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Shock Wave Resonates in Saudi Lives

The survivors of the suicide blast in Riyadh and the nation as a whole struggle to cope with a shattered sense of security.

November 12, 2003|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — As she sorted through the rubble in her backyard, stepping over big chunks of mortar and twisted rebar, Dalida Jubran paused Tuesday to describe the devastation visited on her peaceful neighborhood a few days ago.

"That's where my sister-in-law died," said the Lebanese mother of two, pointing to a house a few yards away that was severed by a car bomb that also left a 60-foot-wide crater and hurled a mangled car engine 300 yards down the street. "Over there, my friend's two kids died. The explosion blew them out of the house."

Three days after Saturday's terrorist attack that killed 18 people and injured 122 more, the victims and the Saudi nation at large were still struggling to cope. The attack, which U.S. and Saudi officials have blamed on Al Qaeda, not only destroyed much of the 200-villa Muhaya compound in the western part of the capital but also shattered the nation's sense of security.

Although the kingdom has been hit by terrorism before, this was the first attack on a target housing mostly Muslims and Arabs, rather than a building associated with Westerners. To many, it seemed to signal a new phase in a wave of deadly violence by Islamic militants that has gripped the kingdom this year.

"When the Saud family united the kingdom, they added security and peace -- that's now being threatened," said Hatoon Fassi, an assistant professor of history at King Saud University. "This was intended to send a message that we're now targeting anybody."

The suicide bombing in Riyadh has galvanized the public, which has expressed revulsion at the attack against Muslims during the holiest month of the year, Ramadan. It has also spurred the government to escalate its war on Islamic militants. In his weekly Cabinet meeting Monday after the bombing, King Fahd vowed to strike militants with an "iron fist."

On Tuesday, Saudi authorities said they had detained a number of suspects in connection with the bombing but declined to give details.

Since May, about 600 suspected Islamic militants have been arrested and a dozen killed, including five who died in clashes last week after police thwarted a planned attack on Muslims in the holy city of Mecca. Authorities stepped up their campaign after suicide bombers targeted three Riyadh housing compounds May 12. That attack claimed the lives of nine bombers and 26 other people, including Americans, other foreigners and Saudis, and was blamed on the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

On Tuesday, the London-based magazine Al Majallah said it had received an e-mail from an Al Qaeda member claiming responsibility for the latest bombing and warning of more attacks in the Persian Gulf region.

The attack Saturday happened close to the heavily guarded palaces of the king and senior Saudi princes, which are just outside the east side of the diplomatic quarter. Al Qaeda has long opposed the Saudi royal family, accusing it of compromising Islam and being too cozy with the West.

The attack began late Saturday when gunmen burst into the compound in an SUV disguised as a police vehicle. Compared with well-fortified government buildings and embassies, the Muhaya compound was relatively vulnerable and may have been targeted because such complexes are seen as symbols of a more tolerant, Western lifestyle that the militants oppose, Fassi said.

Residents in such compounds enjoy more freedoms than in Saudi society at large; for example, women can go without veils.

Some observers believe the attack will only backfire. "The local community is totally incensed by it," said Armond Habiby, special counsel for the Arab Thought Foundation, a nonprofit group that seeks to promote greater understanding of Arab culture. "This will give the government greater leverage in forging ahead" with its campaign against Islamic militants.

Since the attack, at least one prominent member of the royal family, billionaire businessman Prince Walid bin Talal, has called on Saudi Arabia to embrace political reform and fight extremism. He urged that women be allowed to drive and vote, and he applauded the royal family's recent decision to allow some seats on the country's new municipal councils to be decided in elections.

"Reform is not a requirement of the businessmen only, or members of the royal family, but a requirement of every Saudi citizen," he said in an interview with the Saudi Press Agency.

Since Sept. 11, the kingdom -- which adheres to the strict Islamic Wahhabite philosophy -- has come under increasing pressure to cooperate more in the global war on terrorism and weed out extremism. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 suicide hijackers were Saudis.

The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, which had shut down late last week because of warnings of an imminent attack, will reportedly remain closed through Friday. But at the Muhaya compound Tuesday, residents were beginning to pick up the pieces.

Kadriye Yovuz, a 39-year-old nurse, was packing up personal items at her damaged home. As she loaded belongings into boxes and bags, her two boys, 6 and 2, jumped on a sofa on the front lawn.

"I can't imagine why someone would do this," said Yovuz, a native of Turkey who suffered deep cuts to her face after the car bomb blast threw her into a window. "This was hell. No religious person would kill people like this."

Yovuz, who has made Saudi Arabia her home for 15 years, said she has enjoyed living in the kingdom because the people are friendly and, until Saturday at least, it seemed secure. At this point, she has no plans to leave.

"I will find another house," she said. "I love it here."

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