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U.S. Fears 'Wave of Attacks'

Saying Al Qaeda is probably to blame for blasts that killed 29 in Riyadh, officials focus on dozens of cities that could be vulnerable.

May 14, 2003|Robin Wright, Greg Miller and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — U.S. officials said Tuesday they are increasingly convinced that the Al Qaeda terrorist network was responsible for the triple bombing that shook this capital city Monday night, killing at least 29 people, including seven Americans, and warned that more attacks are possible.

As U.S. and Saudi officials began surveying the wreckage at the three housing complexes for foreigners that were targeted in the simultaneous attacks, officials said some of the injuries among the 200 wounded were so serious that the death toll was likely to climb.

U.S. officials said nine bombers in the attacks were among the 29 killed but that several additional attackers may still be at large. U.S. intelligence officials also said there have been indications that a wave of attacks was planned on the Arabian Peninsula and suggested that the threat has not passed.

President Bush vowed a swift response.

"These despicable acts were committed by killers whose only faith is hate," Bush said during an appearance in Indianapolis. "The United States will find the killers, and they will learn the meaning of American justice."

The acting ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdullah, also condemned the triple bombing in a national television address. The attacks, Abdullah said, "prove once again that terrorists are criminals and murderers with total disregard for any Islamic and human values or decency."

The Saudi government, he said, "will not hesitate to confront the murderous criminals."

Some experts speculated that one of the compounds bombed may have been targeted because the company, a unit of Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp., is involved in training the Saudi National Guard, which is charged with defending the royal family.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, touring one of the residential compounds Tuesday, said the attack had "all the fingerprints" of an operation by Al Qaeda, the group led by Saudi renegade Osama bin Laden and implicated in the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. Intelligence and counter-terrorism officials in Washington echoed his assessment.

The attacks "were very similar in nature to the East African bombings," one U.S. official said, referring to the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 231 people, including 12 Americans. "Vehicle bombs. Near simultaneous coordinated attacks. Multiple locations. It certainly has the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda operation."

The United States dispatched terrorism experts to the desert kingdom Tuesday to assist the investigation. U.S. officials say the investigation has just begun, but Saudi Arabia is tentatively linking the bombings to 19 suspected Al Qaeda operatives, including 17 Saudis, who have been the subject of a manhunt since a May 6 gunfight in Riyadh.

"The only information we have is that some of them were members of the group that was sought a few days ago," Prince Turki al Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence who is now ambassador to Britain, said in London.

A State Department official said Tuesday night that all nonessential embassy personnel in Saudi Arabia, and their families, had been ordered to leave the kingdom immediately.

U.S. officials also instructed embassies overseas to prepare for a wave of large-scale and coordinated Al Qaeda attacks, not just in Saudi Arabia -- birthplace of 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers -- but in other parts of the world where the terror network has a presence.

"That was the focus today.... What do we need to do to steel ourselves? What steps can we take to stop whatever is already in train, in terms of official and soft targets?" said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official said the Bush administration's concerns focused on dozens of large cities where it will be nearly impossible to protect Americans from attacks on similar complexes housing U.S. workers, or on other "soft" targets such as restaurants, hotels, bars and tourist sites.

"People are very, very worried about a wave of attacks," the official said. "These things tend to come in clusters."

The Bush administration asked embassies to immediately assess the vulnerability of official sites and report to Washington which "soft" targets need beefed-up security.

"We are doing everything we can to make sure that all the areas that we think are high-threat areas are maxed out in terms of being prepared and protected," the official said. "We are asking host governments to up their protection as well."

Powell toured the site of the devastation at the Vinnell Corp. compound, which suffered the worst damage and where all seven American fatalities occurred.

At that compound, a bomber driving a Dodge Ram truck detonated his explosive in front of a four-story apartment building, bachelor quarters for 70 mostly American military trainers and support staff, U.S. military officials at the site said.

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