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Saudi Investigation

May 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, the latest from Saudi Arabia. We spoke earlier with Peter Finn, foreign correspondent for the “Washington Post,” who’s in Riyadh.

Peter Finn, welcome. Shutting down the British, German, and U.S. embassies seems like a pretty drastic step. What do your contacts there… what are they telling you about how dire they think the threat really is?

PETER FINN: They believe that there is a major and imminent threat from possible suicide truck bombings in Saudi Arabia. And that’s from both Saudi and U.S. officials. Security across the city… or across the capital, Riyadh, where I am, has visibly intensified. There are more roadblocks. There are police visible at hotels, in the diplomatic area, in the area where expatriates live. So they clearly believe that something is possibly coming and coming very soon.

MARGARET WARNER: Where is the information coming from?

PETER FINN: Potentially two sources. The Saudi ambassador to the U.S., last night and early this morning, meeting with foreign reporters, spoke about a large or a high degree of “terrorist chatter.” And that’s their shorthand for communications and movements by terrorists. And they say that the noise level from that is close to what it was just before the bombings in Riyadh eight days ago. Secondly, we have learned tonight that three people… two or three people– we’re still seeking further details here– were arrested in Jeddah yesterday and may have been linked to the cell tied to the bombings on the residential compounds. The interrogation of one or more of those suspects may have intensified their fears.

MARGARET WARNER: How many al-Qaida operatives and how many cells do the Saudis think are active in the kingdom now after those bombings?

PETER FINN: Saudi officials say they believe there are three cells that are… do have the ability to communicate with each other to some extent, and numbering a hard core of 50 or so operatives. U.S. officials broadly agree with that, but put the figures somewhat higher. They think there are two, possibly up to five cells, and the numbers may be in the low hundreds: 100, 200, maybe 300. But no one thinks that there are thousands of al-Qaida people here, although the number of sympathizers clearly is higher than either of those two estimates.

MARGARET WARNER: Where do the Saudis think these cells are, “a,” getting their recruits, and “b,” getting their weapons and explosives?

PETER FINN: Well, some of these cells are composed of people who were in Afghanistan and returned to Saudi Arabia after the U.S. attack on Afghanistan. And they then have done some further recruiting here, linking into older veterans of Afghanistan and al-Qaida and the body of people here who are sympathetic to what al-Qaida stands for. The weapons and explosives, the Saudis believe, largely come across the border from Yemen, which is a long, porous, and difficult border to patrol. And there is increased cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

MARGARET WARNER: You reported yesterday also that the Saudis believe some of the bombers’ weapons came from the Saudi National Guard.

PETER FINN: Yes, but we don’t want to overstate that. What was going on with that was that a number of individuals were involved in illegal weapons sales, and they were doing this for financial reasons, not out of any kind of ideological commitment. If someone had the money, they were willing to sell a weapon.

And they sold weapons to people who turned out to be al-Qaida, but they also sold weapons to others who simply wanted weapons and had the money. It’s embarrassing. It’s also particularly painful because a member of the National Guard was killed during the assault on the residential compound.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally Peter, we keep reading that the cooperation on the investigation level is better than it has been in the past. What does that mean?

PETER FINN: In the past, the FBI and the Saudi interior ministry have clashed over the amount of access they were willing to give the FBI, whether that be documents, the ability to interrogate suspects, even the ability to submit questions so the Saudis could ask the suspects what the FBI wanted to know, that’s been problematic. There has been a change. The… Prince Bandar last night showed us a folder of materials, photocopies of the ID’s of those… some of the members of the cells, some of their written communication that the Saudis have found, that they were turning all of this over to the U.S. They also did not rule out the possibility that the U.S. might question some of these people. And there has been a sea change here. People are saying that the Saudis finally recognize that al-Qaida is an internal threat to Saudis and foreigners alike, when in the past they saw al-Qaida as an external menace that at most would target U.S. military installations which, in any case, are very well protected. So now, with this… with blood on the streets of Riyadh, they want and need U.S. cooperation. And I think both sides are professing themselves extremely happy with the way things are going here now.

MARGARET WARNER: Peter Finn, thanks a lot.

PETER FINN: You’re welcome. Thank you.