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in London. “They must have gone to a really extreme position in their thoughts. It’s an unorthodox approach they’re adopting.”

No group immediately took responsibility for Wednesday’s attack; Saudi officials blamed it on a shadowy “group of terrorists that is targeting the kingdom’s stability.” Saudi officials have said the continuing violence was the work of Islamists affiliated with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network.

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In Washington, a U.S. intelligence official said there was “strong suspicion” that the bombing had been carried out by an Al Qaeda cell.

“Saudi authorities had launched a number of raids in the last week and a half and had located a number of vehicular bombs,” the official said. “This may have been an attempt on the part of Al Qaeda elements to strike back at Saudi authorities.”

It was midafternoon on the last day of the Saudi workweek when a suicide bomber drove a bomb-laden car toward the seven-story police station. Stopped at the gate by police and concrete barriers, the car blew up. The force of the blast sheared the face off the building and rattled Riyadh for miles around. For hours afterward, rescue crews sifted through the rubble in search of survivors. Thick brown smoke poured into the sky.

“What has happened here? It used to be the safest country in the world,” said Ibrahim Majed. Standing two blocks away, Majed was thrown off his feet by the explosion. “What do they want now? Do they want us Saudis to leave our homeland?”

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The bombing stood as stark proof of the strength and tenacity of the jihad movement in Saudi Arabia, where its members have long sought to overthrow the ruling family, cut ties with foreigners and install an even more austere form of Islamic rule.

The depth of the insurgency became plain nearly a year ago when a suicide attack on three housing compounds in Riyadh killed 35 people in May, including nine Americans. Suicide bombers struck again in November, killing 17 at a compound that was home to many foreign Arabs.

The government blamed Al Qaeda and hit back hard. Security forces have waged a relentless crackdown on armed cells this year, arresting hundreds of people, killing militants and forcing fiery clerics to tone down their rhetoric.

“We’ve captured or killed the top leadership [of terrorists] in Saudi Arabia,” a Saudi official said Wednesday. “Now what we’re dealing with is the second level.”

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Saudi officials said they had foiled five car bomb attacks over the last 10 days, and footage of bomb-rigged trucks was broadcast on Saudi television to remind citizens of narrowly averted havoc.

Earlier this spring, a videotape showed a masked militant urging followers to kill Americans and warning of a strike on Saudi police. Meanwhile, gun battles blazed in the streets of the capital. Suspected Islamic militants shot dead five Saudi policemen last week; a manhunt was on for the gunmen.

“We all thought we were getting it under control, but those guys are still around,” Khashoggi said. “Five cars have been rounded up, and each car has thousands of kilograms of bombs. So we’re talking about a big, well- established network.”

Citing “credible indications of terrorist threats aimed at American and Western interests in Saudi Arabia,” the U.S. government last week pulled all of its nonessential staff out of the country.

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The blast occurred half an hour before Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage’s meeting nearby with top Saudi officials to discuss U.S. plans in Iraq and frayed U.S.-Saudi ties. Before leaving Riyadh later Wednesday afternoon, Armitage said the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were fighting a common battle.

“On the question of terrorism we have an absolute identity of views: that we need to root out these terrorists,” Armitage said. “We’ve both suffered terribly.”

President Bush, speaking to a newspaper editors meeting in Washington, said the Riyadh attack “was a reminder that there are people that would like ... to overthrow the ruling government.”

Bush also acknowledged the “frightening” possibility of a preelection attack in the United States. “This is a hard country to defend,” Bush said. “We’re now a target. Our intelligence is good. It’s just never perfect.”

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The battle in Saudi Arabia between Islamic militants and the nation’s rulers is old and bitter, stretching back to the days when the Saudi regime sent eager young Muslims to fight in Afghanistan -- only to marginalize them when they trailed home from battle. Many foreign analysts argue that the Saudi regime has only itself to blame for radicalizing its populace with the ultra-conservative preachings of its Wahhabi clerics.

Extreme religion has turned against the House of Saud: Islamic militants, most famously the Saudi-born Bin Laden, have declared war on the ruling family for allowing U.S. troops to set up base in Saudi Arabia. They have denounced the government as illegitimate and demanded the ouster of all foreigners from Saudi soil.

Pushed by its brutal struggle against fundamentalist fighters, the Saudi government has labored to tone down the political rhetoric in mosques and to spread the idea of peaceful Islam.

On Wednesday, a leading cleric appeared on Saudi television to condemn the attack.

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“Now these terrorists have run out of excuses, for this is not a place for foreigners,” Abdullah Mutlaq said. “We might have made mistakes in the past and brought up fanatics, but these [attackers] are from the school of old Afghanistan and Al Qaeda -- criminal groups.”

Analysts insist that the militants have been steadily losing the sympathy of the Saudi public. The November bombing, which killed Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, shocked and disgusted many Saudis.

Wednesday’s bloodshed drew an even deeper revulsion.

“Today they targeted their brothers, cousins and relatives. I’m just trying to understand the miserable thinking of these militants,” said Mohsen Awajy, a lawyer and outspoken critic of the Saudi government.

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“This has nothing to do with the government, nothing to do with reform,” he said. “Everybody is going to reject this behavior as a matter of life or death for the society.”

After the attack, Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, and Interior Minister Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz toured hospitals, greeting wounded victims and kissing their cheeks. Speaking to reporters, Nayif pledged to track down the militants.

“We advise them to hand themselves over,” Nayif said. “I also tell those who sympathize with them or cover for them that they are no less criminal. Everyone must stop this or the hand of justice will reach them.”

Times special correspondent Caesar Nadaf in Riyadh and staff writers Greg Miller and Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this report.

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