America's fortunes in the Gulf were in free-fall yesterday after a suicide bombing in Riyadh late on Saturday that appeared to be aimed at undermining the Saudi monarchy, the United States' key ally in the region.
No one had claimed responsibility by last night, but the shadow of the fugitive Saudi national Osama bin Laden hangs over the outrage. At least 17 people, many of them Arab expatriates, were killed and 120 others, 36 of them children, were injured in a massive car bomb attack on a residential compound in Riyadh.
Those killed included Saudis, Sudanese and Egyptians. No Westerners were believed to have died. Among the wounded were Americans and Canadians, as well as people from Africa, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey, Pakistan, Romania and Sri Lanka. Two Britons who lived in the compound were found unhurt.
The bombing came a day after American, British and other Western diplomatic missions were closed because of warnings of an attack. Western diplomats believe that as many as 30 people may have been killed in the bombing.
"We pulled out eight bodies from the rubble," a Filipino rescue worker at the scene of the blast told The Independent. "Most of them were children."
The attack, the second spectacular suicide bombing in the Saudi capital in six months, was made by a person driving a stolen police car. It caused utter devastation, razing eight villas and blowing out the windows of buildings over an area covering a square mile.
A day before the previous bombings on 12 May, a Saudi Islamist group believed to be close to Bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network called for revenge attacks on US interests after a huge arms seizure from Islamic militants in Riyadh. Hours before the latest bombing, the same organisation the Mujahedin of the Arabian Peninsula urged its followers to strike and destroy Western and Saudi regime interests .
It was partly because of that statement, issued on an Islamist website, that the US embassy in Riyadh and diplomatic missions in Jeddah and Dhahran had been closed on the day of the attack. Intelligence reports also indicated that the terrorists had moved from the planning to the operational phase of an attack.
Bin Laden had issued a fatwa in the 1990s urging his followers to refrain from attacks in the kingdom because revenues from its oil industry would be needed to consolidate an Islamic revolution. But the Saudi decision to assist the US-led war on Iraq changed all that, with Bin Laden for the first time explicitly calling for attacks inside the kingdom.
The attack is a clear sign to the Saudi rulers and military that al-Qa'ida is willing and able to attack in the heart of the kingdom, despite asecurity clampdown and co-operation between the CIA and Saudi intelligence services.
The bombing provoked near-universal outrage among Saudis, who awoke yesterday to find gruesome images of those injured by flying glass on the front pages of newspapers. No one could understand why fellow Arabs had been the target. Many initially refused to believe it could have been the work of al-Qa'ida, especially as the bomber struck in the middle of the fasting month of Ramadan. Inevitably, conspiracy theories about CIA and Mossad involvement started to circulate.
If it was al-Qa'ida, it may be seen ultimately as an own goal. The attack will damage the support the organisation has in Saudi Arabia, where anti-US sentiment has been fed by America's support for Israel's continuing crackdown on the intifada and the occupation of neighbouring Iraq.
The ruling Saud family is now al-Qa'ida's number one target, and the kingdom has become the front line in the so-called war on terror. Since 12 May, more than 600 suspected Islamists have been arrested and more than 2,000 suspects have been interrogated. Saudi Arabia's security forces have lost a dozen men in their almost weekly battles with al-Qa'ida fighters and killed more than 15 suspects.
The bombing could have been launched on the basis of outdated information that the compound was home to mostly Americans and Britons. Until the late 1990s, it was occupied and sponsored by the American aircraft and defence manufacturer Boeing.