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U.S. Provides New Details About Saudi Bombings Plot

Assailants had cased the Riyadh sites and knew how to inflict the most damage, an official says.

May 18, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — As FBI agents combed through the wreckage of three Saudi housing compounds hit by suicide bombers last week, new details about the planning and execution of the attacks emerged Saturday.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the estimated 19 men who hit the Al Hamra Oasis Village, the Jadawel complex and the Vinnell compound late Monday had cased the facilities for weeks or months and knew precisely how to gain entry and do the most damage.

They rented villas and apartments near the compounds, where they studied the movements of those inside, he said. Before the assaults, they donned military uniforms to confuse guards at the gates. "The guards at Vinnell were Saudi national guardsmen with .50-caliber machine guns," the official said. "The attackers knew all the multiple controls at the gate. It wasn't like pushing a green button and the gate went up."

At Al Hamra, two lightly armed guards were gunned down by the assailants, who drove in and set off a pickup packed with explosives, leveling 25 homes.

At Jadawel, guards managed to trap the attackers between two barriers.

"They got the bomb through the first barrier, but the guards in the booth had enough time to erect the second," the official said. "The bomb vehicle got hung up on that. Whether they panicked or not, they triggered the explosion and that took out the guys with the guns behind them."

The U.S. official said that the assailants were highly motivated and received advanced military training, probably in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda suspects in U.S. custody first revealed information about the plot, the official said. "The detainees' information is very significant and gave us a lot of information about what was happening in Saudi Arabia," the official said.

Saudi authorities believe that nine assailants were killed in the attacks Monday that left about three dozen people, including eight Americans, dead.

Once U.S. officials learned of the plot, they informed Saudi authorities and on May 6, police engaged in a shootout with Al Qaeda suspects near Jadawel.

The suspects escaped but at their house, police found a cache of weapons and explosives. Saudi authorities then took the unusual step of publishing the pictures of the wanted men in newspapers.

Some families came forward to say the men had gone to Afghanistan a while ago and had not been seen since. Until late 2001, Al Qaeda had sanctuary in Afghanistan. U.S. military action there has eliminated the network's major bases, but officials believe that remnants persist.

According to the U.S. official, top Al Qaeda operatives have been divided over whether to stage attacks in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of their leader, Osama bin Laden. The terrorist network has been critical of the Saudi regime's ties to the U.S.

"There seems to have been some debate within Al Qaeda about whether they should carry out attacks inside Saudi Arabia," the official said. "This is a place where they can operate and raise money.... The faction that believed the regime was ripe for picking won out. They figured the House of Saud would collapse like a house of cards."

Although the housing compounds that were attacked catered largely to Westerners, each had links to a powerful member of the ruling family.

Workers at Vinnell train the national guard, headed by Crown Prince Abdullah. Nearly all residents of Jadawel are contractors for the Saudi air force, run by Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz, a brother of King Fahd. One of the owners of Al Hamra is the deputy governor of Riyadh, who is closely associated with Prince Salman ibn Abdulaziz, another brother of Fahd.

"This wasn't a subtle message they were sending," the U.S. official said of the attackers. "This was Pearl Harbor for the House of Saud. I think we will see more attacks on the regime. Al Qaeda thinks the Al Sauds will eventually pack their suitcases with money and flee to Switzerland."

In remarks read Saturday at the start of a new session of the country's Shura Council, an appointed advisory body, the ailing king denounced the attacks.

"Saudi people ... reject terrorism in all its forms and will not permit a group of deviant terrorists to infringe upon the nation and the safety of its people and residents," the king's message said, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

Fahd also appealed to religious scholars to spread a message of tolerance and national unity. "It is mainly the responsibility of our good scholars who we are depending on ... to disseminate tolerance

The attacks have shaken Saudi society deeply. Newspapers and even some anti-American religious leaders have condemned the bombings. A national introspection is underway.

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