The killers did their work well. Dead: at least 34, including 8 Americans. Injured: hundreds. Psychological impact: huge. Effect on the Saudi-U.S. relationship: incalculable.
As workers clean up the debris from the May 12 attack on the foreigners' compound outside Riyadh, U.S. Administration officials, the Saudi royal family, and other players in the Mideast drama are rushing to figure out what comes next. Assuming the attackers were from Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda -- the operating assumption of Administration officials -- then some chilling inferences can be drawn.
First, the U.S.-Saudi attempt to defuse tensions by removing most of the 7,000 or so American troops based in the kingdom isn't working. One of the targeted compounds houses American employees of Vinnell (NOC ) Corp., a Northrop Grumman Corp. subsidiary that trains the Saudi National Guard. The unspoken message from the terrorists: Every American working with the Saudi military must leave. That's not a deal that either the Saudis or Americans can afford to accept.
Trouble is, the terrorists could try again to make their point, and expand their list of targets in the process. Until now, say counterterrorism experts, al Qaeda's operatives thought it would be counterproductive to attack members of the Saudi ruling family. But the terrorists may be looking at things differently. Popular anti-American sentiment is higher than ever, thanks to the war in Iraq, and the regime looks exposed because, at the end of the day, it is still a U.S. ally. The attack signals that the House of Saud, now under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Abdullah, cannot even maintain internal order and could be vulnerable to assault itself. "The change in modus operandi is worrying," says a Western dip- lomat in Riyadh. "They are going after people on the inside. We haven't seen that recently."
That's scary, because the Saudis' ability to contain terrorism is so far unproven. Senior security officials such as Prince Nayef, the Interior Minister, are now determined to crack down on potentially violent groups. The question is whether they are up to the task. "Prince Nayef is a ma- jor problem," says Anthony H. Cordesman, a Persian Gulf security specialist at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "He tends to deal with threats in terms of denial and has failed to modernize the security system."
The recent track record of the Saudi police is not encouraging. On May 6, they botched an attempt to round up some 19 suspected militants in Riyadh not far from one of the sites later bombed. The men shot their way out of the trap. The Saudi authorities seized 800 pounds of explosives, weapons, travel documents, disguises, and other obvious indications that something big was in the works. At least part of the group is believed responsible for the May 12 bombings.
In a conventional government, Nayef, 70, might well be forced to fall on his sword. But as the full brother of King Fahd, his removal is almost inconceivable. Like the armed forces, the purview of Nayef's brother Sultan, the internal security services are now a personal fiefdom. Nayef's brother Ahmad serves as his deputy, and his son Mohammed looks to be the heir apparent.
What would it take for both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to rebound from the attack? On the security side, both the Americans and Saudis could do more. The Saudis could use the attack as the impetus needed to improve the counterterrorist ability of their police. Saad al-Fagih, a Saudi dissident based in London who is director of the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, says obstacles to cracking down on militants go beyond nepotism and ineptness. "We are aware of at least some occasions when many security officers refused to go on raids," he says. "Some do it because they don't believe [in the crackdowns]; some do it out of fear."
The Saudis could also make it quite clear that they are co-operating with the U.S. in tracking down al Qaeda operatives. The Saudis cooperate with Washington in such a low-profile way that Americans remain suspicious of their motives. "The Saudis are going to have to make some very tough choices in terms of their own bureaucracy and in terms of what the public senses about their cooperation with the U.S.," says Jon B. Alterman, who recently left the State Dept. and now is director of the Middle East program at the CSIS. Finally, the Saudis should appoint an effective director of security, whether that means removing Nayef or putting someone in as a deputy.
The Americans have to play their part, too. "We haven't realized that effective counterterrorism requires people with language and area skills who are really able to work full-time with governments," says Cordesman. The CIA gets better marks on this score, he says. The FBI needs to improve.
Just as important as the tactical improvements is the question of a shift in attitude. Here, the best outcome is for the Saudis to realize the scale of the threat they face. "I actually think this could bring the U.S. and the Saudis closer together," says F. Gregory Gause III, a Saudi specialist at the University of Vermont.
There are already signs that the assault, which ripped the facades off buildings, is shaking key Saudis out of their ambivalence. The Saudi royal family's role as the guardians of Mecca and Medina makes the family reluctant to confront anyone claiming to be working for the good of Islam. But some Saudis say that these bombings in the heart of the kingdom will create enough outrage to give the royal family the will and the authority it needs to crack down on Islamists and proceed with other reforms. People will say: "These bastards are hitting our hometown," says a well-informed Saudi. "I think the government will have a strong hand in dealing with the fundamentalists. This also opens the door for more assertive action on reform."
It's encouraging that Crown Prince Abdullah condemned the attackers on May 13 in the harshest terms as "criminal murderers with total disregard for Islamic and human values." In an address to the nation, he vowed to "confront and destroy the threat posed by a deviant few."
But how to confront? The Saudis recently barred some 2,000 mosque preachers whose Friday sermons were deemed too inflammatory. Now, they are considering measures to reduce Islamic militants' influence over school curriculums. The family has also been mulling efforts to try to shore up its appeal by experimenting with elections and providing a larger role in the economy for private business. The U.S. will be watching closely. So will the enemies of the regime: Gause figures that there are some 2,000 Saudis willing to die in suicide attacks -- more than enough to attack a kingdom.
By Stanley Reed in London, with Stan Crock in Washington