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Westerners on Alert After Saudi Car Bomb Kills Briton

Mideast: It is unclear whether the blast is linked to terrorism or liquor smuggling.

June 21, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — A car bomb killed a British banker in Saudi Arabia on Thursday morning, adding to concerns that Westerners living in the oil-rich desert kingdom might be targets for violence, a threat the government has tried to downplay.

Simon Veness, 35, a financial risk manager and father of a 1-year-old, died almost instantly. His Land Rover was parked just outside a walled residential compound in northern Riyadh, the capital, and witnesses said it appeared the bomb was located beneath the driver's seat.

Two days earlier, Saudi officials announced that they had broken up a terrorist ring linked to Al Qaeda and operating inside the country.

The terrorists had planned to use rockets and explosives against American targets, Saudi officials said.

Though police said that they were uncertain of the motive for Thursday's bombing, and no one had taken responsibility, the British Embassy issued a warning to its citizens living and working in the kingdom.

"This provides a good opportunity to remind you once again of the current advice that British nationals should maintain sensible security precautions and vigilance," the embassy said on its Web site.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.--15 of the hijackers were Saudi citizens--the kingdom's leadership had bristled at the suggestion that Saudi Arabia's strict religious doctrine had bred extremism, and it insisted that Al Qaeda was not operating in its territory.

So its announcement this week that the authorities had arrested seven would-be terrorists and six alleged accomplices marked a significant concession by the regime.

But there was never any suggestion that the Saudi system was culpable.

Indeed, government statements emphasized that the terrorists' plans ran counter to Islam.

Then came Thursday's car bombing.

Police in Riyadh said that the case was under investigation and that details and the motive were unknown. But even before the blasted-out vehicle was removed from the scene, unnamed sources were suggesting that the blast was linked to another scourge plaguing the kingdom: the "Liquor Mafia."

The Arab News, an English-language newspaper based in the port city of Jidda, reported that "a Saudi official told Arab News last night: 'It looks as though this incident is related to previous bombings involving British expatriates illegally smuggling in and selling alcohol. However, we are not ruling out any possibility at this early stage.' "

Abubakr Bagader, a professor of sociology at King Abdulaziz University in Jidda, said in a telephone interview: "The official line is that this is linked with the mafia, mainly Europeans, who smuggle alcohol into Saudi Arabia. There is always competition between these gangs. They are always territorial."

Saudi Arabia, which is the location of Islam's two holiest sites, is governed according to a strict interpretation of Islam. Alcohol consumption is forbidden.

Despite the kingdom's efforts to present itself as a purely Islamic nation, there is a vibrant black market for liquor.

The statements from the unnamed sources might suggest that the kingdom's authorities, faced with having people wonder whether terrorism or illegal booze was behind the car bombing, saw the latter as the lesser of two embarrassments.

Not that the liquor theory is without merit.

"There is liquor dealing," said James Kashoggi, an expert in Islamic extremism and deputy editor of the Arab News, who agreed with that explanation for the bombing. "Someone does the smuggling, someone does the distribution and someone else does the financing. It is a huge business."

Kashoggi said the bombing had all the markings of previous attacks tied to liquor smuggling.

There were three bombings in the kingdom in late 2000, in which one Briton was killed and another was seriously wounded.

In March 2001, a Briton and an Egyptian were injured in a bombing outside a large downtown Riyadh bookstore, and two months later an American was seriously injured in Khobar when a package he was opening exploded.

Saudi officials attributed all those blasts to disputes between gangs smuggling alcohol.

Five Britons, a Canadian and a Belgian are in prison awaiting trial.

However, friends of Veness expressed doubt Thursday that the banker, an employee of Al Bank al Saudi al Fransi, had any involvement with gangs.

"That's not possible," one friend, who requested that his name not be used, told Reuters news service.

"Simon was a highly respected banker. Simon was set to return to London in the first week of July to pursue his career after working in Saudi Arabia for almost four years," he said.

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