GWEN IFILL: Now to Saudi Arabia, where a bloody hostage-taking in the oil industry hub of Khobar, ended in the deaths of 22 civilians. Of the four armed militants suspected in the attack, three remain at large. Covering the event in Khobar, is Neil MacFarquhar, of the New York Times. I spoke with him this evening.
GWEN IFILL: Neal MacFarquhar, welcome. Please tell us how the events unfolded over the weekend.
NEIL MAC FARQUHAR: Well, a group of militants again struck in Saudi Arabia, this time in the heart of the country's oil-producing region, the eastern province along the Persian Gulf. There was a series of attacks against buildings and compounds where westerners work and live. They killed about ten people before they reached the Oasis Compound, which is sort of a very luxurious living compound that was fairly highly guarded. And then once they were inside, they went door to door looking for non-Muslims, some of them they shot on the spot and some they kept hostage.
The death toll from the entire rampage was 22 killed, and 25 wounded. And there were about 240 hostages or people who couldn't escape the compound because they were in the line of fire who had to hunker down for about 24 hours before the Saudi Special Forces moved in, in helicopters and landed on the roof of a building in the compound, the oasis compound and freed the hostages. But in the process, three of the gunmen escaped. The leader was wounded and actually remains in a coma, but the three got away. Then the public is a little bit perplexed on how exactly three gunmen managed to escape a walled compound with so many police around it.
GWEN IFILL: Yeah, there are some reports that they actually got lost in rush hour traffic. Was there any update today on the search? Is there a dragnet or any effort to try to track them down?
NEIL MAC FARQUHAR: There is a manhunt going on around the country and especially intensively in the eastern province. And they have been arresting people who they thought might have some sort of connection or ties to the man. A prayer leader at a local mosque who has lost a leg fighting in Bosnia was picked up today. So there is an extensive hunt going on for them.
GWEN IFILL: As always happens with these cases, the name al-Qaida comes up. Was there any evidence supplied today to support the notion that these attackers may have been linked to al-Qaida?
NEIL MAC FARQUHAR: Well, there have been numerous claims of responsibility posted on Web sites that often carry messages from the extremists, and one referred to al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula. Experts in al-Qaida tend to believe this is a group that is probably more inspired by al-Qaida rather than directed by it.
GWEN IFILL: The Saudi government has said that this is an economic attack. You mentioned earlier that this happened in the oil region, the oil hub of Khobar. Is there any sense of that... anything out there to support the Saudi government's contention?
NEIL MAC FARQUHAR: Al-Qaida has always had as one of its goals disrupting the western economy. I mean, I think one of the reasons the World Trade Center was chosen, because they thought that the name reflected what the purpose of the building was, that it was somehow connected to the world trade. And in oil centers, obviously in a town like Khobar where almost all the expatriates working are somehow connected to the oil industry, they want to carry out an attack here to try and disrupt that. But as the Saudi government points out repeatedly, they haven't attacked any production facilities.
GWEN IFILL: Well then why not exactly attack an oil field? Is it because these residential complexes are softer targets?
NEIL MAC FARQUHAR: The residential complexes are surrounded by guards, but they are penetrable. You know, the production facilities and all the pipelines and anything having to do with oil is very heavily protected and very, very difficult to get at. And that is the point that the Saudi government officials say again and again is that this shows the weakness of the group rather than its strength, because they can't really get at any targets that directly affects the economy or more pointedly the flow of oil.
GWEN IFILL: A year ago after the bombings in Riyadh, the Saudi government said they would conduct a severe crackdown on terrorism and on terrorists around the country. Has there been any effect long- term of that crackdown, and if that's the case, then why do we see what's happening today and also a couple of weeks ago?
NEIL MAC FARQUHAR: The western embassies who monitor this fairly heavily do give the Saudis fairly high marks. They said up until last may when three compounds were bombed in Riyadh, there was a lackadaisical attitude among the Saudis. They didn't think it was their problem. Even if Osama bin Laden is Saudi and many of his foot soldiers are Saudi, they kind of thought it was a problem elsewhere. But they've been working very hard to root out these groups around the country.
It's kind of changed the culture of law enforcement here a little bit. They've put up wanted posters, they announce events fairly quickly right after they happen. In April, they found five booby- trapped cars in Riyadh. But it's a vast country. It doesn't take much to become a militant. You know, these guys were just grabbing guns. The car bomb is a little more difficult because you have to get ammunition... excuse me, you have to get explosives and find a place to hide it. So one of those got through in Riyadh in April, but overall there is a sense that they have been fairly successful in tracking down some of them, but the problem is it's too big and some of the militants are bound to be able to carry out attacks.
GWEN IFILL: And finally, the U.S. Department of State has long told U.S. citizens to get out of Saudi Arabia. Is there any sense of an exodus underway by westerners there?
NEIL MAC FARQUHAR: It's still hard to gauge because it's a little bit early days yet after this attack. Obviously the people directly affected are leaving in droves, the people who were living in the compound. Others are kind of assessing the situation. Some are bound to leave. They just feel it's too dangerous. You know, they packed up their cars right away. Others are waiting to see if there is more of a direct threat against the compounds. People tend to stay here because they get, you know, three and four times the pay that they would in the states, and it's a fairly... the lifestyle in the compound is kind of a 1950s suburban lifestyle, for the kids a lot of outdoor activities. But as these compounds become sort of, you know, like low- security prisons, then the balance begins to tip and maybe you'll see people leaving.
GWEN IFILL: Neil MacFarquhar, thank you very much for joining us.
NEIL MAC FARQUHAR: Any time.