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U.S. shuts Saudi offices

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- The United States temporarily closed its embassy and two consulates in the kingdom yesterday, citing security concerns triggered by patterns of militant behavior and communications.

The two-day closure, ending tomorrow night, reflects continuing high levels of concern about terrorism in Saudi Arabia, less than a week after the enthronement of King Abdullah.

"We have had no specific threat of any imminent terrorist attack," said Brig. Gen. Mansoor al Turki, a top Saudi security official. "But a terrorist remains a terrorist, and we have to take precautions in proportion to the perceived situation."

The general added, "We are taking all necessary security measures to confront any possibility."

The American decision came a week after the death of King Fahd and only two days after a four-hour visit by Vice President Dick Cheney, former President George Bush, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The U.S. Embassy issued a brief statement saying the closure of the embassy in Riyadh and the consulates in Jidda and Dhahran was ordered "in response to a threat against U.S. government buildings in the kingdom."

The statement advised U.S. citizens to "exercise caution and maintain good situational awareness when visiting commercial establishments frequented by Westerners or in primarily Western environments."

U.S. officials declined to reveal the nature of the intelligence on which the closure decision was based.

But a security source said, "Since 9/11, there has been a lot of talk about connecting the dots. Sometimes, you see enough dots that you have to act."

One method of detecting a pattern of terrorist behavior is to analyze "chatter" on the Internet, the preferred method of communication between terrorists and their supporters because of its apparent anonymity.

No obvious sign of stepped-up security was observable at the embassy in Riyadh yesterday.

Despite the manicured hedges and small trees, the embassy resembles a fortress. Its thick brown walls are protected by fencing, low cement blocks and a Saudi armored vehicle with a gun emplacement.

"The building in Riyadh is well-secured by numerous barriers to access," said Gen. Mansoor. "In Jidda, however, the consulate is slap bang in the middle of a crossroads, so it is more difficult to protect. But we remain confident."

Terrorists attacked the consulate in Jidda on Dec. 6, killing five non-American foreign-service workers, all with long records of service. In March, almost all embassy officials were ordered to send their families out of the country.

A statement issued last month said the embassy "has received indications of operational planning for a terrorist attack or attacks in the Kingdom."

The embassy later barred U.S. military personnel from traveling within the country.

Fears have stretched beyond Saudi Arabia. The embassy's Web site on Saturday warned of "ongoing security concerns in the region, including for seaborne vessels traveling in the southern Red Sea."

No other embassies have followed the American lead.

"We are not closing, but we keep the security situation under constant review," said Barrie Peach, media officer for the British Embassy in Riyadh.

Since the May 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh, at least 91 foreign nationals and Saudi civilians have been killed, along with 41 security force members and 112 militants.

Suicide bombers hit several compounds in 2003, and last year gunmen made a series of attacks on Westerners.

King Abdullah recently vowed to pursue a "total war" on terrorism within the kingdom, and Western analysts say the security crackdown has eroded al Qaeda's network in Saudi Arabia.

• Distributed by WTN/World News & Features.