Saudi royal guards 'aided al-Qa'ida' in Riyadh bombings that left 35 dead

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Al-Qa'ida terrorists whose suicide bombs killed 35 people and injured 200 at a housing compound in Riyadh last May were secretly assisted by certain members of the Saudi National Guard which protects the royal family, military trainers employed by a US firm have claimed.

In exclusive interviews with The Independent on Sunday, the former trainers for the Vinnell Corporation, which has an $800m (£460m) contract to advise the Saudi National Guard, allege:

* Some members of the Saudi National Guard knew about the bombing in advance and gave inside help to al-Qa'ida, including possibly a detailed map of the target.

* An "exercise" organised by the national guard removed 50 of 70 security staff for the day of the bombing, thus leaving the compound "defenceless".

* Security was generally lax, with machine guns unloaded and guards unarmed.

* Vinnell and the Saudis were given detailed, repeated warnings that Islamic militants were planning an attack, but did nothing to upgrade security.

These claims will renew the controversy over the failure of the Saudi royal family to deal with Islamic insurgents. In recent weeks al-Qa'ida has renewed its attacks on Western targets in Saudi Arabia which have killed several British workers.

The former trainers, who were injured in the attack, will require long-term medical care and now plan to sue Vinnell for compensation. They thus have a case to make, but their lawyer, Richard Fields, of Dickstein Shapiro in Washington, said: "They believe that Vinnell failed completely to take any measures to protect them."

Vinnell, a subsidiary of the US defence contractor Northrop Grumann, has denied that security arrangements were deficient. It maintains the compound was "secure" and "hardened" but declined to comment when further questioned by the IoS.

The bombing on 12 May 2003 was implemented with precision based on meticulous intelligence. Lt-Col Raphael Maldonado, then a Vinnell instructor, claims al-Qa'ida received inside assistance from National Guard members. "This compound was too big and complex to be bombed without inside help", he said. He points to the discovery of a detailed map in the car left behind by the assailants and an improvised ladder consisting of concrete blocks and the trace of shoe markings made by people rushing to escape just before the explosion.

On the morning of the atrocity, Lt-Col Maldonado noticed that none of his Saudi co-workers was present. A fellow Vinnell adviser angrily told him that a Saudi National Guard commander had suddenly notified him that they were leaving the compound to per- form night manouevres with 50 trainers. "I don't understand why they are suddenly going into the field for just one night," he told Lt-Col Maldonado, who was even more concerned when he drove past the local mosque at noon and noticed far fewer shoes outside the door than usual.

Lt-Col Maldonado believes that removing 50 of the 70 Vinnell trainers on what he claims was a "pointless" and unscheduled expedition 40 miles away just before the bombing, was deliberate, leaving the compound defenceless. "There is no doubt we were set up," he said. "Someone in the upper echelons of the Saudi National Guard knew the bombing was imminent."

A former Vinnell security officer, Felix Acevedo, argues that the compound was a sitting target because of the lack of vigilance on the gate. "The terrorists could see that the security was insufficient to keep them out," he said.

Despite regular complaints, security was not upgraded. "It was unbelievable," said Lt-Col Maldonado. "The large steel gates were left open. There were just two to four Saudi guards at one corner with only 9mm guns. There was a machine gun on a vehicle, but it was unloaded because the gun did not have a belt to connect the ammunition to the gun's feeder. The lighting was inadequate and there were no night-vision devices. There were no wire barriers above the security walls, no metal detectors, no cameras to monitor access, no weapons checks and no bomb-detection dogs for vehicles. And Saudi nationals not working at Vinnell were not checked on entry."

The bomb, estimated to be 400lb of Semtex, was devastating. The front of the high-rise block was destroyed and the blast was so extensive that it was felt miles away.

But it should not have been a surprise to the Saudi royal family and Vinnell. For there had been warnings that al-Qa'ida was targeting softer, less-secure sites in Riyadh. Two weeks earlier an individual was seen videoing the front-gate operations at the compound. A guard gave chase but he avoided capture. A week later the same individual was one of nine terrorist suspects captured during a raid in Riyadh.

On 1 May 2003 the US State Department declared there were "strong indications" that Islamic militants "may be in the final phases of planning an attack on American interests in Saudi Arabia". This was based on intercepted satellite phone calls and "intelligence traffic" showing contact between Osama bin Laden's son, Saad, and an al-Qa'ida cell in Riyadh. The US ambassador, Robert Jordan, pleaded with Vinnell to upgrade security. And, a week before the bombing, a huge weapons cache was discovered by police at an al-Qa'ida safe house in Riyadh. According to The Washington Post, the arms had been sold by Saudi National Guard members to al-Qa'ida.

The Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, condemned the bombing and called for public assistance in capturing 19 suspects. But the reaction showed how al-Qa'ida has retained support. Three prominent clerics declared the terrorists were "devout" men and called on people to disobey the regime's request. They said any help to the police would constitute aid to the US in its "war against Islam". Ten of the suspects remain at large.

For the former trainers the memory of 12 May is intensely painful. Lt-Col Maldonado now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Mr Acevedo was so badly lacerated that he was unrecognisable. He needed 94 units of blood and was kept in hospital for two months. "It was a senseless and needless tragedy," he said.