Al-Qa'ida strikes back

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 11.25pm: Two vehicles drive up to a compound for foreigners. Gunmen open fire, then ram the building, setting off 400lb of plastic explosives. Minutes later, synchronised attacks are staged on Western targets elsewhere in the city leaving at least 29 dead, 194 injured and sending shockwaves around the world
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The Independent Online

The Dodge Ram truck and a second vehicle raced up to the front gate of a heavily guarded compound shortly before midnight on Monday in Riyadh's north-eastern suburbs. This was the local headquarters of the Vinnell Corporation, a US defence company that specialises in training the Saudi National Guard. It is home to many of its employees.

Most people were either asleep or getting ready for bed. But the calm was abruptly shattered when gunmen inside the vehicles opened fire on the sentry post, killing the armed guards, and rammed their way into the compound and up to a four-storey building. The deadliest terror attacks against Americans since 11 September were about to be unleashed.

Minutes later came the explosion – an estimated 400lb of plastic explosive. The entire front of the four-storey building was ripped apart, throwing concrete, twisted steel bars, furniture and human remains in all directions. Cars parked on the street immediately combusted. For hours, scraps of sheeting and half-burnt pieces of paper fluttered slowly towards the ground.

All that was left of the Dodge yesterday was a burnt shell sitting in a crater 10ft deep and 10ft across. But that was only the beginning of the damage. At almost exactly the same time, similar attacks were staged on two other residential compounds in the same part of the city.

President George Bush vowed to track down the "despicable killers" who launched the suicide bombings – believed to be the work of al-Qa'ida. The attacks were clearly timed to co-incide with the arrival in Riyadh of Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State, in the region to push the "road-map" plan for the Middle East.

Amid some confusion, the death toll fluctuated wildly. US officials initially put it at 29. The bodies recovered included the charred remains of the nine suspected bombers. Seven Americans died, as well as seven Saudis, two Jordanian children, two Filipino workers, one Lebanese and one Swiss citizen.

Speaking at a lunch in Washington, Vice-President Dick Cheney put the dead at "some 91," apparently using a number provided by State Department officials that was subsequently retracted. Later, Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman, said it was impossible to provide a specific figure. Saudi sources said 194 people were injured, but warned that could rise as well.

Details were sketchy about the precise mechanics of the attacks. Early reports said vehicles crashed their way through the sentry post at one compound, while at another, according to the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, seven bombs were detonated simultaneously.

Then, a little later, there was a further explosion at the Saudi Maintenance Company, a joint venture between an American firm, Frank E Basil Inc, and Saudi partners.

Which compound or compounds the various reports referred to was not immediately clear. At the Alhamra compound, which suffered particularly extensive damage, a 24-year-old Jordanian engineer identifying himself only by his first name, Momen, said he believed at least one of the bomb squads had made their entry by hugging close to the tail of a vehicle belonging to some guests of his.

"We knew that a truck had got through the main gates and into the heart of the compound. We heard a burst of gunfire and I went out thinking I should see what was going on," he said. "I thought I heard a hand grenade, then there was an enormous explosion which shook the house. A 100-metre column of fire shot up into the sky, there was smoke, black smoke ... it was horrible." A British national identified only as Nick told the Arab News how his four daughters immediately dropped to the floor as soon as they heard the gunfire – something they had been trained to do in anticipation of such an attack. He also rushed to retrieve his five-month-old, whose cot was next to the window, when the car bomb detonated.

Within minutes, Nick heard sirens of police cars and ambulances as well as helicopters whirring overhead. According to another resident, the ground was littered with debris and bodies. Another British expatriate, who lives less than a mile from the compound, said his neighbours had fished body parts out of their swimming pools yesterday morning.

Amid the panic and heightened security, gleaning a full assessment of the damage proved impossible. Foreign diplomats, concerned for their nationals, called them at their homes. By late afternoon, the casualty figures started to mount.

Speaking in Indianapolis, Mr Bush denounced those responsible for the three attacks, as "killers whose only faith is hate". They would, he promised, "learn the meaning of American justice". A dozen-strong FBI "assessment team" is being dispatched to investigate the attacks.

But Washington's focus last night was firmly back on the war against terrorism and the continuing hunt for Osama bin Laden. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings but the modus operandi – multiple strikes at virtually the same moment, reminiscent of the 1998 bombings in east Africa and the quadruple hijacking of 11 September – was that of al-Qa'ida.

The attacks, which took place in the space of 15 minutes between 11.20pm and 11.35pm local time, had "all the fingerprints" of Bin Laden's organisation, General Powell said.

The "ruthless murder of American citizens and other citizens reminds us that the war on terror continues", Mr Bush declared. Mr Cheney added that if anyone thought the struggle was over, "all we have to do is contemplate last night's tragic events in Riyadh".

The attacks seem bound to unleash American reprisals and growing efforts to track down leaders of al-Qa'ida, as it regroups after the recent captures of key personnel. Mr Bush stated bluntly that "anytime anybody attacks our homeland, or our fellow citizens, we will be on the hunt". He added pointedly: "Just ask the Taliban."

Similarly, the attacks will be an acid test of US confidence in Saudi Arabia, which has been widely criticised for failing to clamp down on terrorism, and accused of extending financial and moral support to their cause.

The Saudi Ministry of the Interior claimed it had foiled an al-Qa'ida plot on 6 May by raiding a hide-out in Riyadh, seizing a large cache of arms. For the past few weeks, the government in Riyadh had cracked down on Islamic fundamentalists, dismissing clerics whom it described as "unfit".

The FBI team being dispatched is led by John Pistole, a senior counter-terrorism specialist. The group will expect full co-operation – and certainly more help than given to US task forces investigating past terrorist attacks on American targets in Saudi Arabia.

The dead and the injured encompassed a large number of nationalities, in keeping with the diverse make-up of the residential compounds. The US casualty toll might have been much higher if 50 of Vinnell's 70 local employees had not been away on a training exercise. Robert Jordan, the US ambassador, said at least seven of the dead and 40 of the injured were Americans.

Riyadh hospitals were overwhelmed with victims, which included the son of Riyadh's deputy governor, Abdullah al-Blaihed, who is also the owner of the Alhamra compound, and members of the Saudi National Guard. A preliminary breakdown suggested the dead and injured also included British, German, French, Swiss, Australian, Filipino, Lebanese and Jordanian citizens.