Terror Assault in Saudi Arabia: Glenn Kessler
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TERENCE SMITH: The nearly simultaneous explosions rocked Riyadh just before midnight local time Monday, hours before Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived there. Mostly westerners lived in the three walled compounds targeted by the car bombers. The blasts tore walls off apartment blocks, and ripped through single-family houses. Later, a smaller fourth blast went off at the headquarters of a Saudi-American business, the Saudi maintenance company also known as Siyanco.
The bombings were the first large-scale terrorist attacks on American civilian targets since 9/11. Some 40,000 Americans live and work in Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter. Today, Secretary of State Colin Powell visited one of the most damaged compounds. He said the attack bore “all the fingerprints of an al-Qaida operation,” even though the group hadn’t claimed responsibility.
COLIN POWELL: This was a well-planned terrorist attack. Obviously, the facility had been cased, as had the others — very well executed. And it shows the nature of the enemy we’re working against. These are people who are determined to try to penetrate facilities like this for the purpose of killing people in their sleep, killing innocent people, killing people who would try to help others. And notwithstanding what you see here today and the damage you see here today, it will not deter the United States, and I’m sure it will not deter Saudi Arabia in our mutual effort to go after this kind of terrorism and to roll it up, go after their finances, go after their information systems, their intelligence systems, make sure we take full advantage of our law enforcement assets, both in the United States and Saudi Arabia and around the world. This is criminality, terrorism at its worst, and there is no justification for it in any way, shape, fashion or form.
TERENCE SMITH: The FBI said it would send agents to Riyadh to assist in the investigation, and the State Department said the Saudis are cooperating in the hunt for the killers. In a public address, Saudi crown prince Abdullah condemned the attacks.
CROWN PRINCE ABDULLAH ( Translated ): All terrorists are criminals, they are butchers. They have withdrawn from all the Islamic humanitarian principles. They have broken all the rules of morality and they have become fierce beasts. Their only goal is to spill blood.
TERENCE SMITH: The bombings took place not far from where Saudi officials seized a large cache of weapons and explosives last week. At least 19 suspected militants who were allegedly planning terror plots escaped during the raid. On May 1, the State Department issued a travel warning advising Americans to avoid Saudi Arabia because of increased terror concerns. And the U.S. Embassy Web site cautioned that “terrorist groups may be planning attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle East.” Two weeks ago, the U.S. announced it would withdraw most of its 5,000 troops from Saudi soil. U.S. soldiers have been stationed in the kingdom– which is the guardian of some of the most sacred sites of Islam– since the 1991 Gulf War. Saudi-born al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden has repeatedly called for U.S. forces to leave the country.
Americans have been targeted in Saudi Arabia before, in 1995, five U.S. citizens were among the seven people killed when a car bomb exploded at an American-run training facility in Riyadh. A group called the Islamic Movement for Change claimed responsibility. And bin Laden was linked to the 1996 truck bombing of a U.S. Military barracks in Dhahran that killed 19 American servicemen. Yesterday’s attack stiffened the Bush administration’s resolve to wage war on terrorism. Vice President Dick Cheney:
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: The only way to deal with this threat ultimately is to destroy it. There’s no treaty can solve this problem. ( Applause ) there’s no peace agreement, no policy of containment or deterrence that works to deal with this threat. We have to go find the terrorists.
TERENCE SMITH: In the meantime, Americans in Riyadh have been urged to stay home and on alert. Earlier I spoke with Glenn Kessler of the “Washington Post” who was on the ground in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Glenn, you visited the sites of the bombings today. What was it like, what did you see?
GLENN KESSLER: Well, it was a scene of great devastation. This was a compound used basically for housing of people who train the Saudi National Guard. And what the attackers had done was taken a vehicle, a dodge ram, and maneuvered it into the compound after they had subdued the guards and opened the gate, and they parked it right near a house, mainly used by bachelors. And they believe that, the officials believe that the ram was packed with about 400 pounds of explosives. And it just tore the entire side off this four-story building. And as luck would have it, this building which normally had 70 people in it, 50 of them were away on a desert training exercise. So there were only 20 people in it. But as I understand it, I think at least ten of them died. And at the same time, every other building in the compound, even ones that were 250 yards away, were greatly damaged. Sheet roof, roofs collapsed in, windows blown out everywhere, air conditioners blown inside. It was quite a major scene of devastation.
TERENCE SMITH: When you were there, Glenn, were people pouring through the ruins, and if so what state, emotional and otherwise, were they in?
GLENN KESSLER: There was no one pouring through the ruins. There were several hundred members of the Saudi National Guard posted everywhere. If it were not for the fact they was one of the few reporters permitted to be with Colin Powell, there was no way you would have gotten into that place.
TERENCE SMITH: Did you get any sense of the significance of the targets? Was it, for example, specifically, were they chosen because these people were training the Saudi National Guard?
GLENN KESSLER: That’s a possibility. I mean, the other two targets were basically much more residential communities, with a mix, quite a few Muslims. I spoke to one victim who most of the people who she named were killed were Jordanians and Lebanese and that sort of thing, and Saudis, there were quite a few Saudis that live in these compounds because, particularly for women have you a lot more freedom in the compound than in terms of how you have to cover yourself than you do outside the compound. But as certainly think fact that this was somewhat associated with the U.S. Military presence in Saudi Arabia would make it a prime target for al-Qaida, since that is something that has motivated that group since the very beginning.
TERENCE SMITH: Correct. Was there any evidence to suggest that this was in fact timed to coincide with or shortly precede Secretary Powell’s visit?
GLENN KESSLER: I’ve looked into that. I don’t think so. If that was the case, they were pretty slick, because that trip by Secretary Powell was only announced a few days ago. And the Saudis had actually just a week ago captured a tremendous amount of explosives, presumably belonging to these people. So it could well be that they fell time was running out and they had to do something, and may have just been lucky coincidence on their part that it happened just before Powell arrived.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there any evidence to suggest that this was in fact al-Qaida?
GLENN KESSLER: Well, I think one of the strongest pieces of evidence that people point out, the fact that it had simultaneous explosions. We now seem to believe that these three explosions, which took place in the western part of the capital, but you have to understand this city of four million is one of the most sprawling cities I’ve ever seen. And so these places are 30 minutes drive apart from each other. The fact they would were able to have three explosions all happen within five minutes of each other, all operated in the exact same way, is certainly something that al-Qaida likes to do, they like to do these multiple attacks at the same time.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally, Glenn, what’s the security situation on the ground there right now?
GLENN KESSLER: Well, I think probably, you know, it’s like lightning doesn’t strike twice. This group has probably shot their wad for the moment, so I don’t think you’re going to see another attack like this any time soon. I think many of the westerners, the Americans are leaving nonetheless, the ones I’ve spoken to. But there’s usually a pretty good lag time between al-Qaida attacks so I don’t necessarily expect another one any time soon here.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Glenn Kessler of the “Washington Post”, thanks very much.
GLENN KESSLER: Thank you.