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BLASTS OF TERROR

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

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The suicide bomb attacks in a residential area occupied by Westerners in the Saudi Arabian capital suggest that international terror networks like the Al Qaeda continue to remain a potent threat.

THE three coordinated suicide bomb attacks on May 12 in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital, have once again turned the spotlight on Al Qaeda. Although no clinching evidence has been offered until the third week of May, the attacks have all the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda operation. Saudi Arabian officials said that 34 people, including at least 12 nationals of the United States, were killed when suicide bombers attacked three residential compounds housing mainly foreigners. Two hundred people were wounded in the attacks. Some U.S. nationals were out on a training exercise with Saudi Arabian Army officers. Otherwise the toll would have been higher. According to Saudi Arabian officials, the nine terrorists involved in the mission were also killed.

The impact of the explosions was so powerful that the front portion of a four-storied building in one of the residential areas was completely destroyed. The streets around it were strewn with burned-out vehicles. One of the compounds where a bomb went off belonged to Vinnel, a subsidiary of Northrup Grumman, a U.S. defence contractor. The company is involved in training the Saudi National Guard, which owes its allegiance to Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of the kingdom.

Significantly, the blasts took place a few hours before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was to reach Riyadh on an official visit. The U.S. State Department had issued a warning on May 1 that terrorists "may be in the final phases of planning attacks" on U.S. targets in Saudi Arabia. The attacks also came soon after 19 suspected militants had escaped arrest by the Saudi Arabian security authorities who raided their hideouts. The suspects, 17 of whom are said to be Saudi Arabian nationals, had fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The authorities seized a large amount of explosives and cash during the raids. The authorities had announced a few days before the attacks that they had foiled a terrorist plot hatched by an Al Qaeda cell. Government officials and Islamists in the kingdom claim that the mastermind of the attacks was Al Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden. According to them, Osama bin Laden has given the green signal to target foreigners and members of the royal family in his homeland. However, no claims of responsibility have been issued by Al Qaeda or other militant organisations.

According to reports from the region, the Saudi Arabian populace seems to be getting increasingly restive. The invasion of Iraq and the impasse in the U.S.-sponsored Palestinian-Israeli peace process have strengthened anti-U.S. feelings in Saudi Arabia and the region in general. Colin Powell had warned President George Bush about the backlash that an attack on Iraq would cause in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Jordan. However, his arguments were given short shrift and the neo-conservatives who hold pre-eminent positions in the Bush administration had their way.

The Saudi leadership had taken a position against the war in Iraq. However, after the die was cast, the Saudi Arabian government was arm-twisted into cooperation by the U.S. U.S. officials have said that despite its public posture, Saudi Arabia was a useful ally in the war, allowing the U.S. to use three of its air bases. President Bush praised Crown Prince Abdullah recently for his role in bringing about changes in the Palestinian Authority's (P.A.) leadership structure. Saddam Hussein, in one of his taped speeches released recently, criticised Saudi Arabia and Jordan for helping the U.S. militarily in the war.

However, some analysts were surprised by the timing of the attacks, coming as they did after the announcement that the U.S. was pulling out the bulk of its troops from Saudi Arabia. U.S. troops and bases have been in the kingdom since the 1991 Gulf War. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabian soil was for long the main demand of Osama bin Laden and other Islamists. The first major Al Qaeda attack in the country was on a U.S. military complex in Khobar Hills in 1996, when a truck bomb killed 19 U.S. soldiers.

However, Washington insists that it is withdrawing its troops from Saudi Arabian bases because they no longer have any military significance. They say that the bases were used mainly to enforce the "no fly zone" over Iraq after the Gulf War. The ouster of the Saddam Hussein government has made these bases redundant, say U.S. officials. Although the U.S. decision to withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia where Islam's holiest sites are located may have brought a sense of relief to the Saudi Arabian government, it has not satisfied the militant Islamic groups. Their grievances against what they consider as U.S. atrocities in Afghanistan and Iraq have only increased with the huge U.S. military presence in other Arab countries.

Indications are that if Washington feels that the House of Saud, its long-time ally, is under serious threat from home-grown militants, it may review the decision to withdraw its troops. The links between the Saudi Arabian monarchy and the Bush administration remain strong despite the hostility towards the kingdom from neo-conservative quarters in the U.S. The semi-official Defence Policy Board, then headed by Richard Perle, had released a report in mid-2002 that characterised Saudi Arabia as "the chief vector of the Arab crisis and its outwardly directed aggression". The report added that the Saudis were "active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldiers, from ideologists to cheerleaders".

The U.S. Secretary of State was quick to reassure the Saudi Arabian government that the report had nothing to do with official policy. The last thing the Bush administration wants to do is to alienate Saudi Arabia, which has one-fourth of all known oil deposits in the world. Bilateral trade between the two countries grew from $56.2 million in 1950 to $19.3 billion in 2000 - an average annual growth of nearly 70 per cent.

Some commentators point out that the bombings could signal a new phase in the campaign of the militants. They may have sent out a signal that henceforth, it will not only be the U.S. that will be targeted but all regimes in the region that have been the traditional allies of Washington.

CURRENTLY, 70 per cent of all jobs - and nearly 90 per cent of all private sector jobs - in Saudi Arabia are held by foreigners. Although the majority of the South Asians working in the country are only semi-skilled, there are hundreds of thousands of skilled expatriates who are still crucial to the oil-driven economy. There are more than 100,000 highly skilled Western expatriates in the kingdom, many of them working for defence-related industries. Politically well-connected companies such as the Carlyle Group and Halliburton have major business interests in Saudi Arabia. The Carlyle Group's board members include Frank Carlucci and James Baker, both of whom held important positions under previous U.S. Presidents, and former British Prime Minister John Major. U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney ran Halliburton in between his various stints in government.

Many expatriates, most of them panic-stricken Westerners, have already started leaving the country. After the bombings, the U.S. has sharply reduced its diplomatic staff in the country. Perhaps the bombings represent the most serious challenge to the authority of the Saudi Arabian government since the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 by Islamists opposed to the monarchy. Newspapers in the country are urging the government to deal with the May 12 incident in the way the U.S. dealt with September 11. Crown Prince Abdullah, in an address to the nation, vowed to "confront and destroy" those responsible for the bombings. He said that the security and stability of the country would not be affected by the events. He said: "If those murderers believe that their bloody crimes will shake even one hair on the body of this nation and its unity, they are deceiving themselves."

President George Bush described the May 12 attacks as "despicable acts committed by killers whose only faith is hate". He told a crowd of over 7,000 people at the Indiana State Fairgrounds that the killers would "learn the meaning of American justice". Ironically, only a week earlier, Bush had claimed that Al Qaeda "was on the run". Declaring that Al Qaeda was slowly but surely being decimated, he had said: "They're not a problem anymore."

The U.S. President may still use the terrorist card to boost his chances for a second term in office. The President and his close advisers have already started using the May 12 incident to refurbish his image as the leader in the `war against terror'. He would then hit the campaign trail urging Americans to rally round the flag. A recent poll showed that the number of Americans believing in the President's assertion that the country was winning the fight against terrorism had declined. However, the majority of people still support his administration's policy of permanent war, which was started on October 7, 2001, with the attack on Afghanistan.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 06, 2003.)

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