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Saudis Arrest 4 in Bombing Investigation

The interior minister says the men knew about the plot to carry out last week's attacks and suggests they belong to Al Qaeda.

May 19, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi security forces have arrested four men they say are affiliated with Al Qaeda in connection with last week's deadly bomb attacks here, officials said Sunday.

The attacks, launched simultaneously last Monday on three residential compounds, killed at least 34 people, including eight Americans and nine attackers. The arrests were announced at a news conference in Riyadh, the capital, by Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz, the Saudi interior minister.

Nayif said the four did not take part in the actual attacks but knew about the plot and were sympathizers of the assailants. He would not give details on the backgrounds of those arrested but said "all indications" were that they belonged to Al Qaeda.

"We will tell you more in time," said Nayif, sitting at an ornate table at his ministry, surrounded by dozens of jittery guards carrying pistols, swords and daggers.

Word of the arrests came as a senior Saudi official in Washington fended off criticism that his government had not been aggressive enough in fighting terrorism.

Adel Jubeir, a senior foreign policy advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah, the country's day-to-day ruler, made the rounds of the Sunday television talk shows to assure Americans that the Saudi government is a committed U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.

But key members of Congress remained skeptical of Saudi promises to crack down on religious extremism, and Nayif himself noted in his news conference that the religious basis of Saudi society was not going to change.

He responded testily to a question on why so many terrorists seem to come from Saudi Arabia -- including 15 of the 19 hijackers who staged the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"I don't know why they always focus on the numbers of Saudis," Nayif said. "We will find them, whoever they are. The problem here is the same as in other countries."

He called for an international effort to wipe out terrorism and vowed to hunt down the plotters, whom he promised to "punish severely."

"Saudi Arabia always captures the culprits," he said.

The Saudi government has been seeking 19 suspects in connection with a May 6 raid on a house near one of the targeted compounds. Officials discovered a large cache of weapons and explosives. The four whose arrests were announced Sunday were part of this group, as were three of the suicide bombers, Nayif said.

So far, he said, there is no evidence to link the Riyadh bombings to Friday's blasts in Casablanca, Morocco, which killed more than 40 people. He said Saudi and Moroccan authorities were exchanging information.

On Sunday, about 60 U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agents, along with officers from Britain's Scotland Yard, continued to search the bomb sites for clues.

Nayif dismissed notions that his country would somehow block U.S. law enforcement from taking part in the investigation.

"Of course we will work with them, or else we wouldn't have invited them in," he said. "There is cooperation with the FBI, and the Americans have praised us for it."

The three residential compounds -- Al Hamra Oasis Village, Jadawel and Vinnell Arabia -- were attacked with gunfire and explosives late Monday. Seven of the American deaths occurred at Vinnell, where many of the residents, largely former U.S. military personnel, work as trainers of the Saudi National Guard.

In Washington, Jubeir called the Riyadh bombings a "jolt," and pledged on "Fox News Sunday" to look at "every facet of our culture and our society" to crack down on terrorism.

"The terrorists have declared war on us," Jubeir said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "We can no longer afford to be quiet about it. We will take them on ... and we will crush them."

But key U.S. lawmakers said they did not think the Saudis had been aggressive enough in helping America fight terrorism.

"I don't think they've been a full partner like we'd like to see," Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told CBS' "Face the Nation."

Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a Democratic candidate for president, added: "Many people are wondering whether we have been tough enough in our relationship with the Saudis."

Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC's "This Week" that the Saudi government has made an "important turn" in the past week.

"I don't think that they were doing all they could," Goss said. "They were giving us some cooperation, but not a lot. I do believe that the cooperation has taken on new meaning and we see a commitment to do a better job."

U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia have been tense in recent months, in part because so many Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis. Some U.S. experts have questioned whether the Saudi government was doing enough to stem religious extremism.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills), top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called the attacks in Riyadh "preventable."

"Despite repeated warnings by U.S. intelligence, the Saudis did not take adequate [security] measures," she said on "Meet the Press."

Jubeir said the Saudis had acted on American warnings.

Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), another member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday" that the Saudis "do not have near as good a capability to deal with these things as we do

"I think that the Saudi government is making every effort to deal with extremism, if for no other reason [that] it has now been visited on them," he said.

*

Times staff writer Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.

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