The raid was carried out yesterday by as many as 13 gunmen and was the first major attack on foreigners in the kingdom since last spring and the first ever on a foreign diplomatic mission there.
In the last attack in May, 22 people -- most of them foreigners -- were killed by militants who took over a resort complex in Khobar. In June, militants in Riyadh, the capital, kidnapped and later beheaded Paul Johnson, an engineer for a U.S. defense company.
Since May, Saudi Arabian authorities had staged a crackdown in which they said they killed or captured more than half of the people on their most-wanted list of 26 extremists. They had suggested that the situation was now in hand following the attacks on foreigners.
But as Paris-based security analyst Walter Posch puts it, yesterday's attack delivered a contrary message: "This was a symbol and a sign that [the terrorists] are still functioning, and that embassies are always [vulnerable]."
An Internet statement in the name of Al-Qaeda's Saudi wing said the "squadron of martyr Abu Annas al-Shami" claimed responsibility for the Jiddah attack, which killed at least nine people -- four attackers and five consulate employees. The authenticity of the statement could not be verified.
Saudi authorities say they have identified three of the four attackers killed. None of them are on a most-wanted list of suspected Al-Qaeda sympathizers issued by authorities last year. A statement from the Interior Ministry says authorities are still trying to determine the identity of the fourth attacker killed. It did not identify one attacker who was wounded and captured by Saudi forces. Al-Qaeda claims the other attackers escaped.
Posch, of the European Union's Institute for Security Studies, says that, despite Saudi claims to have the situation under control, it is extremely difficult for security forces to root out flexible and decentralized networks like Al-Qaeda: "The fight against Al-Qaeda is not over and will not be concluded for the foreseeable future. And we should not forget that they obviously have a serious base in Saudi Arabia."
The attack in Jiddah was achieved with an element of surprise, showing that neither Saudi nor U.S. intelligence has been able to infiltrate those terror cells effectively.
U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli gave some details of the attack, in which the gunmen arrived at the consulate in broad daylight and used a military-style frontal assault: "The attackers attempted to drive their vehicle onto the compound via one of the gates, but they were prevented from entering the compound by security measures in place. When their vehicle was not able to enter the compound, they got out of the vehicle, fired their weapons and fought their way onto the compound on foot."
Attackers breached an outer security wall but never entered any consulate buildings.
The exactly number of gunmen is not clear, but some reports have said the number was as high as 13.
Abdul Khaliq Abdullah, an Emirates-based political analyst, is quoted by Associated Press as saying the significance of the attack was that the consulate's perimeter was penetrated.
"They managed to go through the security, which should have been as tough and as solid as a shield," Abdullah said. "It shows that American targets in Saudi Arabia, no matter how well protected, are vulnerable to these kind of attacks."
But many of the consulate's security measures did work as planned. When the shooting started, most staff were able to retreat to specially designated safe areas inside the building, which were not reached by the attackers.
The nationalities of the consulate staff members that were killed included a Yemeni, a Sudanese, a Filipino, a Pakistani and a Sri Lankan.
Expressing regret at the loss of life, the State Department's Ereli spoke of the commonality of the threat posed by terrorism: "This incident is yet another reminder that we are all in this together. This was an attack not just on the U.S. Consulate in Jiddah, but on all of us -- American, Saudi, and other nationalities, as were represented by our foreign service nationals [non-U.S. consular employees], who work on behalf of dialogue, who work on behalf of understanding, who work on behalf of dealing with the world's problems in a way that stands in marked contrast to the hatred and violence preached by those responsible for this attack."
Analysts note, however, that the incident did illustrate the capacity for a quick response by Saudi special forces. They were on the scene promptly, arriving by helicopter and engaging the attackers in a sustained gunfight until the consulate was cleared.
The United States has temporarily closed its diplomatic offices in Saudi Arabia in response to the attack.