Bomb strikes at Saudi ruler and Western backers

The royal family was clearly meant to get the message, writes Michael Sheridan
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The Independent Online
At 10.20am yesterday a foreign banker in Riyadh felt a sudden change in air pressure, and a tremor "like an earthquake" rocked his steel and glass office as a car bomb exploded outside a US-run training centre for the Saudi National Guard.

According to diplomats in Riyadh, about 150lbs of explosives were packed inside a Chevrolet van in the car park outside the "Office of Programme Management". Six people, including four Americans, were killed in the attack, the first known terrorist action in Saudi Arabia since 1991. More than 60 people were injured, 30 of them Americans.

So precise was the targeting that the bombing was clearly devised to send a dramatic signal to the Saudi royal family and their Western allies. The "Office of Programme Management" was a three-storey building where US personnel train members of the 57,000-strong National Guard in internal security and the use of weapons and technology systems bought from the United States. The National Guard is commanded by Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, the next in line to King Fahd.

With one blow the bombers struck at the organisation charged with maintaining the royal family in power and at its foreign supporters. The action highlighted the semi-covert and vastly expensive operations which bind the Saudi system and its Western allies together. The kingdom is the world's leading oil producer and has spent an estimated $76bn (pounds 49bn) on arms since 1987. Its defence procurement policy is closely tied to British interests through the controversial pounds 20bn oil-for-arms Al-Yamamah deal.

The alliance with the West draws bitter criticism from radical Muslims in Saudi Arabia. It has been denounced by Iraq and Iran, which abhor the increased Western military presence in the area since the Gulf war. There are 5,000 Western troops in the Gulf and 8,000 US Marines and sailors on board 26 ships.

But the Saudi ambassador to London, Dr Ghazi Algosaibi, said yesterday this was "an isolated incident", for the Saudi intelligence services maintain a high level of security despite repeated threats against Western interests.

Two little-known groups have issued specific threats against Western forces in the kingdom. Earlier this year, the "Movement for Islamic Change in the Arabian peninsula" demanded that foreign troops should leave the area by 28 June. Yesterday a caller from the "Tigers of the Gulf" claimed responsibility for the blast.

There is little doubt that tightly-knit extremists exist in the kingdom dedicated to purging it of Western influence.

The royal family will almost certainly choose to blame external enemies for the bombing. But the fact is that Saudi Arabia contains quite enough zealous individuals motivated by hatred of the West to carry out a terrorist campaign. Many are the so-called "Afghanis", religious young men who fought Communism in Afghanistan and received arms training from the CIA and other Western intelligence services.

In London, a spokesman for the opposition Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights claimed yesterday that "there are very well trained young men who have weapons and they are not controlled by government security".

The presence of the CDLR in London has drawn complaints from the Saudi government but it has confined its activities to propagandadenouncing the royal family for corrupt behaviour.