It was a calamity waiting to happen. The cells at Riyadh’s main al Hair prison were so overcrowded that inmates were packed in the hallways. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in the Gulf describe the fire that broke out at the facility on Monday, September 15, as one of the biggest disasters in Saudi history. Saudi authorities reported that a sponge mattress caught fire in a cell housing 20 inmates, setting off the blaze. What they didn’t say in the official release was that more than 3,000 prisoners were held at the jail at the time, three times its capacity. Many had been transferred to al Hair after the closure for renovations of Riyadh’s other big prison, Malaz.
As the fire blazed, prisoners ran into death-trap hallways crammed with overflow inmates and guards – and suffocated to death.
Saudi authorities, following standard procedure in the kingdom, responded initially by blocking all access roads to the prison and any news coverage of the fire or the subsequent investigation. Then came the usual numbers game, in which the Saudis stick to figures that don’t add up. This happened when Riyadh reported 34 people were killed in the suicide bombings of foreigners’ compounds on May 12 when the real number was 63.
Now, Riyadh is promoting a bogus death toll in the prison fire. According to official figures, 67 prisoners were killed – a number that rose to 87 and finally stopped at 100.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources can reveal the toll kept on climbing and by Wednesday, September 17, had reached 294 dead, including 40 guards.
What the Saudis were really out to hide was the startling fact that more than 180 of the dead were members of Al Qaeda, some of whom had been held at the prison since they were taken captive in the first big armed clash between terrorists and Saudi forces just before the Riyadh bombings. More Al Qaeda detainees were brought to al Hair when they were captured in operations in northeastern Saudi Arabia, followed by several heads of the network’s armed cells caught in May, June and July in Jeddah, Medina and Mecca.
Our sources reveal that the first tongues of fire shot up in the Al Qaeda-populated wings of the prison, clearly caused by arson and discovered by investigators to have been set at several points. None of those inmates survived.
Who wanted the Al Qaeda men dead?
Someone who did not want them to whisper the secrets of al Qaeda’s spread in Saudi Arabia in the wrong ears. One telling clue reached DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources: Three days before the blaze, three senior Al Qaeda operatives escaped from the prison’s high-security wing. They may have received an advance tip of the fire and made a run for it, which would indicate that Al Qaeda was willing to go to great lengths to shut the mouths of its own people.
Another theory held by some Saudi and Gulf circles is that al Qaeda is engaged in a brutal scorched earth campaign in the kingdom. Osama bin Laden is in the process of relocating his forces. Large numbers of combatants were transferred to Iraq in mid-August – most, as we reported in previous editions, to join the guerrillas fighting US troops. A second part of the terrorist legion was assigned to Yemen.
According to this theory, Al Qaeda’s leadership – most of whom have already quit the kingdom – had no wish to leave any of their men behind at al Hair in case the Saudi authorities turned them over to US interrogators for questioning.
A third surmise claims a member of the Saudi royal house, clergy or military – including the National Guard which was hand in glove with al Qaeda before the Riyadh bombings – started the prison conflagration to wipe out the evidence of Saudi complicity at some official level in the fundamentalist group’s activities.
Since it is unthinkable for the Saudis ever to level on any event related to al Qaeda – even in their own internal intelligence memos – no true account of the prison blaze is likely to be forthcoming or any hint that will pierce the dark mystery surrounding the identities of the high-placed Saudi who are secretly aiding and abetting bin Laden’s organization and making sure that the funds for terror continue to flow.