- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2003

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — The official toll rose yesterday to 17 dead and at least 120 injured in a weekend bomb blast that outraged Saudi citizens and marked their country as a new front line in the global war on terrorism. The dead included five children, according to state-run television.

No one had claimed responsibility as of last night, but the shadow of Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden hung over the attack, seemingly aimed at undermining the authority of the ruling al-Saud family, a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf.

No Westerners were reported killed in the attack, which mainly affected citizens of other Arab countries. Many of the dead and injured were women and children.

A number of Americans were hospitalized with injuries, while two Britons who lived in the compound were found unhurt.

Western diplomats said the final death toll may go as high as 30.

“We pulled out eight bodies from the rubble this morning alone,” said a Philippine rescue worker at the scene of the blast. “Most of them were children.”

A Western diplomat in Riyadh, who requested anonymity, told The Washington Times that “several” bodies have been recovered “believed to be those of the suicide bombing team.”

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who arrived in Riyadh on a scheduled visit yesterday, said he was “personally quite sure” that al Qaeda was behind the attack “because this attack bears the hallmark of them.”

Such attacks appear to be directed “against the government of Saudi Arabia and the people of Saudi Arabia,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

Authorities believe that attackers disguised as policemen shot their way past security guards to enter the 200-house compound before blowing themselves up around midnight Saturday.

The attack, the second spectacular suicide bombing in the Saudi capital in six months, leveled eight villas and blew the windows out of buildings within a square mile of the blast.

It also provoked near-universal outrage among Saudis, who awoke yesterday to find gruesome images of the injured on the front pages of all local newspapers.

Many initially refused to believe al Qaeda would mount an attack against fellow Arabs, especially during the fasting month of Ramadan. Inevitably, conspiracy theories surfaced blaming the blast on the U.S. and Israeli intelligence services.

But analysts said the attack would eat into lingering support for al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, despite strong anti-U.S. sentiment based on American support for Israel’s crackdown on the Palestinians and the U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

There is also deep-seated anger over unemployment, poverty and corruption in the kingdom. Nevertheless, none but die-hard fanatics will accept that the killing of innocent Muslims can be justified.

“We will get the perpetrators, no matter how long it takes,” Interior Minister Prince Nayef said at the scene of the blast yesterday. “All those who are motivated to carry out such attacks must surrender if they care for their salvation.”

Al Qaeda leader bin Laden had issued a fatwa in the 1990s urging his followers to refrain from attacks in Saudi Arabia because the revenues from its oil industry would be needed to consolidate an Islamic revolution.

However, the government’s decision to back the U.S.-led war on Iraq prompted bin Laden for the first time to explicitly call for attacks inside the kingdom.

Saturday’s attack dispelled any remaining doubts that the al-Saud family is now, along with the United States, a top target for al Qaeda terrorists. It was carried out in the face of a massive security clampdown and close cooperation between the CIA and Saudi intelligence services.

Since May 12, more than 600 suspected hard-line Islamists have been arrested and over 2,000 interrogated. Saudi security forces have lost a dozen men in almost weekly battles with al Qaeda cells, and have killed more than 15.

There was speculation yesterday that the latest bombing was carried out on the basis of outdated information. Until the late 1990s, the targeted compound had been occupied by mainly Western staff of the U.S.-based aircraft and defense equipment manufacturer Boeing.

Most of Saudi Arabian Airline’s commercial aircraft are supplied by Boeing, and the company has massive defense contracts in the kingdom.

But even Arab foreigners may be seen as legitimate targets for the small number of Saudi radicals recruited by bin Laden who revile the presence of Western practices in the birthplace of Islam.

Compounds like the one bombed Saturday were designed to provide maximum comfort for their expatriate residents, with Western-style schools and swimming pools.

Nothing closes during prayer time, as in Saudi society outside the compound walls, and women need not cover themselves in all-enveloping gowns.

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