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Saudis Confront Terrorism Anxieties

May 24, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — From the perfume counters at Saks Fifth Avenue to the sheep markets on this city's edge, Saudis are unnerved about terrorists plotting in their neighborhoods and police lights flashing as the call to prayer echoes over skyscrapers and into the desert wind.

There is little solace here these days. Long accused of exporting terrorism, this nation, shaken by attacks on three residential compounds for foreigners that killed 34 people this month, is confronting the reality that it can happen here too. Suspicious-looking men are rounded up, military helicopters circle, and the rich, sipping mint tea by swimming pools, are wary of venturing beyond their compound walls.

"We are living in fear," said Abdurrahman Saad Muhanna, walking with his family in a shopping mall. "I wanted to come here two days ago, but I was afraid something would blow up. I feel Saudis are the victims of two attacks: the World Trade Center bombings because we were all blamed for being terrorists, and now the bombings here that killed our own citizens."

Saudis say they feel the way Americans did after Sept. 11, 2001: They wonder how it happened. How men stockpiled explosives, collected wigs for disguises. How a force so secret and sinister moved among them.

The attacks have reopened debates about curbing Islamic fanaticism, reforming the religious school system, reducing high unemployment and addressing the uncomfortable fact that hundreds -- if not thousands -- of young Saudi men have chosen to follow Osama bin Laden.

One Saudi official described the frustration of hunting terrorists this way: "It's like fighting ghosts, these people seeking death."

Some suggest that the Saudis are the victims of their own illusions. Many here privately cheered terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Indonesia, viewing them as justifiable retribution for American policies in the Middle East. But the recent explosions that rocked the neighborhoods of this city -- aimed at Westerners but killing at least seven Saudis -- are forcing this kingdom's citizens to retune their sympathies. More attacks, they fear, will jeopardize their oil fields and threaten their livelihoods.

The Saudi Cabinet this week condemned the bombing as a "vicious crime" and vowed to fight terrorism by scouring the country for militant cells, arresting sympathizers and cracking down on clerics who espouse holy war. The government, however, calibrated its language so as not to appear to be doing the bidding of the U.S., which for years has urged this country to aggressively battle Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.

The bombings have forced Saudis to reexamine their country's relationship with Washington. Some say the bond between the two nations will grow stronger; others worry that such an alliance is dangerous in this part of the world.

To underscore that point, some Saudis note that the bombings came weeks after the Bush administration announced it was withdrawing most of the more than 4,000 U.S. troops here by summer's end -- a move that should have decreased the chances of a terrorist strike.

Since oil was discovered here in the 1930s, the Saudi government, juggling the political ambitions of the royal family and the Wahhabi brand of Islamic conservatism, to which the family belongs, has had a complex relationship with the West. An image of the coexistence was glimpsed the other day at the Al Hamra Oasis Village, where car bombs May 12 blew the walls off the compound's villas and sent fires whirling through the palms. While carrying a Koran from a demolished home, a security guard walked past a blackened Harry Potter book lying in the street -- Eastern religion vying with Western fantasy.

Such juxtapositions -- along with U.S. troops on Saudi soil and such Western cultural symbols as Planet Hollywood -- have made the government here an enemy of Bin Laden. He has vowed to destroy the royal family, which he blames for defiling the sacred land of Allah. But few Saudis believed that Al Qaeda operatives would strike at targets so deep within the Islamic world. The fact that they did, according to Saudis from across the spectrum, means that the terrorist network's global jihad, or holy war, has gone domestic.

"Bin Laden's war is not with the U.S.," said Abdulmuhsin A. Akkas, a member of the advisory Shura Council's foreign affairs committee. "It is against the Muslims and the Arabs. Bin Laden's form of Islam is a fascist, violent way of life, and the Riyadh bombings showed us that. This is no longer an intellectual pastime. This is face to face with us.... The attacks violated Saudi culture. The Westerners here were our guests. We have to protect our guests with our lives. Bin Laden violated Saudi honor."

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