- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Saudi King Fahd yesterday vowed to strike “with an iron fist” at terrorists behind a Riyadh suicide car bombing that killed at least 17 persons Saturday, and a senior U.S. diplomat said the Bush administration stands ready to boost bilateral cooperation in the war on terrorism.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, concluding a two-day visit to the kingdom, told a television interviewer he is convinced al Qaeda was behind the attack on a housing compound used primarily by foreign Arab workers and their families.

“It’s quite clear to me that al Qaeda wants to take down the royal family and the government of Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Armitage said, adding the United States “will be fully participating partners if that is the desire of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

The official Saudi Press Agency quoted King Fahd, who is seldom heard from, as having told ministers his government would “strike with an iron fist whoever tries to violate the security of the country or its stability and the safety of its citizens and residents.”

U.S. Embassy officials in Riyadh slightly eased travel restrictions on diplomats and their families, but the security situation remained tense. Saudi officials said that some 5,000 security troops have been dispatched to protect Islamic pilgrims in Mecca during the holy month of Ramadan.

The weekend attack injured 122 persons. Among those killed were five children.

U.S. officials and private terrorism analysts expect greater cooperation from Saudi Arabia in the wake of the attack, accelerating a trend that began after the May 12 triple suicide attacks in Riyadh that killed 35, including Americans. Al Qaeda also was blamed for that attack.

“May 12 was the mother of all wake-up calls for the Saudis,” a senior State Department official who followed the relationship closely said privately earlier this month. “It was a staggering experience for them to see that their own capital was vulnerable, that their own security services had been penetrated.”

F. Gregory Gause III, director of the University of Vermont’s Middle East Studies program, yesterday said the “Wild West” atmosphere of recent months was virtually unknown before in the conservative, authoritarian kingdom.

“You’ve had gunfights in the streets, raids on suspected terrorist hide-outs, seizures of huge caches of weapons,” he said. “In an odd way, you can argue that is progress. We didn’t see it after September 11, but it is all we have seen since May 12.”

Saudi cooperation in the war on terror has been the touchiest subject in the increasingly strained U.S.-Saudi relationship. Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia, as were 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks.

Many of al Qaeda’s top generals and operatives belong to the Wahhabi branch of Islam, a strict form of the faith that long has been part of the Saudi royal family.

FBI investigators were critical of the lack of Saudi cooperation in the aftermath of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in which 19 American servicemen were killed. But since the May attack, the senior State Department official said, Saudi security forces have been sharing intelligence “in real time” and working with Americans in joint operation centers against terrorists.

While rarely mentioned in the Saudi media, CIA investigators are being given access to leading fugitives captured there since May 12, a senior Saudi security source told The Washington Times.

Much of the intelligence emerging from Saudi Arabia has come from these interrogations, according to Riyadh-based Western diplomats and the Saudi security source.

International terrorism analysts give the intelligence more credibility than past details provided exclusively by the Saudi Interior Ministry.

Saudi Arabia launched an aggressive and well-financed public relations campaign to promote its efforts in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, moving to shut down financial sources inside the kingdom, muzzling anti-Western Islamic preachers and trumpeting raids of suspected terrorist cells.

Since May 12, according to a fact sheet released yesterday by the Saudi Embassy in Washington, Saudi officials have killed two top al Qaeda operatives and arrested a third, Ali Abdul Rahmad al-Faqaasi al-Ghamdi.

A Western diplomat in Riyadh said al-Ghamdi, a one-time comrade of bin Laden suspected of masterminding the May 12 attacks, is “singing like a canary.”

U.S. officials say privately that the attacks in the Saudi heartland magnified the ruling family’s fear for its survival and heightened its willingness to crack down.

But some observers are not convinced the oil-rich monarchy is interested in fundamental reform.

Ali al-Ahmed, who runs a Washington-based Saudi news service critical of the regime, said the terrorist strikes play into the hands of conservatives in the royal family hostile to political and economic reform at home.

“I don’t see any real change in actions by the regime,” he said. “If they were truly serious about fighting terrorism at its roots, they would adopt some of these [democratic] reforms right away that they keep talking about. It’s in their interest to play up the security threat.”

John R. Bradley contributed to this article from Jidda, Saudi Arabia.

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