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Saudi Arabia's Resolve to Fight Terrorism Will Be Tested

May 14, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — There seemed to be little doubt Tuesday among several top Saudi officials and Western observers based in the kingdom about what terrorists who struck Riyadh this week hope to achieve: the downfall of the Saudi royal family.

"The objective is to wreak havoc in this country, to have terrorism widespread and topple the Saudi royal family," said Prince Walid bin Talal, an influential member of the royal family and one of its most successful businessmen.

The attacks were aimed mostly at American defense contractors with years-long ties to the Saudi military and royal family. The symbolism alone could prove damaging enough. But if the contractors and foreign workers pull out of the country in large numbers, that could prove to be a serious blow to Saudi Arabia's economy and defensive capabilities.

In theory, the very threat to the viability of the Saudi government should push the United States and the royal family closer than they have been in recent years, uniting them in the war against terrorism. That is the message that the Saudi officials were pushing Tuesday, even as they try to determine who was responsible for an attack that killed not only Westerners but also the kingdom's citizens and other Arabs.

"The blood of Saudi citizens was mixed in this tragic event with Americans," said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal. "It should increase our efforts. It should make us not hesitate to take whatever measures are needed to oppose these people who only hate, who only kill."

But Saudi Arabia's internal political dynamic is a complicated one, which has caused it to pause before wholeheartedly endorsing the Bush administration's anti-terror campaign.

Saudi officials have been defensive over suggestions that elements of the nation's religious system have bred intolerance and a threat of extremism. At the same time, the nation is struggling through tough economic times, with insufficient jobs for its young people and widespread frustration over what is perceived as U.S. interference in the region.

There is also widespread public anger over what is seen as the corruption and profligate spending of the Al Saud royal family.

The fragility cuts even deeper with King Fahd so ill that Crown Prince Abdullah has ruled since the mid-1990s, sparring for political control with the nation's interior and defense ministers. Added to that mix are active Al Qaeda terror cells in the country with at least some degree of support from Saudi citizens.

How the Saudi leadership chooses to balance all these crosscurrents could prove pivotal in determining how it addresses the terror threat at home and what its long-term relationship with the U.S. will be.

On Tuesday, some Western observers in Riyadh said the stakes are perhaps higher than at any time in recent years, and that if the Saudi government is to survive it will have to move decisively and aggressively.

"I feel slightly more comfortable with the idea that the Saudi government will recognize this as a serious threat to the Al Saud regime and the established order here," said a Western diplomat based in the Saudi capital, who requested anonymity.

When 19 terrorists attacked New York and the Washington area in 2001, it took a long time -- and a good deal of proof -- before Saudi officials acknowledged that 15 of the attackers were Saudi nationals. Interior Minister Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz, the nation's chief security official, was still charging recently that the attack was part of a broader conspiracy.

With the Monday night attack, the Saudi authorities tried to pull a silver lining out of the tragedy, declaring that the attack ignited public outrage and united Saudis behind their leaders and with the American people.

"You and us are engaged in this war on terror," said an advisor to the crown prince, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, about the two nations. "I mean, you have experienced it, and we have too."

Prince Walid said: "This act bring us very close to the U.S. position. We are telling the world that we are also victims."

Security experts with years of experience in the kingdom have been bracing for such an attack for months. Saudi officials also have been concerned enough to try to head off an attack. In recent months, they have interviewed all young men who have traveled to Afghanistan.

Saudi attempts to crack down on Al Qaeda-linked cells in recent months have pleased counterterrorism officials in Washington. But many are still skeptical that the Saudis are committed to dismantling terrorist networks in their country, and said the bombings Monday will test their resolve and willingness to cooperate.

"I don't think they're doing enough," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "This is a wake-up call to them. They need to do more to crack down on extremists who threaten the United States."

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