17 May: In between Riyadh and Casablanca, some salient facts emerged from investigations carried out by the intelligence and counter-terror sources of debkafile and DEBKA-Net-Weekly:
1. The casualty count in al Qaeda’s chain of attacks in Riyadh on Monday, May 12, is between 94 and 96 killed and 196 injured – almost triple the 34 dead grudgingly admitted by the Saudi authorities.
2. The assailants aimed for American targets at the hub of the US-Saudi strategic partnership.
3. Some of the al Qaeda terrorists wore National Guards uniforms; some also drove vehicles with the unit’s insignia to the areas of attack. Eye witnesses saw terrorists clearly in command positions using keys to open up sentry booths in some places. Others had keys ready to operate the barriers and gates from inside those booths.
These and other indications point to a very unusual terrorist strike; the attackers clearly had senior accomplices on the inside the National Guard.
4. Ten days before the multiple bombings in Riyadh, John Bolton, the State Department Undersecretary for Disarmament, on a visit to Moscow, was invited to watch a video-film secretly shot by Russian intelligence: It showed a Chechen conclave in which Saudis were a heavy component in the new rebel Chechen leadership, the new top gun being Saudi tribesman Muhammed al-Ghamedi, cousin of Ahmed and Hamza al-Ghamedi, two of the Saudi members of the suicide team that crashed an airliner into New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He uses the nom de guerre of Abu Walid and belongs to the Ghamid tribe that controls large areas of the southern Saudi province of Asir. The group was clearly planning to operate outside Russia as well as Chechnya and was well supplied with funds from Saudi Arabia.
5. Washington has received ample evidence in recent months that direct Saudi involvement in – and funding of – al Qaeda’s terror networks goes on uninterrupted by the 9/11 attacks and the Afghan War. In some ways, it has expanded.
According to debkafile‘s intelligence sources, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zuwahri are alive and active and have assumed personal command of the current wave of terror. The Saudi and Persian Gulf cells are commanded by two Saudis, Khaleb al Jehani – who travels constantly between Riyadh, Jeddah, Damascus, Beirut and south Lebanon; and Seif al Adal – who commutes between Qaeda camps in northern Iran near Mashhad, Tehran, northern Iraq, Damascus and Lebanon.
Al Qaeda maintains another key base in East Africa under the command of Mohammed Fazul, planner of the 1998 US embassy attacks in Tanzania and Kenya, the hijacking of Ethiopian Airways Flight 961 in 1996 – in which a group of Israeli Air Industries executives was murdred, and the attacks on an Israeli hotel and Arkia airliner in Mombasa last December.
19 May: The White House has said it hopes the postponed visit by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in response to the latest spiral of Palestinian terror will take place within days. President George W. Bush clearly wants to see Sharon as soon as possible.
debkafile‘s Washington and Jerusalem sources explain Israel’s postponement and US urgency by a certain conflict of immediate goals: Bush is in trouble with his global war on terror following al Qaeda’s deadly strikes in Riyadh and Casablanca. He thinks Sharon’s visit to Washington can help allay some of the pressure on him. However, Sharon is also in trouble with his counter-terror war against Yasser Arafat and prefers to stay at home.
Al Qaeda’s targets in Casablanca were two-edged: In addition to the classical al Qaeda aim for Jewish and Israeli locations – the Casablanca Jewish community center, a Jewish-owned restaurant, the old Jewish cemetery and a hotel frequented by Israelis – Osama bin Laden was implicitly striking at the Saudi royal presence in the kingdom of Morocco, where almost every prince of any importance – from Crown Prince Abdullah down – maintains a palace and harem for frequent recreational visits. Members of the two royal houses are also joined by business ties accompanied by the inevitable court intrigue.
Whereas the US president needs to satisfy Americans and the world that he is seriously pursuing his declared war on terror – before, after and despite the Iraq War, Saudi rulers to survive must prove the very opposite to their home front. They must persuade Saudis as well as Arab and Muslim opinion that they are not collaborating with Washington – certainly not to harm fellow Muslims. It is at this tricky juncture that Sharon visit to the White House comes into focus.
The US president has made two solemn public commitments: To pursue the war on terror and to work for his vision of a Palestinian-Israel peace based on two states.
The two pillars set up by the US president, his secretary of state Colin Powel and the Israeli prime minister to support a process of accommodation between the Palestinians and Israel are bending low under the tornado force of Palestinian suicidal terror, instead of fighting it. It is common knowledge that the attacks are instigated from the West Bank town of Ramallah just north of Jerusalem. From his headquarters there, Arafat retains control of the bulk of Palestinian security forces; from there he looses his terror gangs. Abu Mazen and Dahlan make no bones about being neither willing nor able to take on the forbidding task of fighting Arafat’s legions in which Hamas has been integrated. They have passed the buck back to Sharon.
However, just as Crown Prince Abdullah ties President Bush’s hands in the fight against terror, so too does Bush bind those of Sharon. The US president’s immediate priority is to show that his efforts have achieved good progress in at least one major international conflict, i.e. the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. A fresh round of bloodletting and crisis in that arena would defeat that goal.
However, Sharon like Bush and Abdullah, is laboring under the pressure of an upsurge of terrorist attacks. The Israeli prime minister was not averse to putting off his talk with the US president in the White House, originally set for Tuesday, May 20.
21 May: The terrorist mega-attack against which Israeli security – like the US, Britain, Australia and other western powers – has been on high alert since Tuesday, May 20, almost happened this week.
On Monday, May 19, Saudi authorities detained three Moroccan al Qaeda suspects at Jeddah international airport just as they were preparing to board a Saudi national airlines plane bound for Sudan. While “Saudi security sources” claimed the next day that the men planned to hijack the Saudi plane and crash it over Jeddah, debkafile‘s exclusive counter-terror sources reveal that, under interrogation, the suspected al Qaeda terrorists admitted they had intended flying the captive Saudi airliner over Israel and crashing it over an Israeli city.
That first Saudi announcement claimed the suspects carried knives and their last testaments. The Saudis make it a habit never to mention Israel in the context of al Qaeda’s attacks – even one which they thwarted. Then, Wednesday evening, May 21, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef denied there had been any hijack plot. He said two not three Moroccans had been detained in connection with “previous security cases”.
According to debkafile‘s sources, neither Saudi version is correct. The terrorists were not just armed with knives but were loaded with explosives, and there were three of them, not two.
The high alert declared in Israel Tuesday also placed the Israeli Air Force on round-the-clock patrol to guard against hijackers reaching Israeli skies to attack Israeli towns.
Later, debkafile‘s counter terror sources added another detail: The three men detained at Jeddah airport Monday May 19 were not Moroccans but Saudi nationals married to Moroccan women and using false passports. The Saudi government is anxious to remove the stigma of aircraft hijackers attached to Saudis since 9/11 – hence the obfuscation over the detainees’ nationality. Final identification of all the remains found on the sites of the May 12 bombings Riyadh jumps the death toll to 60. Nonetheless, the Saudis refuse to budge from the figure of 34.