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Security Push Preceded Attacks

Saudi authorities failed to act on its requests, the U.S. says. The death toll in bombings rises to 34.

May 15, 2003|Greg Miller, Josh Meyer and Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Saudi government failed to act on U.S. requests for more security around Westerners' residential compounds in the days leading up to Monday's deadly bombings, Bush administration officials said Wednesday.

Voicing new frustration with the kingdom's efforts in the war on terrorism, administration officials also disclosed that deputy national security advisor Stephen Hadley had been dispatched to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, last week to tell officials there of U.S. concerns that an attack was imminent.

A U.S. official said Hadley's trip was prompted by an alarming rise in intelligence traffic in recent weeks but that there was no indication of when or where an attack might take place.

The disclosures indicate a far more urgent effort than the administration has previously acknowledged in trying to enlist Saudi help to tighten security on potential U.S. targets in the days before the attacks.

Saudi officials said the number of people killed in the triple bombing had risen to 34, including seven Americans, with 194 others wounded. The figure also includes nine bombers.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Jordan said Wednesday that before the bombings, the United States contacted the Saudi government "on several occasions to request that added security be provided to all Western residential compounds and government installations.

"But they did not, as of the time of this particular tragic event, provide the security we had requested," Jordan said.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, denied that any such requests went unheeded, but he did take the unusual step for a Saudi official of publicly acknowledging a degree of culpability on the part of the government.

"The fact that the terrorism happened is an indication of shortcomings, and we have to learn from our mistakes and seek to improve our performance in this respect," he said at a news conference in Riyadh.

Saud's comments came as White House officials suggested that the Saudi monarchy has still not faced up to a problem that has strained relations between the countries since the Sept. 11 attacks, which were carried out by 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudis.

"The Saudi Arabians have to deal with the fact that there is terror found inside their country," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have been prevented from taking a larger role in helping to monitor the Al Qaeda terrorist network's cells in Saudi Arabia.

He said U.S. intelligence is aware of a handful of Al Qaeda cells operating in the country but is limited in its ability to follow their movements and activities. "We'd like to be tracking them," he said.

Saudi officials said Wednesday that they now believe 15 attackers were involved in the Riyadh strikes, in which car bombs were detonated inside or near large residential compounds that housed hundreds of Americans and other foreigners. Nine of the attackers are believed to have been killed in the bombings, indicating that as many as six might be at large.

U.S. officials said the attacks appear to have been carried out by one of several Al Qaeda cells known to be operating in Saudi Arabia.

Authorities in the kingdom are focused on a Riyadh-based cell headed by an operative known as Khaled Jehani, a 29-year-old Saudi who appears in an Al Qaeda martyrdom tape recovered by the United States during the war in Afghanistan.

Jehani is among 19 suspects who have been the subject of a manhunt in Saudi Arabia since May 6, when members of the cell he leads escaped after a shootout with Saudi authorities.

A team of FBI, State Department and CIA investigators was to arrive in Saudi Arabia today.

Bush administration officials, who have long been reluctant to criticize the Saudi government's efforts in the war on terrorism, put new pressure on the monarchy Wednesday.

Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar ibn Sultan acknowledged that the United States had requested extra security but said that it was only for a "certain compound" and that the request was "passed to the right authority."

Bandar, whose comments came in an interview on CBS, did not make clear whether additional security was assigned to the compound -- apparently one of those targeted, Jadawel. But he suggested that preventive measures there minimized casualties and damage.

At Jadawel, the bombers failed to penetrate security gates and detonated explosives just outside the compound.

Bandar also rejected suggestions, prevalent in counter-terrorism circles in Washington, that the Al Qaeda suspects who escaped capture last week in Saudi Arabia were tipped off by sympathizers in the Saudi security or intelligence apparatus.

"That raid was against a house that had four people only, and they managed to escape," Bandar said.

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