Osama bin Laden’s network was seen this week to have switched into an unfamiliar mode.
Al Qaeda’s latest departure was exposed by two events, one a terrorist attack that should not have happened – a suicide bombing that destroyed the heavily secured, seven-floor Saudi General Security headquarters on Riyadh’s al-Washm Street on Wednesday, April 21.
The second event a day earlier was a setback for al Qaeda. Jordanian security forces, acting on a tip, raided a villa in Amman’s affluent Upper Hashami neighborhood and made two astonishing discoveries. One was that they had seized a section of a terrorist ring bent on a chemical weapons attack. The other was the first Iraqi cell known to be working for al Qaeda.
The threat of non-conventional warfare hangs more palpably over the Middle East now than ever before. So too does the very real menace to the royal houses of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It is now clear that al Qaeda or its surrogates have infiltrated Saudi and Jordanian intelligence and counter-terror agencies to a degree that imperils the two thrones.
There is no other way of accounting how two car bombs came close enough to blow up one of the most sensitive anti-terror facilities in the Saudi kingdom and prop of the royal house. The entire city had been on the highest alert for months. This week it reached a new climax after Saudi security intercepted in the Riyadh area five booby-trapped vehicles laden with a total of four tons of explosives.
Yet two bomb vehicles drove around the town past roadblocks and security checks without being apprehended. The Saudis were as usual intent on minimizing the damage, claiming four dead and 148 injured when the true death toll stood at 24 and 250 wounded.
But they could not disguise the first time that al Qaeda has directly attacked a Saudi security target and personnel charged with protecting the royal family, after a series of bombings against foreigners in the kingdom. Indeed most of the casualties were members of Saudi security forces.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly quotes counter-terrorism experts as asking how the bombers penetrated the security barriers of the heavily fortified General Security building – not once but twice. They drove up to the barriers without being stopped one hour before the blast and engaged the guards in casual conversation on the working hours in the building. They then turned around and came back an hour later. Seeing hundreds of workers heading out of the facility at the end of the workday, they crashed a barrier and blew themselves up in the packed parking lot adjacent to one of Riyadh’s busiest streets.
The suicide bombers’ freedom to move around a jittery capital without being challenged, the readiness of the guards at a highly sensitive facility to reveal such information as working hours are only two anomalies that indicate that some high-up in the Saudi security service must have cleared the way for them to reach their target.
The incident in Jordan was still more revealing.
The Upper Hashami estate, home to some of the wealthiest families in the Hashemite Kingdom, is secured by a private firm, Jordanian security personnel and police officers.
Visitors must show identification before they are allowed in. A fence surrounds the neighborhood’s opulent villas and its guards carry state of the art electronic monitoring equipment. No one goes in or out without the knowledge of Jordanian security. Certainly anyone seeking to rent a villa is thoroughly vetted.
Nonetheless, al Qaeda was able to rent a villa for eight to 10 terrorists, at least seven of them recent arrivals from Iraq. All were highly trained in chemical warfare. Yet security personnel in Upper Hashami saw nothing amiss in a bunch of terrorists living it up in the posh suburb and armed to the teeth at all times. By good fortune, a neighbor who found their presence odd telephoned Jordanian security authorities, who immediately acted on the information. But was Jordanian security really taken by surprise? Did some high-placed al Qaeda plant make sure that the service tasked with guarding the throne was kept ignorant?
The grave breach discovered in his capital and his security and intelligence services was the real reason why King Abdullah called off his trip to Washington at the last minute, rather than affront at what his spokesmen claimed was President George W. Bush‘s retraction of the Middle East “road map.” The Jordanian monarch needed to handle the crisis personally.
The two incidents in Saudi Arabia and Jordan will strongly bear on Washington’s regional relations and the global war on terrorism in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.
As DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources have reported before, the FBI, CIA and other US security and intelligence authorities are convinced the Saudis are not making a real effort to share intelligence and resources to fight the blight of terror. Washington suspects Riyadh is holding back intelligence it has gathered on al Qaeda and hiding the true state of internal security in the kingdom and the targeting of Saudi military bases and strategic targets such as seaports, airports and oil installations.
Of course, it is also possible that Saudi authorities do not themselves appreciate the scope of their peril and lack the hard data the United States is seeking.
Wednesday’s Riyadh bombing is a case in point. Our sources report that early this week, the Saudis informed Washington they had uncovered most of al Qaeda’s terror networks in the Riyadh area and nothing amiss was expected, save for a single car bomb believed to be driving around the city. Upon discovering the five explosives-laden vehicles at mid-week in the Riyadh area, Saudi authorities expressed surprise but said the situation was under control.
But the FBI warned the State Department that its intelligence indicated quite the contrary; they had been led to expect an al Qaeda mega-attack in the Saudi capital.
It was not clear from the information whether Saudi or American targets would be hit. Taking no chances, secretary of state Colin Powell ordered the majority of US diplomats and their families, and the bulk of American civilian employees in Riyadh, to leave Saudi Arabia immediately.
A senior official told DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources: “Washington and Americans in Riyadh felt they were racing against time and had to get thousands of people out to escape calamity.”
The situation in Amman is equally bleak. Despite Jordanian reports that only three gunmen were in the villa and that they were killed in a battle with security forces, our reports show there were at least 10 men – most of them Iraqis – in the house and some were taken alive. Under interrogation, the captured Iraqis said the division of labor in bringing chemical car bombs into Jordan from Syria was different from the method familiar to US, Jordanian and Israeli intelligence. The main change is the switch from local to regional operations.
Al Qaeda not only maintains constant operational contact among its personnel in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Jordan, but the terrorist group is now trying to use Iraqi guerrillas to bring the war in Iraq to other countries in the Middle East.
The local ramifications are clear, but there is also a new regional dimension that requires serious consideration. Our sources confirm that the orders for the latest round of al Qaeda strikes came from Saudi Arabia, the weaponry including chemical substances and booby-trapped vehicles, came from Syria and the bombers from Iraq. This structure was set in motion for four simultaneous strikes on the same day, Wednesday, April 21. Two were carried out in Basra and Riyadh; two thwarted in Amman and Israel. To operate on this scale around several Arab states requires a command center to coordinate and maintain constant communications with the various arms and cells in the field. This poses the hard question of where were the eyes and ears of intelligence bodies, chiefly the Americans and Israelis, who are supposed to keep track of al Qaeda’s operations in the Middle East?