Plotters of a double car bombing in the Saudi capital were spooked by a gunbattle with police earlier in the week and launched their attack hastily, failing to penetrate the security installations they targeted, a Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman said Thursday.
The car bombings Wednesday night targeted the Interior Ministry and a recruiting center for the kingdom’s anti-terrorism squad. No serious damage was reported, and, while the spokesman said at least 10 militants were killed, only one other person — a limousine driver — was believed dead.
A Ministry statement early Thursday blamed the assaults on a “deviant group” — a term the government has used in the past to describe al-Qaida. The bombings followed a call by Saudi-born al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden for more attacks on his homeland. Bin Laden accuses the West, particularly the United States, of seeking to destroy Islam and criticizes the Saudi royal family for its alliance with Washington.
The Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, told The Associated Press more would have died had the planning not been disrupted by a shootout with police in the capital Tuesday in which one suspect was killed and another captured. Another suspect was killed early Wednesday as police investigated Tuesday’s clash.
Al-Turki said preliminary investigations indicate that the arrested militant provided information leading to a house where seven militants were killed Wednesday shortly after the bombings. Al-Turki said the seven were linked to the car bombings, but denied earlier police reports that two of them had set off the Interior Ministry blast.
Al-Turki said that besides the seven killed at the house, three attackers were killed at the bomb sites.
The bombings came late in the evening, when few people would have been in the government buildings. But Wednesday night was the beginning of the weekend in the kingdom, so streets were crowded with cars, and civilians.
“It is for sure that the terrorist operation was executed hastily,” al-Turki said. “It seemed to be programmed to be executed at a different time and in a different fashion.”
Previous attacks seemed designed to maximize casualties, often Arab and Muslim. Saudi officials pressed that point, scoffing at extremists’ claims that “infidels” are their targets.
“This is a heinous and disturbing crime,” Prince Ahmed bin Abdel Aziz, the deputy interior minister, told Saudi TV. “They are not attacking ’infidels’. This is fighting Muslims and citizens.”
Victory for Saudi government?
While Saudi government officials were quick to claim victory, saying the low number of casualties shows terrorists are under pressure, others drew a different lesson.
Turki al Sidairi, editor in chief of the Saudi daily Al Riyadh, said Wednesday’s attacks, like one earlier this month that killed nine people at the U.S. Consulate in Jiddah, shows militants can get close to and even penetrate heavily guarded installations.
“It also is a message ... that they are still operating and will not stop despite the government’s continuous crackdown,” al Sidairi said. “People may have thought that they were over, finished. They want to prove that they are not.”
Investigators were sifting through evidence at the site of the bombings and the shootout, al-Turki said. He said.
The late Wednesday attacks caused oil prices to jump as traders worried about instability in Saudi Arabia, which has the world’s largest oil reserves.
Andrew Mitchell, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Riyadh, issued a message advising Americans in Saudi Arabia to “be aware of their surroundings, exercise caution, and monitor news reports closely.”
The Saudi government has been cracking down on militants since a series of al-Qaida-affiliated attacks began in May 2003. The attacks have killed scores of Westerners.
In a tape earlier this month, bin Laden delivered his first message directed specifically at Saudis in years.
Bin Laden praised those who carried out the consulate attack and urged his followers to attack the kingdom’s oil installations to weaken both the West and the Saudi royal family.