- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — The kingdom’s three major cities — Riyadh, Dammam and Jidda — have been turned into near-garrison towns in recent days as the royal family confronts the biggest threat to its authority in more than 20 years.

Special armed forces patrol the streets and set up posts outside Western residential compounds. By evening the kingdom’s streets are deserted, with Saudis and foreigners alike now certain that a major al Qaeda attack is imminent.

Already reeling from last week’s attacks on three housing compounds that claimed 25 victims, authorities yesterday confronted reports that three Moroccans arrested on Monday had planned to hijack an airliner and crash it into a building in Jidda.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef denied any such plot, but a security source who spoke on the condition of anonymity stood by the claim.

Either way, the government has been forced after months of denials to admit to the presence of a terrorist network on its soil. Three cells are said to have been formed — one that carried out the attacks in Riyadh, one that has fled across the border and a third that is planning another assault.

The British, American, German and Canadian embassies and consulates have been closed for four days beginning yesterday and the British ambassador, Derek Plumbly, said the terror threat is of a “completely new order.”

Both the U.S. and British embassies repeated that they had received credible information warning of “imminent attacks” in the kingdom.

The Saudi royal family has not faced such a threat since the Mecca uprising in 1979, when armed radicals took over Islam’s holiest mosque to protest what they called the forced Westernization of Saudi society and the corruption of the House of Saud.

Almost all of the dozens of expatriate schools have shut down, and many have canceled graduation ceremonies and end-of-year examinations. Most Western children are being sent home with their mothers as flights to Western destinations depart with no empty seats.

“I’ve sent back my family back to the U.S. because I can’t take any risks when it comes to their safety,” said a long-term American resident of Riyadh. “Almost everyone I know is doing the same thing.”

Life is dramatically changed in the walled compounds where most Westerners live. Armored vehicles with machine guns are parked outside most of them, and concrete barriers have been erected to ward off any more attacks.

Supermarkets report a 50-percent drop in Western customers, who are sending their drivers to do the weekly shopping. Fast-food outlets are deserted, as Saudis and foreigners alike shun them as likely targets.

The attacks have unified all but the most radical Saudis into condemning extremism. The press has appealed for the government to concede that the May 12 attacks were at least in part a product of extremists who preach Islamic jihad in mosques and schools.

In an unusual appeal yesterday, a brother-in-law of Saudi-born terrorist leader Osama bin Laden urged the al Qaeda leader to denounce last week’s bombings.

“I ask you to come out and say a word that would extinguish the fire of turmoil that has erupted,” Jamal Khalifa said in a letter published in the Saudi daily al-Watan.

“Tell those youths, my brother, that the damage suffered by Muslims is large and great, and that these massacres which have spilled Muslim blood and led to the arrest of thousands of pious young men … must stop,” the letter said.

“Is it chivalry that a knight kills another who is unarmed? Then what about those who claim to be [holy warriors] … and kill children, women and men sleeping?”

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