- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Authorities yesterday arrested four suspected members of an al Qaeda cell believed to have mounted last week’s deadly attacks in Riyadh and announced that the bodies of five attackers had been identified.

No names were released, but the Interior Ministry said the arrested men, and three of the dead suicide bombers, were among 19 suspected al Qaeda members who escaped arrest on May 6 when their hide-out was raided by security forces.

One of the three housing compounds where 25 residents, most of them foreign, were killed on Monday was located just yards from the hide-out, raising questions about the effectiveness of the Saudi forces who were hunting them down.

The Saudi attackers identified yesterday were believed to have been targeting Interior Minister Prince Naif and his brother Defense Minister Prince Sultan — two of the four most powerful members of the al-Saud ruling family — when their attackers’ headquarters was raided earlier this month.

U.S. officials have said they believe that the cell had sympathizers in the security apparatus and that al Qaeda has moles in all the Saudi armed forces apart from the air force.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government sent its ambassador to the United States on a last-minute secret mission related to the war on terrorism, a top official said in Washington.

Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan was sent to an undisclosed location just before he was to appear on several U.S. television talk shows, Adel al-Jubeir, foreign policy adviser to the de-facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, told “Fox News Sunday.”

In Morocco, where “several dozen” people were arrested during the weekend in connection with attacks that killed 28, in addition to 13 suicide attackers, on Friday, officials were probing the role of a little-known radical Islamist group called Assirat al Moustaquim (Righteous Path).

“Some of [the perpetrators] came from a foreign country recently. However, they are Moroccan citizens,” Justice Minister Mohamed Bouzoubaa told state television channel RTM.

Police were interrogating one of the attackers who was captured alive when his suicide bomb failed to detonate.

“He gave the information on his criminal accomplices and helped identify those who were involved in this operation,” Mr. Bouzoubaa said.

Assirat al Moustaquim is believed to be a splinter group of another radical Islamist organization, Salafist Jihad, one of whose main spiritual leaders was jailed this year for inciting violence against Westerners.

U.S. officials say a link between the Morocco attacks and al Qaeda is plausible.

More than 60 FBI and other U.S. investigators are assisting with the probe into Monday’s attacks in Saudi Arabia, but it is still not clear how large a roll they will be permitted to play.

U.S. officials complained of being denied access to evidence, witnesses and suspects after the 1996 truck bombing of the Khobar Towers dormitory that killed 19 U.S. military personnel.

Prince Naif was quoted in the Al-Riyadh newspaper yesterday saying the U.S. team was in Saudi Arabia to “observe,” but in no way “participate,” in the investigation.

At a news conference in Riyadh yesterday, Prince Naif again described a limited role for the Americans, saying they had come to examine “the sites, and we welcomed them based on that, for examining only.”

Those comments were immediately contradicted by foreign policy adviser Adel al-Jubair, who said on American television that the U.S. investigators were in Saudi Arabia “to help” in the investigation and spoke of a “partnership” between the U.S. and Saudi teams.

As during the U.S.-led war on Iraq — when Saudi officials denied that they were taking part in the campaign but allowed it to be coordinated from Prince Sultan Air Base 50 miles south of Riyadh — there appears to be one message for the domestic constituency and another for the international media.

King Fahd meanwhile gave the clearest sign yet from the al-Saud ruling family that a period of radical reforms is to be ushered in.

In a landmark address read out on the ailing king’s behalf to the appointed Shura Council on Saturday night, the king promised to expand the scope of popular participation and open more areas for women’s employment, declaring that Saudi Arabia “cannot stand still while the world changes.”

The speech is highly significant because it comes from within the al-Sadiri section of the ruling family, which includes full brothers of King Fahd such as Prince Sultan and Prince Naif — all historically seen as being against change.

Previously, reformist statements had been issued only from de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah, who is a half-brother of the king, and his chief ally, foreign minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal.

Reformist intellectuals who petitioned Crown Prince Abdullah earlier this year said at the time that they feared that anti-Western sentiment stemming from the war on Iraq and America’s continued support for Israel would stall the reform process.

Their petition called for elections, an end to corruption, the right to free speech, the monitoring of public spending and a radical overhaul of an education system heavily criticized since September 11, 2001, for promoting hatred of the “kaffir,” or infidel.


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