Investigators examined charred cars and rubble Thursday from the gutted seven-story security building targeted in the latest suspected al-Qaida suicide bombing in Saudi Arabia’s capital, while the country’s top cleric condemned the terrorists responsible.
The Interior Ministry said that four people died in the attack, not including a suicide bomber who police said died at the scene, and that 148 others were injured. Officials from at least three hospitals, however, reported that at least nine people were killed.
The different casualty reports could not be immediately reconciled.
Saudi officials said the bombing bore the hallmarks of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, which has also been blamed for suicide attacks in May and November 2003 in Riyadh that killed 51 people, including the assailants. Bin Laden, who was born in Saudi Arabia, has vowed to force U.S. troops from the country, which is home to Islam’s holiest sites.
Claim of responsibility
Uniformed police kept inquisitive bystanders from getting too close to the blast area with batons as forensic experts and plainclothes policemen in flowing white robes scoured the devastated area Thursday, picking up pieces of metal from dozens of damaged cars.
Residents of nearby homes were already repairing windows and doors blown out by the force of the explosion, while a row of shops opposite the ravaged building remained closed for business, their heavy metal shutters blown off.
The al-Haramin Brigades, a shadowy Islamic extremist group purportedly inspired by al-Qaida, released a statement on at least two Islamic Web sites claiming responsibility for the attack and promising “many shades of pain which we will make you taste, God willing, and revenge by bombings and assassinations and other means shall not stop.”
The authenticity of the statement could not be verified.
“It was like a lightning strike,” said a survivor, Mohamed Rashid, 28, a Pakistani tailor whose head was covered in cuts and swathed in bandages. Dried blood coated his face and shirt.
“I ducked for cover behind my sewing machine table,” he told The Associated Press. “Had I not done that, I wouldn’t be here today.”
While visiting the wounded in hospital, the Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, said the “terrorists are not targeting foreigners; they are targeting the nation,” adding that Saudis should not cooperate or sympathize with militants “because those who do will be considered criminals.”
The Interior Ministry said the assailant tried to drive a white Chevrolet Caprice into the General Security building, which houses a traffic headquarters in addition to an army unit involved in raids on terrorist camps. When guards stopped him, the driver exploded the car about 100 feet from the gate, the government said.
The official Saudi Press Agency issued a statement identifying three of the dead as police Col. Abdel Rahman Abdullal al-Saleh; Ibrahim Nasser al-Mafreej, a civil employee; and Wagdan Naser, an 11-year-old Syrian girl.
The agency, citing hospital sources, said 16 other children were among the 148 people who were injured, as well as foreigners from Sudan, Syria, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Ethiopia.
Five other vehicles with explosives were seized, a Saudi official said without providing details.
Last month, an Internet message purportedly from al-Qaida threatened Saudi security officers, saying that to attack them “in their homes, or workplace, is a very easy matter.”
Cleric condemns attack
Grand Mufti Abdul-Aziz al-Sheik, the kingdom’s highest religious authority, condemned the attack carried by Muslims on fellow Muslims “as one of the greatest sins” Thursday.
“God revealed the criminality of this wayward group, which harms Islam and the nation,” al-Sheik said in a statement carried by SPA. “Instead it aims at destabilizing [the country’s] security, terrorizing the people and killing Muslims.”
The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, said in Washington that the attack was aimed at “the Saudi people and the royal family and officials of the government ... all Saudi citizens.”
Bandar, who spoke Wednesday after meeting with President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, pledged that his nation would “fight them [terrorists] hard; there will be no compromise.”
Wednesday’s attack came days after the United States ordered the departure of nonessential U.S. government employees and family members from Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh issued an advisory warning of “credible indications of terrorist threats aimed at American and Western interests in Saudi Arabia.”