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Response to Terror

Spate of Saudi Bombings Puts Foreigners on Edge

Mideast: The killing of a German adds to fears of attacks by terrorists trying to weaken ties with the West and topple the monarchy.

October 06, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A car bombing that killed a German businessman here last week has increased fears that terrorists are seeking to undermine needed social and political reforms at home while once again taking aim at the kingdom's fragile ties with the West.

No one knows for sure why the 56-year-old German was blown up, but in this capital, already overheated by fears of terrorism and war against Iraq, many people say they are worried there will be more attacks against Westerners and on the oil industry, the source of this nation's wealth and its lifeline to the world economy.

In both cases, terrorists would be striking against the West, but the real target would be the ruling House of Saud. They hope that the collapse of the monarchy--or at least a change in the top leadership--would usher in a more conservative, anti-Western government that could carry out Osama bin Laden's goal of ridding the peninsula of all non-Muslims.

Saudi Arabia is at a pivotal point. Reformers are hoping to use the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks as a catalyst to bring the country into the modern world by promoting change in everything from education to women's rights. But hard-liners see an opportunity to capitalize on the anger people feel over American scrutiny of their religious system and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Although the vast majority of Saudis appear to support the monarchy, many people here worry that an invasion of Iraq could tip the balance in favor of the extremists.

"There are risks certainly that an attack on Iraq, particularly unilateral, would ignite those who would like to prevent the kingdom from moving into the 21st century," said a senior Western diplomat based here.

Saudi Arabia has always been seen as a low-crime area, especially for Westerners, who have brought needed business and technical skills. "Personally, I like living here," said a security analyst with two decades of experience here. But "professionally, I think it is ready to explode."

The government quickly denied that the attack on the German employee of a communications company was linked to any anti-Western movement, but it fits in a pattern of similar incidents. A British banker was killed when a car bomb exploded as he drove away from his Riyadh compound in June. Authorities initially blamed the killing on a feud between alcohol smugglers but later conceded that the banker had no ties to the illicit trade, Western diplomats said.

Ten days after the banker died, an American couple escaped injury when a bomb fell off the undercarriage of their car and failed to explode. Around the same time, another American spotted a bomb under his car and called police, who defused it.

Security experts say the car bombings could be practice runs for something bigger. So far, the devices have been small, attached to the bottom of cars with magnets and detonated with a homemade mercury switch and a timer. Although they are simple devices, they show a deadly expertise and sophistication, experts said.

The attacks have taken a psychological toll. Few Westerners are seen shopping in the malls these days--and, if they are, they are in groups. Parties in the desert, once routine, have stopped for the most part. Many people carry flashlights and mirrors to check beneath their cars.

"You keep a low profile," said Lisa Saturno, a native of Seattle who is among the 15,000 Americans in Riyadh.

"I don't think people feel frightened, but they feel anxious," said Mike Goodman, 60, a retired British physician who moved here to run a medical program.

Still, foreign and Saudi officials have stepped up security efforts. Fearful that terrorists will attack schoolchildren, a strategy that would probably cause many Westerners to flee, many businesses have stopped their employees from putting their children on school buses.

Foreigners live in their own walled and guarded compounds, but in the new tense climate, perimeter walls are being raised to better ward off intruders and snipers. Western embassies have cautioned their citizens not to leave their cars unattended--and, if they must, to examine them carefully before entering. The U.S. Embassy, a fortress inside the specially protected diplomatic neighborhood, has posted warnings, reminding employees to stay away from the windows because "curiosity kills."

If the embassy is the key symbol of the U.S. role, oil is a special target. The kingdom has about one quarter of the world's known reserves in fields that are exposed in the desert near the border with Iraq. The fields are vulnerable to a terrorist planting a bomb under the pipeline or to missiles the Saudis fear could be launched by Iraq.

"It certainly is an area of caution and concern for the Saudis," the senior Western diplomat said.

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