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Al Qaeda Blamed for Saudi Bombing

The toll rises to 17 dead. The target, a complex housing mostly Arab executives, may indicate a widening offensive by Islamic militants.

November 10, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — Saudi Arabian and U.S. authorities on Sunday blamed militants linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network for a car bombing that killed at least 17 people and injured about 120 more at a residential compound for foreigners in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Analysts and investigators suggested that the targeting of the compound, home to well-off Arab professionals who worked as executives in foreign-owned companies, represented a potential widening of the militants' war on Western interests in Saudi Arabia -- and on the ruling Saudi royal family.

The bombing, which reduced several buildings in the compound on the capital's edge to piles of smoking rubble, came on the heels of intelligence warnings of attacks against foreign interests in the kingdom -- particularly Western ones -- and followed a series of violent confrontations in recent days between government forces and suspected militants.

"The people who did this, and I'm very sure they are commanded by Al Qaeda, can't find a way to get at the targets they want to hit," said a knowledgeable Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We have been putting more and more pressure on them, and by hitting a soft target like this one, they are sending a message that they are motivated to strike, and very much capable of doing so."

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who was on a scheduled trip in Riyadh to hold talks with senior government officials, said he was "personally quite sure" that Al Qaeda militants were behind the Saturday night attack "because this attack bears the hallmark of them."

"I can't say that last night's attack was the only or last attack," Armitage told reporters. "My view is that these Al Qaeda terrorists -- and I believe it was Al Qaeda -- would prefer to have many such events."

Western counterintelligence agencies have been cooperating for some time with the Saudi government, which launched a wide-ranging crackdown on suspected anti-Western militants in the wake of deadly car bombings May 12 that also targeted a housing complex where foreigners lived. Thirty-five people, including nine attackers, died in those blasts.

Saudi police officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the fact that the same method was employed in both attacks -- volleys of gunfire unleashed before at least one suicide car bomber rammed his way in -- and the similarity in the type of explosives used, pointed to Al Qaeda, which was also suspected in the May bombings.

Among the dead were a number of women and at least five children, hospital officials said. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Amanda Batt said an undetermined number of Americans were among the wounded, although she said none of the Americans was hurt seriously.

Many of the victims had gathered near midnight Saturday for the late-night feasts that are traditionally held during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, or were out in the streets, greeting neighbors and shopping for food and drink for all-night parties.

Residents described the compound as home to a convivial mix of Arabs from many parts of the region. At least four of the dead and dozens of the injured were Lebanese, and for those survivors the attack recalled the horror of their 15-year civil war.

"We heard a lot of gunfire, and then came a big blast that blurred our vision and blocked our ears, and the door flew in," said Marwan Dawood, a 42-year-old Lebanese business manager whose family escaped unharmed. "The explosion was so powerful we lost our sense of time and place -- it was like a Beirut night, back in those terrible times."

The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, which had closed its doors indefinitely one day before the bombing in response to what officials described as credible threats of an imminent attack, dispatched a team to survey the site of the bombing.

The attack -- a powerful initial explosion and at least one secondary blast -- took place less than three miles from the heavily fortified diplomatic quarter outside Riyadh where nearly all foreign embassies -- and diplomats' residences -- are located. Members of the royal family also live nearby.

A month ago, a tape attributed to Bin Laden, Al Qaeda's Saudi-born leader, urged more such attacks against Western interests. Bin Laden is a sworn enemy of the Saudi royal family, saying it has betrayed Islam by allowing foreign troops in the country that is home to the most sacred Muslim sites.

The latest attack sent a ripple of fear through the kingdom's large expatriate community, which includes at least 35,000 Americans. Businesspeople and diplomats from several Western countries held formal and informal gatherings Sunday to exchange information and try to assess the level of threat, according to a Western diplomat.

"I think it's hard for anyone to feel safe at the moment," the diplomat said. "There is a threat out there, and it's hard to define who is doing the targeting."

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