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Saudi bombings

Posted by Ed Davis, DPM on 5/14/03 at 15:55 (118755)

Riyadh: Car Bombings Signal New Phase in Saudi War
May 13, 2003


The May 12 car bombings in Riyadh will escalate a war between Saudi authorities and al Qaeda. But the government's ability to wage a successful counterterrorism campaign will be hampered by political constraints and doubts as to the loyalties of elements of the security forces.


A series of coordinated car bombings in Saudi Arabia on May 12 killed nearly 100 people and wounded scores more. Radicals attacked the headquarters of a joint U.S.-Saudi business as well as three compounds housing American and other expatriate workers. Latest counts put the death toll at 90 -- including 12 Americans, seven Saudis, two Jordanians, two Filipinos, one Lebanese and one Swiss citizen, according to U.S. and Saudi officials.

The attacks mark a new phase in the ongoing war between the Saudi government and Islamist militants. Al Qaeda and its local branches likely are behind the most recent attacks: A Saudi weekly published an indirect claim of responsibility by an alleged al Qaeda spokesman the day of the bombings, and there are striking similarities between the Riyadh explosions and the coordinated bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. For instance, in both cases, gunmen with weapons blazing rammed the gates of the compounds before detonating their explosives-packed vehicles.

Stratfor previously has stated that internal conflict in Saudi Arabia would ratchet up. Now, the attacks on the Westerners' housing compounds will force Riyadh, which previously has focused its efforts on arresting the militants themselves, to target their sources of support instead.

The May 12 bombings likely were intended to convey several messages. First, the militants wanted to demonstrate their continued ability to operate within the kingdom, despite recent government efforts to dismantle their operations. Second, the timing of the attacks and the targets chosen indicate the assaults were intended as a direct insult to the kingdom's leadership, in particular de facto ruler Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, and as a warning to the Saudi security forces.

One of the targets was a compound housing American employees of Vinnell Corp., the U.S. company training the Saudi National Guard. Another of the targets was a compound housing Westerners involved in training the Saudi air force, according to Stratfor sources. The division of labor within the house of Saud gives Abdullah responsibility for the Saudi National Guard and Sultan control over the military.

The bombings also came just hours before the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was set to meet with Abdullah on May 13.

Ultimately, the attacks may cause Riyadh to change its tactics -- switching from a focus on the ground-level operatives, their safehouses and arms caches to their support systems instead. Those supporters include wealthy Saudi financiers, religious leaders and possibly factions within the government and security personnel.

Until recently, officials in Riyadh refused to admit that radicals linked to al Qaeda were even present in the kingdom. However, a steady stream of shootings and bomb attacks against Westerners and government officials, as well as intense political pressure from Washington, has forced the Saudi government to launch at least halfhearted crackdown against the suspected al Qaeda network.

That crackdown has focused primarily on the militants themselves. Most recently, Saudi authorities announced a manhunt for 19 militants, including 17 Saudis, following a shootout at a Riyadh home where authorities discovered an arms cache that included 800 pounds of explosives as well as ammunition, guns, disguises and large amounts of cash. The announcement came a week after an April 30 U.S. State Department warning about attacks being planned in the kingdom.

Riyadh's ability to break up the militant network now operating in Saudi territory is questionable.

The government still faces the same obstacles that have slowed its efforts so far: Widespread anti-American sentiment has emboldened militants -- nearly all of the violence in the kingdom over the last year has been directed at either Westerners or government officials. Moreover, the alliance between the ruling House of Saud and the kingdom's religious leadership has undermined the government's legitimacy -- and this, in turn, may limit its ability to root out the militants. Several of the country's top imams repeatedly have called for attacks against the 'infidels' and have denounced Riyadh's strategic relationship with Washington.

Finally, it is unclear where the Saudi security forces stand. Several of the Saudi nationals involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were former members of the Saudi security services -- either military or police. And there have been unconfirmed reports that a gunman involved in the May 1 shooting of an American in Jubail wore the uniform of a Saudi military officer.

Riyadh now will find it necessary to move against the decision makers and facilitators of al Qaeda's local activities. This will mean purging suspect members of the government and security forces and rolling up financial networks in Saudi and neighboring Gulf states. But these moves could trigger political and security crises in Saudi Arabia -- once again leaving Western expatriates, including the 30,000 Americans and 30,000 Britons now living there -- caught in the middle of what could become a bloody and brutal fight over the next year.

Related Headlines
Al Qaeda's Move
Apr 12, 2003
Saudi Arabia's Internal War and the External Consequences
Feb 04, 2003
U.S. Travel Warning Heralds Trouble in Saudi Arabia
Above was from stratfor.com