May 15, 2003

Al Qaeda and Riyadh attacks

Rumsfeld: Saudi attacks won't affect U.S. troop pullout Thursday, May 15, 2003 Posted: 7:03 PM EDT (2303 GMT) LONDON, England (CNN) -- A leading Saudi dissident who broadcasts a nightly radio newscast from London into the Saudi kingdom, said he is certain that Saudi exile Osama bin Laden gave the "green light" for Monday's suicide attacks in Riyadh. Saad al Fagih, 44, told CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen the attacks in the Saudi capital are "most probably the beginning of an al Qaeda campaign within Saudi Arabia." Fagih pointed to statements bin Laden made during the Hajj celebration four months ago that called for such a campaign. Nine suspected car bombers hit three residential compounds housing Westerners, killing 25 people, including eight Americans. U.S. officials also have said they suspect the al Qaeda terrorist network carried out the Riyadh attacks. Fagih, a former professor of surgery at King Saud University, was jailed in Saudi Arabia for his involvement in the reform movement there. He is now the director of the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, and he monitors al Qaeda sympathizers within Saudi Arabia. Before the Iraq war, Fagih had predicted that al Qaeda would mount large-scale surprising operations against American targets. He now says there has been some discussion by al Qaeda sympathizers on whether the Riyadh attacks were the ones that were predicted "or just to distract attention from some larger attack" including the "possibility" of an attack within the United States. Fagih also blamed what he called small-scale bombing and shooting attacks aimed at Westerners in the kingdom over the past two years on a "second circle" of al Qaeda sympathizers unable to carry out larger attacks. He dismissed the Saudi authorities' characterization of those attacks as turf wars over the illegal alcohol trade in the kingdom. Saudi officials have told reporters they suspect a Saudi al Qaeda member named Khaled Mohammed Musallam al Jehani was the ringleader of the Riyadh attacks. U.S. officials said they do not have information to back up the assertion, but they would not rule it out. U.S. officials said they believe al Jehani has been in Saudi Arabia recently and "could very well have played a key role." But U.S. intelligence is looking at "a couple of other core al Qaeda types as well," one official said. Last week, Saudi authorities appealed to the public for help in apprehending 19 suspected terrorists after seizing a cache of explosives and weapons. Bin Laden has cited the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia -- the birthplace of Islam and home to its holy city of Mecca -- as a core grievance in his self-proclaimed holy war against the United States. Seven of the eight Americans killed were employees of a U.S. defense contractor, Vinnell Corp., which trains Saudi Arabia's national guard. (Locations of blasts, Dorrat Al Jadawel, Vinnell Corp. compound) The Pentagon kept an estimated 5,000 troops in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but is withdrawing them after ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in April. U.S. forces will maintain military contacts and training programs with Saudi troops, and "there's nothing that's changed our plans," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said. "We're comfortable that the combatant commander in the region will provide appropriate force protection for our forces in that country and in other countries," he said. "There's no difference, and life goes on." U.S. team to investigate A team of FBI and other U.S. investigators landed Thursday in the Saudi capital to investigate the attacks. The team includes about a half-dozen FBI agents and an undetermined number of U.S. intelligence and State Department representatives. The U.S. investigators arrived as Saudi officials tried to fend off criticism that they failed to provide added security for the housing complexes after U.S. officials warned an attack was imminent. The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, acknowledged that a request was made for more security at one of the sites that was bombed, but he told CNN that Saudi security agencies investigated the site and "found it had adequate security." "The proof of that is when the attack took place in that compound, unfortunately, sadly, two guards -- one Saudi air force guard and one civilian -- were killed, but they stopped that attack to hurt people inside," Bandar said. A senior Bush administration official said that deputy national security adviser Steve Hadley secretly visited Saudi Arabia Saturday to ask Saudi officials to improve security immediately at at least one of the Riyadh housing compounds struck in the terrorist attacks. The Saudis took the request under advisement, another source said. Privately, U.S. officials said the wheels of Saudi bureaucracy turn slowly and orders often aren't implemented quickly unless they come from the top. The State Department has ordered the departure of nonessential personnel and family members from all U.S. diplomatic posts in the kingdom after Monday's attacks. It also urged Americans to use caution in traveling to Malaysia and East Africa, particularly Kenya, because of possible terror threats. CNN Correspondents Kelli Arena, Mike Brooks, David Ensor, John King, Kathleen Koch and Andrea Koppel contributed to this report.