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Saudi Arabia: Officials Vow To 'Redouble' Antiterrorist Efforts, Though Doubts Linger

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Is Saudi Arabia doing enough to fight terrorism? After last week's attack in Riyadh killed 34 people, Saudi officials have acknowledged they need to do more to combat militants. U.S. officials appeared pleased by their remarks. But as RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports from Washington, the verdict is out still out on whether the bombing will spur Saudi Arabia to action.

Washington, 19 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Saudi Arabian officials say last week's attack on a Western housing complex is a wake-up call for Riyadh to start cracking down harder on extremists.

But doubts are lingering in Washington that the country will take the necessary action to reduce terrorism.

At a Washington news conference late last week (16 May), Adel al-Jubeir -- a senior foreign policy adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah -- acknowledged that Riyadh was not doing enough to combat militants and vowed the country would redouble its antiterror efforts.

"The tragic event of Monday [12 May] has been a massive jolt to Saudi Arabia, to the United States, to all peace-loving people around the world, that we have to redouble our efforts and we have to pursue the terrorists vigorously, we have to punish them mercilessly."

The attack, by suicide bombers believed linked to Al-Qaeda, killed 34 people, eight of them Americans.

Saudi Arabia said yesterday it arrested four suspects with apparent ties to Al-Qaeda who had prior knowledge of the suicide bombings. Saudi Arabia's deputy interior minister, Ahmed al-Salem, said "all evidence" indicates the four suspects are members of the terrorist group.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer welcomed al-Jubeir's remarks, and told a briefing he agreed that the latest attack challenges Saudi Arabia to take a stronger stance.

"This attack does serve as a reminder to the Saudi authorities and to the Saudi government of the importance of taking on terrorism within their own country, because this terrorism presents a threat not only to the United States and to Westerners living in Saudi Arabia, but to the Saudi government," Fleischer said. "And the reaction of the Saudi government has been good."

Fleischer's conciliatory comments came after the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia had complained Riyadh repeatedly ignored U.S. warnings of an imminent attack.

Ambassador Robert Jordan said that beginning on 29 April, he had sent three letters to the Saudi Interior Ministry requesting enhanced security at residential compounds. His 7 May letter came a day after a raid on a terrorist safehouse near one of the compounds that was attacked.

Although a team from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation was allowed to come to Saudi Arabia to investigate the bombing, some U.S. experts are now concerned the Saudis will limit U.S. access to suspects and evidence, as they did after the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers, which killed 19 U.S. military personnel.

Jim Phillips is a Middle East expert with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. Phillips tells RFE/RL that there is still concern that parts of the Saudi establishment may support the militants.

"My impression is that the official establishment realizes that it is a target of bin Laden's terrorism, but there may be a few princes on the edges of the royal family that actively support bin Laden's radical agenda," he said.

Washington has also suspected several Saudi charities of funneling money to Al-Qaeda.

Senior adviser al-Jubeir said Saudi officials had looked into the charity allegations: "We have been able to shut down, virtually shut down the flow of funds, the abuse of our charities. We have spoken to you about this in December. Since then we have taken a number of other steps. We have completed our audit of all the Saudi charities, we have looked at the four, or so, charities that work outside Saudi Arabia."

But there is a growing chorus in America calling on Saudi Arabia, which is a key supplier of oil, to open up its closed society and make democratic reform and human rights a top priority.

Many human rights activists wonder why a nondemocratic country like Saudi Arabia is such a close American ally.

Last week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called Riyadh one of the world's worst abusers of human rights, allowing only the practice of its Wahhabi brand of Islam and persecuting others.

Analysts say the attack could be "a moment of truth" for Saudi Arabia to finally fully crack down on terrorism and embrace reforms. If it doesn't seize the moment, there could be consequences, says Heritage analyst Phillips.

"If the Saudis repeat their past pattern of dragging their feet on the investigation and failing to fully cooperate with the U.S., I think you'll hear an increasing crescendo of such calls to reduce ties to Saudi Arabia," he said. "But I think there is a general sense in the U.S. government that the Saudis need to undertake reforms to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future."

Meanwhile, more warnings of possible imminent attacks were issued on 16 May by officials in Washington, London and Berlin.

Britain ordered British airlines to halt flights to Kenya due to fears of attacks in the east African country. Later, London told its citizens to avoid visiting Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda due to what it called a "clear terrorist threat."

The U.S. and German governments issued similar warnings about travel to east Africa after Kenyan authorities reported sighting a known Al-Qaeda terrorist in neighboring Somalia.

U.S. intelligence officials, speaking off the record, said they had picked up signs just as strong as those received before the Riyadh bombing that Al-Qaeda is plotting further imminent attacks abroad. Intelligence officials said militants could seek to hit so-called "soft targets," such as housing complexes, business and transportation sites or public areas frequented by Americans or other Westerners.

"They will go where they can get the most damage with the least amount of effort that is going to ensure success for their operation," the intelligence official was quoted as telling news agencies. "They will go towards an easier target."