Riyadh explosions draw US attention to Saudi Arabia

Developing Just Leadership

Crescent International

Rabi' al-Awwal 14, 1424 2003-05-16

Occupied Arab World

by Crescent International (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 6, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1424)

The Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, was rocked by four massive explosions late on May 12, as Crescent was going to press. They were apparently aimed at Western targets in the city, including residential compounds where Western expatriates live, and the headquarters of an American-owned company, the Saudi Maintenance Company.

Early reports suggest that the largest of the blasts was caused by a martyrdom operation in which a car loaded with explosives was driven into a compound surrounded by a 14-foot-high security wall. The explosion was reportedly heard and seen from outside the city. In another attack, security forces were reported to be engaged in a gun-fight with attackers.

At this stage little is known about details or circumstances of the attacks. In a sense there is innocence in ignorance, for while information is scarce, so too is the propaganda and spin which are bound to be placed on the events, depending on how the US decides to respond to the attacks.

The timing is interesting. It comes less than two weeks after the US announced, after the conclusion of its war in Iraq, that it is to move all US troops and aircraft out of Saudi Arabia and redeploy them in Qatar. It also comes only days after Saudi security forces claimed to have broken up an al-Qai’da cell in Riyadh.

The attacks also come the night before US secretary of state Colin Powell was due to arrive in Riyadh on the latest leg of his Middle East tour. The State Department later said that he would continue on schedule.

During the Iraq war, there were repeated alerts for possible attacks on Western targets in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in response to appeals from both Usama bin Ladin and Saddam Hussain for Muslims to respond to the US’s attack on Iraq. The fact that no major attack materialised — although there were little-publicised attacks on individual US servicemen in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Arab countries — was widely taken as a sign of success in the US’s ‘war on terrorism’.

This impression was emphasised on May 6, when Saudi security sources said that they had discovered and broken up a major al-Qai’da cell in Riyadh after a shoot-out in the centre of the city. Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef said that the shoot-out took place after security forces stormed the "terrorists’ lair."

Nineteen suspected militants escaped from the scene and were later believed to have gone into hiding in the city. Police also claimed to have discovered a "large" cache of weapons at the scene, including hundreds of kilograms of explosives, the interior ministry said in a statement on state television.

The suspects were identified as 17 Saudi citizens, a Yemeni and an Iraqi, bearing Canadian and Kuwaiti passports. Prince Nayef said that all were known members of an al-Qa’ida cell who had undergone military training in Afghanistan.

Clearly this was not the only cell of anti-Saudi militants in the city; the attacks on May 12, clearly well planned and co-ordinated, suggest that there are substantial armed opposition groups in the country.

Powell’s visit to Riyadh comes after stops in Damascus, Cairo, Tel Aviv and Amman, in which he has reportedly rallied support for the US’s plans in Iraq and for the ‘road map’ for peace in Palestine, published on April 29. At the same time, there was bound to be, even before this latest attack, hard talking about Saudi Arabia’s political future and the steps it is taking to counter anti-American opinion and support for militancy in the Arabian Peninsula.

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