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Saudi Arabia: Does Recent Violence Herald New Regional Instability?

Saudi Arabia has been the target of an increasing number of terrorist attacks or attempted attacks in recent weeks. Saudi security forces have killed five suspected militants in the wake of a suicide car bomb on 21 April that killed four people and wounded almost 150 others. Neighboring Jordan has also foiled an attack that the authorities said would have killed thousands. Do these events indicate a broadening of efforts to destabilize the region?

Prague, 23 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Authorities in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been battling to contain an escalation in terrorist activities, amid fears that the Middle East region is becoming even more volatile.

Reports say Saudi police shot dead two suspected militants in clashes in the Saudi city of Jeddah today. Three additional suspects were killed by police in an earlier Jeddah gun battle.

This follows a suicide car bomb attack on 21 April in the Saudi capital Riyadh, which killed four people and injured almost 150 others. A local Saudi group calling itself the Al-Haramain Brigades claimed responsibility for that blast in a statement published by at least two Islamist websites.

"The new development in Saudi Arabia is that it was explicitly the government buildings which were targeted, which is something of a shift in tactic."
The attack appears to be only the tip of the iceberg. Within days of this week’s blast, the Saudi authorities announced they had managed to avoid what would have been a devastating series of car bombings. The police said they had located and successfully defused three booby-trapped vehicles loaded with a massive total of 4 tons of explosives. The authorities also announced that they had arrested eight suspected militants and seized large amounts of money, vehicles, weapons, and explosives.

An ominous new development is that the 21 April attack in Riyadh targeted the Saudi authorities directly, namely the security services building. Mideast expert Daniel Neep of the Royal United Services Institute in London told to RFE/RL: "The new development in Saudi Arabia is that it was explicitly the government buildings which were targeted, which is something of a shift in tactic. In the past it was foreigners which have been targeted in Saudi Arabia, and commercial interests. The state itself has not been affected per se."

The upsurge in terrorism in Saudi Arabia coincides with similar activity in Jordan. Jordanian King Abdullah said on 13 April that an arrest of terror suspects there had thwarted an unprecedented attack that could have killed thousands of civilians. The king gave no details regarding what was targeted. But he did say the magnitude of the threat was based on the quantity of explosives found, as well as the "manner in which the terror operation was to be carried out."

But analyst Neep cautions against seeing such developments as part of a larger plan by big terror organizations to broaden instability in the Mideast. Although the region is united in its resentment of Western involvement in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its various extremist groups usually operate on their own.

"It would be interesting to know the extent of the links between the [terrorist] cells in Saudi Arabia and those in Jordan. I suspect the links are relatively limited, and that each cell is operating relatively autonomously. So I would be skeptical of reading any over-arching plan into it. I do not think it is accurate to link Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Jordan and Saudi Arabia under the same umbrella," Neep said.

The Saudis have said they see Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda organization as being behind the terrorism in their country. But there was no claim of responsibility from Al-Qaeda for the 21 April Riyadh bombing. The group that did step forward, the Al-Haramain Brigades, appears to be a local group which also claimed responsibility for a minor incident last December in which a security official's car was blown up.

Neep said Saudi Arabia finds itself in a very difficult position, in that it is coming under increasing U.S. pressure to introduce political reforms. But the Saudis themselves feel it is very difficult to implement that kind of reform while they are being harassed by violent extremists. "So in a way the government feels pressure from inside, and it feels pressure from outside, and is finding it quite difficult to locate a path through that," he said.

Another regional analyst, Jeroen Gunning of the University of Wales, told RFE/RL that experience elsewhere shows democracy building may offer a solution. Such moves tend to draw moderate Islamists into the system, and make them a loyal opposition. This in turn tends to undercut extremist tendencies.

“Look at Egypt, or Jordan, or Turkey, which is a very interesting example,” he said. “The more political participation you have, and the more outlets for anger and petitions and such things -- and the more the economy works in such a way that the middle classes have a future -- the less appealing the radical fringes are going to be.”

Gunning added, however, that at the same time, the authorities have to maintain a tough policy towards those who stick to a radical path -- much as Saudi Arabia's security forces appear to be doing now.