The “details” the Saudi authorities have been releasing on al Qaeda’s murderous hostage-taking rampage last Saturday, May 22, at Khobar in the heart of the kingdom’s oil country in the east, only deepen the mystery surrounding the entire episode. These crumbs are apparently dropped with the deliberate intention of thickening the cloak of secrecy thrown around an incident that claimed at least 22 lives.
Part and parcel of this tactic was the Saudi announcement Wednesday, June 2, that its forces had killed two armed Islamic extremists linked to the Khobar attack. The two men were shot dead at the opposite end of the kingdom, the western city of Ta’if in the remote Hada region on the Red Sea seaboard — some 1,100 km (700 miles) from Khobar.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts are familiar with Saudi ambiguity is such matters. In the first place, Riyadh admitted to only four al Qaeda-linked terrorists carrying out the multiple-targeted attack against oil offices and residences in Khobar, reporting one captured and critically wounded and three escaped to Dammam – also in the east.
Four days later, two suspects ended up dead more than 1,000 kilometers away at the opposite end of the vast desert kingdom. Our sources suggest a Saudi ploy to shift public attention away from the ultra-sensitive oil-rich east to the western Hada region in the hope of calming international anxieties over Saudi oil resources and ascertaining that the affair dies down as quickly as possible.
Despite Riyadh’s exercises in misdirection and secrecy, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources have managed to glean some exclusive facts about the Khobar episode:
It was carried out by between eight and 12 perpetrators, double or triple the number released by the Saudis.
The actual assault took place closer to Dhahran, the eastern oil city just outside not inside Khobar. This was another diversionary tactic, since the mere mention of Dhahran would have caused not just jitters but outright panic in the oil markets and among the 30,000 Americans employed in the Saudi oil industry.
The assailants reached the target-zone in pairs. They arrived in pickup trucks they had purchased in Kuwait and drove across the border. Some wore black sports attire; others, Afghan ethnic garb, the outfit of choice for al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. By entering in twos, the terrorists fooled Saudi security officers and private Western guards at the oil offices and foreigners’ compounds, who were programmed for large-scale assault teams. According to our information, all of the vehicles have been traced and identified.
The weapons, hand grenades and satellite telephones the attackers dropped in flight Sunday, May 30, when stormed by Saudi commandos, have been traced to Iraq. Fuel receipts, food remnants and other evidence found in the trucks indicate some of the vehicles had ferried weapons from southern Iraq across the wide-open Iraq-Kuwait frontier. They spent several days in Kuwait before heading across the lightly patrolled border into Saudi Arabia.
The gang ringleader Nimr al-Baqmi, who was injured and captured, was found to be in possession in his truck of a large quantity of cell phones usable in Iraq.
The Saudis are rounding up thousands of suspected al Qaeda supporters in the east, mainly in Dammam and Katif. Saudi investigators are trying to find out where the gang of terrorists lodged in Saudi Arabia and whom they contacted before launching the raid. Saudi security authorities are themselves attempting to piece together a coherent picture of how the al Qaeda operation was prepared and executed.
An internal investigation is also underway in Saudi intelligence and security agencies to winkle out accomplices who helped the terrorists mount the attack or escape.
Sources at the Saudi embassy in London close to ambassador Prince Turki bin Faisal leaked reports to Britain’s Times and Daily Telegraph suggesting Saudi security forces had cut a deal with the Khobar attackers to let them go for sparing the lives of their hostages.
Two years ago, the prince was relieved of his job as Saudi director of intelligence on suspicion of close ties with Osama bin Laden‘s family.
Our sources find little credence in this report and describe it as yet another crumb to offset the suspicion of collusion in the attack attached to certain sections of the Saudi security services.
The pictures (see accompanying photo) of the helicopter-borne commando assault on the building in which the hostages were held are a giveaway. In a genuine rescue operation, a helicopter would never have flown low enough to be shot down by a single al Qaeda sniper. The information in the hands of DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources is that the al Qaeda gunmen were already gone by the time the commandos landed. Dressed in Saudi military uniforms, they climbed into waiting cars at the entrance to the residential Oasis building where they had held the hostages and drove off.
Only someone very senior in Saudi security or intelligence could have choreographed the fake helicopter raid and provided the uniforms and get-away cars.
According to our counter-terrorism sources, the United States has been evacuating the families of American and British workers and security personnel from Dhahran overland and by air over the past several days. The evacuees can opt between heading across the causeway to Bahrain and taking a 35-minute flight to Dubai. Most opt for the plane.
Just before closing this edition, we learned that Saudi security forces were being swamped Thursday night with hundreds of tip-offs of specific terrorist attacks on the way, too many for Saudi intelligence resources to check out and handle. One theory is that this is party of al Qaeda’s war of nerves against Riyadh. Thursday night, too, the dragnet for wanted terrorists homed in on a Hijazi village called Haraj.