Text size

There are two types of foreigners in Saudi Arabia, as in any other Arab state - foreign workers and foreign "dignitaries." The workers, who come from Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and poorer Arab states, live in their employers' houses or in their own neighborhoods. The "dignitaries" - engineers, doctors and teachers from the West - live in high-quality compounds like the one blown up in Riyadh Monday night.

These compounds, in addition to apartments, contain swimming pools, supermarkets, medical facilities and gymnasiums. Saudi guards are posted around all such compounds, and some are even enclosed in protective walls. But these defenses did not help the approximately 90 residents killed in Monday's bombing, just as the urgent warning circulated to Americans serving in Saudi Arabia by the U.S. State Department earlier this month failed to help the large number of injured. This warning stated that terror organizations in Saudi Arabia were on the verge of carrying out attacks on "soft" American targets.

There have been warnings about imminent attacks in Saudi Arabia for more than a month, with no direct connection to the war in Iraq. Three weeks ago, the Saudi security forces arrested a few dozen suspected terrorists, and last week the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Naif, revealed that the authorities had discovered large caches of arms and ammunition belonging to a terrorist organization, apparently al-Qaida.

The Saudi government also announced that it was searching for 19 people, some of them Saudi citizens, suspected of planning attacks on both Saudi and U.S. targets there.

Prince Naif's announcement following the discovery of the arms caches - that al-Qaida no longer had a foothold in Saudi Arabia - was evidently groundless. Based on the nature of the attacks, including the carefully coordinated detonation of several bombs, al-Qaida could have been the perpetrator. Alternatively, they could have been committed by a local Saudi organization trained by Al-Qaeda, like most terror groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is hard to know whether the attacks were intended to "welcome" U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, but the timing was certainly embarrassing for the Saudi government.

Attacks of this nature inside Saudi Arabia serve two purposes. One is the terrorists' desire to strike at American targets anywhere in the world. The other, however, is to undermine the Saudi regime, with the goal of eventually toppling it - especially given the government's recent plans to alter the school curriculum to soften its extremist Islamic character.

Additionally, the government's plans to implement reforms bringing "a little more democracy" into the kingdom has sparked a sharp controversy in Saudi Arabia. This has already forced Crown Prince Abdullah to extract a promise from a group of intellectuals that they will stop talking publicly about the need for reform, "in light of the situation."

The fact that the attacks took place shortly after Washington and Riyadh announced plans to reduce the U.S. military presence in the kingdom strengthens the assessment that the terrorists' real target might have been the Saudi regime.

The attacks in Saudi Arabia once again casts doubt on whether total war against a state suspected of sheltering terrorists is an effective means of liquidating terrorist organizations whose aims are not localized. The number of major attacks attributed to al-Qaida that have been committed since the war in Afghanistan - including those in Bali and Mombasa, as well as smaller attacks in the Philippines and Kuwait and the almost daily attacks in Afghanistan itself - indicates that neither Osama bin Laden's organization nor other terrorist organizations still require a permanent base in a particular country in order to perpetrate attacks.

It also indicates there is no lack of places in the world capable being training bases for terrorists. Many of these places lie in lawless areas between states, like the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, between Kurdistan and Iran (where Ansar al-Islam operated), or between Somalia and Kenya. Others include southern Sudan and Chechnya.

It is true that in 2002, there was a drastic drop in the number of terror attacks worldwide, but it seems that the main reason for this drop was a decline in the number of attacks carried out by drug cartels in South America rather than a decline in activity by Islamic or nationalist organizations.

The Islamic organizations have no difficulties acquiring arms or explosives. In Saudi Arabia, for example, arms and explosives freely cross the long and porous border with Yemen. And in the wake of the war with Iraq, and the consequent absence of a strong central government, Iraq is likely to become another ready source of explosives, and perhaps even nonconventional weapons, for terrorist organizations.