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Saudi Arabia: Clues, Motives Elusive In Car-Bomb Wreckage

The 8 November car-bomb attack in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, was a strong reminder that Al-Qaeda -- or terrorist groups using Al-Qaeda techniques -- remain a potent threat, despite a recent crackdown on militants in the country. This time, the target was a housing complex for mostly non-Saudi Arabs, leaving many to ponder the ultimate goal of such attacks. What purpose does killing innocent Muslims serve?

Prague, 10 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two days after a deadly car-bomb attack in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, officials are still grappling with basic questions.

Who was responsible for the attack and what was the motive, given the fact that most of the victims were non-Saudi Arabs, many of them women and children.

So far, at least 17 people have been confirmed dead and more than 120 injured in the bombing late on 8 November of a mostly foreign-occupied housing complex. No group has claimed responsibility, but the attack bears a strong resemblance to the triple bombing of a similar complex in Riyadh in May.

That attack -- which killed 35 people, including eight Americans -- was blamed on Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda organization. The Saudi-born bin Laden has been an outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family.

U.S. and Saudi officials were quick to pin the attack on Al-Qaeda -- although there is no public evidence yet to support the claim. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, on a visit to the region, said he is "quite sure" Al-Qaeda was behind the attack. In an interview today with the Al-Arabiyah satellite television network, Armitage said the bombing bears the "hallmark" of Al-Qaeda and that he believes the Saudi royal family was the target. "It is quite clear to me that Al-Qaeda wants to take down the [Saudi] royal family and the government of Saudi Arabia," he said.

That may be the case. But Daniel Neep, the head of the Middle East and North Africa program at London's Royal United Services Institute, cautions that, increasingly, the words "Al-Qaeda" are being used to refer to a style of attack rather than to a specific organization or individual.

"'Al-Qaeda' is increasingly used to refer to a type of attack -- one that follows certain broad ideological guidelines, rather than something that's been orchestrated from the top down. Certainly, the tactics, the style of the attack, was very much what we've come to recognize as part of the Al-Qaeda brand," Neep said.

He says it's important to remember that Al-Qaeda is not a traditional hierarchical organization. "[Al-Qaeda] isn't a strict hierarchical organization that operates from the top down," he said. "It's essentially a loose-knit network of associated bodies, individual cells, who may not be in contact with other cells in the same country, [and even] less so with international networks."

The attack's "MO," or mode of operation, was certainly straight out of the Al-Qaeda playbook. Reports say the attack began with gunmen firing on the compound from a nearby hill. The attackers -- probably dressed in Saudi police uniforms -- overpowered guards at the complex and drove an explosives-laden vehicle into the compound. It is unclear whether any of the attackers were killed.

This was similar to May's bombing, which also began with an armed attack by men posing as Saudi security officers and ended in a deadly car bombing.

Among the dead in this weekend's attack were nationals of Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. None appear to be Western foreigners, although some Western families did live in the compound. Most of the wounded were Arabs, as well.

Officials today are still puzzling over a motive. Why kill innocent Arabs if the ultimate target was Westerners or the Saudi royal family? Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain, Prince Turki al-Faisal, said the choice of a relatively "soft" target indicates the "desperation" of the terrorists as they come under increasing pressure from Saudi authorities.

"Well, I think it's a measure of their desperation and the fact that they realize that they're being hunted severely by the authorities and under pressure. And they want to show that they can do something after all the successes that we've had with tracking these people down over the last six months, with many arrests and many discoveries of arms caches and munitions and explosives. So these people are in a desperate state, and they were willing to target anything available to them," al-Faisal said.

The Saudi government has stepped up counterterrorism operations in the aftermath of the May bombing. Saudi police recently clashed with Al-Qaeda loyalists in Mecca, killing two. Armitage commented on the Saudi effort while speaking with reporters in Cairo today. "The same Saudi security forces since 12 May -- the initial bombing in Riyadh -- have uncovered literally hundreds of terrorists. They've arrested, they've killed them. They've broken up cells. They've captured unbelievable amounts of explosives and weapons. They found Korans which were booby-trapped," he said.

Others speculate that the objective of the attack may have been to frighten Saudi Arabia's foreign workers. The country is home to millions of foreigners who form the backbone of the oil, security, and health sectors.

Neep says the main objective may be to scupper U.S.-Saudi ties by highlighting the kingdom's continuing problems with terrorism. That relationship was weakened by the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. after it emerged that 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi nationals. The U.S. earlier this year announced that it will withdraw from Saudi military bases.

"[The attack is] partly an attempt to drive a wedge between Saudi [Arabia] and the West, partly to instill fear into foreigners in the country, and also because attacks on foreigners do get much more publicity than [attacks on Saudis themselves]. It's part of an overall campaign," Neep said.

In any event, he says the attack sends a strong message to the Saudi royal family that even as the U.S. military withdraws, the ruling monarchy remains a target.
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.