Wednesday, May 14, 2003

U.S. intelligence agencies believe the deadly car bombings in Saudi Arabia on Monday night were the work of al Qaeda and said the attacks occurred just days after an e-mail warned of an “inevitable” strike against Americans.

Recent intelligence obtained about an attack plan and the methods used by the terrorists in Saudi Arabia, as well as information and weapons secured after a recent shootout with 19 Islamic militants in Riyadh, are the basis for the assessment, U.S. officials said yesterday.

“There are strong suspicions that it’s al Qaeda,” one official said of the attack.

A top Saudi official said the militants who escaped after the shootout last week were suspected of being members of an al Qaeda cell connected to the bombings.

In late April, information was obtained indicating that al Qaeda was planning an attack on Saudi leaders and U.S. and British targets in the kingdom. That prompted the State Department to issue an alert May 1.

This intelligence revealed that terrorists were in “the final phase” of planning an attack, now believed to have been the four car bombings that killed at least 20 persons, including seven Americans, in addition to the nine bombers, the official said.

The information came from al Qaeda operatives and supporters, the official said.

Near-simultaneous attacks are a signature of the terror group, which was blamed for the September 11 attacks and the 1998 car bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The latest attacks, which involved four car bombs that exploded in compounds housing Western nationals, are “consistent with past al Qaeda operations,” the official said.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz told reporters that the attacks were linked to the al Qaeda cell uncovered in Riyadh last week.

A large cache of explosives and weapons was obtained after authorities engaged in a gunbattle with the militants, and Saudi officials believed they had forestalled an attack.

Prince Nayef said the car bombings were “unprecedented in the kingdom.”

In Riyadh, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that the bombings have “all the fingerprints of an al Qaeda operation.”

President Bush sounded a similar note when touring tornado damage in Missouri, telling reporters that “I can’t say for certain it was al Qaeda, but I wouldn’t be surprised.”

U.S. intelligence agencies also are examining the statement suggesting that al Qaeda was preparing an attack against U.S. nationals.

According to the Arabic-language magazine Al-Majallah, a newly appointed al Qaeda spokesman, Thabet ibn Qais, stated in the e-mail last week that “an attack against America was inevitable.”

The spokesman said the group had changed its leaders and “sidelined” those who had been in charge at the time of the September 11 attacks.

“Future missions have been entrusted to the new team, which is well protected against the U.S. intelligence services,” the magazine quoted the spokesman as saying. “The old leadership does not know the names of any of its members.”

The U.S. official said the attacks in Saudi Arabia show that although al Qaeda experienced “serious setbacks” since 2001, the group is “still capable of launching operations.”

“In some respects al Qaeda is like a wounded animal and could be more dangerous now,” the official said, noting that the leadership of the group had been damaged by the arrests and the deaths of several key members.

Many al Qaeda leaders are in U.S. custody, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, considered No. 3 in the group. Others have been killed in U.S. military raids and missile attacks.

The two top al Qaeda figures, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, remain at large.

U.S. officials said intelligence on planned al Qaeda attacks indicated that the group would strike in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East, as well as in the United States.

Although there are no concrete indications that more attacks are planned, “the possibility cannot be ruled out,” the official said.

Asked whether al Qaeda is evolving even as its leadership is neutralized, the officials said the group has new leaders “out of necessity.”

“That said, the fact remains that they have been dealt some serious blows,” the officials said.

Federal law enforcement authorities confirmed that the Saudi suicide bombings appeared to have been the work of al Qaeda, adding that the attacks show that the organization still has the capability of mounting coordinated strikes against U.S. targets.

One top Justice Department official noted that the complexity of the synchronized suicide strikes against three housing units in the dead of night with multiple car bombs was “worrisome” to federal agents, many of whom believed that al Qaeda had been crippled by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Justice official, who asked not to be identified, said the strikes had to have been planned over a lengthy period of time and that, in addition to the bombers, a “good number of support personnel” would have been needed to carry them out.

He said the target was specifically selected for its effect, with an intent to kill Americans, noting that al Qaeda has demanded that all U.S. military personnel and American civilians be driven out of Saudi Arabia. The official also said the attacks could be an indicator that al Qaeda has stockpiled large amounts of arms and explosives.

Vice President Dick Cheney said Westerners as well as Muslims were targets of the attacks.

“These al Qaeda terrorists have killed a large number of Muslims as well,” Mr. Cheney said in remarks at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank.

“It should reinforce the willingness of other governments to cooperate with the United States in the intelligence area, in the area of law enforcement, in terms of going after the financial networks and organizations that provide support for organizations like al Qaeda.”

Mr. Cheney said that “the only way to deal with this threat ultimately is to destroy it.”

Jerry Seper contributed to this report.

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