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Saudis in the Cross Hairs

November 11, 2003

Suicide bombings in May taught the Saudi Arabian government that it was vulnerable to Al Qaeda terrorists; it responded with raids and arrests that were long overdue. Despite that newfound resolve and specific intelligence that Osama bin Laden's followers would attack in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Saudi government couldn't stop a weekend car bombing that killed 18 people and injured more than 120 others. The Saturday night attack on a residential compound for foreigners in Riyadh, the capital, shows that Al Qaeda is more deeply rooted in the desert kingdom than many Saudis believed, with an extensive network of killers and supporters.

The U.S. Embassy closed before the bombings because of intelligence about potential attacks. The embassy is well guarded, protected by barriers to stop cars and trucks and approached only on foot by most visitors. Though armed guards protected the residential areas targeted in May and last weekend, these sections were more vulnerable to terrorists.

The May 12 attacks focused on Western housing areas; seven Americans were among those killed. Saturday's attack was aimed at a compound populated mostly by Arabs. At least five children were killed, which outraged many Saudis. They should not forget their horror and anger, understanding that Al Qaeda spares no one in its efforts to topple the House of Saud.

The government will need support in its campaign against Al Qaeda, which, with its founder Bin Laden, traces its roots to the kingdom. For too long, the rulers let Saudis fund the terrorists so long as they operated outside the kingdom. When 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were identified as Saudis, officials dismissed them as "deviants" and applauded themselves for stripping Bin Laden of his Saudi citizenship years earlier. The royal family numbers hundreds of princes; the corruption and extravagance of some makes the government an object of hatred for many.

Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's de facto ruler, has tried to moderate the regime's authoritarianism and cautiously open it to faint breezes of democracy like proposed elections for municipal councils. But he will have to move more quickly to make Saudis feel they have a voice in their future. He also should urge the preachers of the puritanical Wahhabi brand of Islam to repeatedly and loudly denounce Al Qaeda, which claims to act to protect the religion from infidels, including, of late, the royal family that permitted U.S. forces in an Arab land.

Saudi Arabia launched a public relations offensive before this latest car bombing to trumpet its arrests of terrorists, seizures of weapons and disruptions of Al Qaeda cells. It needs to keep the pressure on potential assailants, share intelligence with other countries' counterterrorist agencies and seek support from its citizens to fight its most serious threat from within.

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