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Al Qaeda May Be Back, and Stronger

Strikes in Saudi Arabia underscore how little is now known about the group and its members.

May 14, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Monday's bombings in Riyadh drove home with deadly force how little is known about how Al Qaeda has changed and the new dangers the terrorist network poses to the tens of thousands of Americans in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere overseas, officials of both nations said Tuesday.

For years, U.S. and Saudi authorities have analyzed the threat Al Qaeda poses in the Persian Gulf kingdom perhaps more aggressively than anywhere else. But Monday's well-planned, well-orchestrated strikes heightened concerns in both countries that more attacks are imminent and that Al Qaeda has regrouped in a new and stronger fashion since the Sept. 11 attacks that makes its movements harder than ever to detect, authorities said.

Throughout the day Tuesday, top U.S. officials huddled in meetings to discuss the bombings and how to respond. By day's end, they had reached a consensus that the attacks were the work of Al Qaeda, according to several officials present.

They said the bombings bore all the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda operation: sophisticated planning, coordinated timing, high-grade explosives and advanced reconnaissance of multiple, well-fortified targets.

The officials also said intelligence gathered in recent weeks indicated that another Al Qaeda tactic could be in play: waves of attacks in immediate or somewhat delayed succession.

"People take very seriously the idea that this may not be the only attack. It doesn't just have to be in [Saudi Arabia], it could be any number of places where Al Qaeda has a presence," said one U.S. official. "When you see a well-coordinated, well-executed attack, it makes you wonder what also might be in the pipeline. This is not just a target-of-opportunity attack that was hatched over a weekend."

Current and former U.S. counter-terrorism officials, Saudi authorities and outside experts said a second consensus was also emerging. The bombings -- and the lack of information about the extent of the plot -- underscore how difficult it is to determine who now makes up Al Qaeda, they said.

One Saudi-based Al Qaeda cell appears to be involved, authorities said. But a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said: "I haven't seen anything that indicates one way or another if these people are part of some new group or the old Al Qaeda. The group does seem to be going through some evolution."

It isn't known, for instance, whether the bombers were part of a larger Al Qaeda group with ties to a central command and control structure or were part of a local cell of militants who merely attended Al Qaeda camps. Also unknown is whether other cells are planning similar attacks.

"Were they taking orders from higher-ups? Was this a franchise?" said the official. "We're not sure which of those would be worse."

"Who knows?" the official added. "It will take time for us to sort it all out."

Saudi authorities said they believed the bombers were most likely from an Al Qaeda cell led by a young Saudi who is a protege of a senior Al Qaeda commander named Abd al Rahim al Nashiri. Nashiri was one of several leaders of the attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000. He was captured by authorities late last year and reportedly is in U.S. custody.

But beyond that, they said, they, too, had more questions than answers.

"We're still looking at who these people are, how they got the explosives," said Nail al Jubeir, a Washington-based spokesman for the Saudi government.

What has officials of both nations so dismayed is that Saudi Arabia, if anywhere, was supposed to be the one place where the threat of Al Qaeda was well understood, well anticipated and thoroughly guarded against.

Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda, was born in Saudi Arabia and created the group, in part, to attack the Saudi leadership for allowing the U.S. military to build a huge air base there after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Saudi officials spend a significant percentage of their multibillion-dollar budget on internal security and boast a state-of-the-art intelligence-gathering apparatus that is considered second to none among U.S. allies when it comes to counter-terrorism measures.

In addition, Saudi Arabia is widely considered to be a police state of sorts in which Al Qaeda suspects could be closely observed -- unlike other countries such as Pakistan and Yemen, where militants are known to hide in vast areas outside the government's control.

"This is Saudi Arabia, a fairly unified country with a secret police that at one time rivaled Stalin," said Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer in the Middle East and author of a forthcoming book on terrorism and Saudi Arabia. "This was a tightly controlled country. When you get a fissure like this [one that the bombings exposed], how deep does it go?"

The United States has spent considerable sums in an independent effort to examine the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the kingdom. Involved in the effort are CIA and FBI agents and the vast eavesdropping capabilities of the National Security Agency.

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