Str  /  AP
Security personnel inspect the site of an explosion at the Doha Players Theater on Sunday.
By Senior investigative producer
NBC News
updated 3/23/2005 12:39:16 PM ET 2005-03-23T17:39:16

U.S. officials fear that the suicide bombing attack this weekend on a Qatari theater, which killed a British school teacher and wounded a dozen others, could be a harbinger of more attacks on other "low-protection targets" such as restaurants and schools frequented by Westerners in the emirate.

The blast killed a Briton who worked for the Doha Players Theatre. It took place at 9 p.m. local time on a Saturday night during the next-to-last performance of "Twelfth Night."

"This wasn't an embassy, wasn't a gated residential community," said a U.S. intelligence official, referring to previous targets. "It was a theater showing Shakespeare to an expat [expatriate] community. There is a large expat community there, mostly Brits, who felt safe there. This was a huge shock and it is not insignificant," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Intelligence officials noted that the theater's location, next to the Doha English Speaking School was not far from the U.S. embassy and other public facilities used by Americans.

Jund al-Sham, aka Army of the Levant, claimed responsibility for the attack, but "It's too early to tell if they are responsible," the official said. "A group using the same name claimed responsibility for the 2004 Egyptian hotel attacks, but we are uncertain that the claim is true."

Moreover, Jund al Sham is a name used by many different groups in the region, said the official. So it could be the same group or it could be new a group, the official added. However, there are no direct ties or obvious links to al-Qaida. "But groups tend to splinter."

Liberal shift
Qatar has increasingly drawn criticism from Islamic fundamentalists over the regime's increasing liberalism, its ties to the U.S. military, and even low-level indirect contacts with Israel.

Al Jazeera, the satellite television channel, operates from the country with few restrictions and the government recently encouraged "The Doha Debates," modeled on the Oxford Union, a free-wheeling political forum unheard of in the Middle East. And a lot of that liberalization is being driven by the wife of the emir, Qatar's first lady, Sheikha Moza.

"It's giving the fundamentalists the willies," said one former high-ranking CIA official.

Moreover, much of the U.S. military effort against Iraq was headquartered at large U.S. military bases in Qatar. But until Saturday, there hadn't been any fundamentalist attacks or bombings in the country.

Security at the theater was limited to several members of Qatari police from the diplomatic squad and a private security firm hired by the management to check theatergoers as they entered.

Military officials, in fact, have told NBC News that the attack will resonate among American military personnel since they will now have to look closer at their personal security while off base.

Those same officials also noted that, to some extent, the relatively low number of attacks against Westerners has been surprising considering that U.S. military operations have been surveyed by Islamic fundamentalists operating inside Qatar.

"It's a matter of concern," said one military official. "We are not unaware of the implications."

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