RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - The terrain toward the foot of the Arabian Peninsula is unforgiving: jagged, rocky hills and barren deserts that make life difficult but smuggling easy. Handguns, machine guns, shoulder-launched rockets, plastic explosives, all styles of weapons are the contraband of choice.
The pace of smuggling into Saudi Arabia from neighboring Yemen has quickened in recent times. That has authorities here worried because the increase coincides with a rash of killings, shootings and bombings aimed at Westerners and local Saudi officials.
In a country where weapons are reportedly common and the people increasingly hostile to the West, and with the knowledge that al-Qaida cells are operating here, there is widespread fear that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would spark an outbreak of terrorist strikes.
"Al-Qaida has the ability to commit spectacular acts here," said a Western security expert with close ties to international intelligence agencies and years of experience in the Middle East. "Thousands of people have weapons."
The strikes might be simple and random, such as an attack on a Westerner stopped at a traffic light. That's how Robert Dent, 37, a British citizen with two children, was killed last month - shot in the head and chest.
Or they could be of the Sept. 11 variety, with mass casualties, such as the downing of a passenger jetliner with missiles. Authorities say they have found shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles in the kingdom, and they expect that more are hidden and ready for use. Terrorists with missiles tried but failed to shoot down an Israeli charter jet taking off in Kenya last fall.
"There are many indications that terrorist groups are looking at a U.S. attack against Iraq as a convenient trigger [for a strike in Saudi Arabia]," said a Western diplomat based here who requested anonymity.
Saudi officials fear that a terrorist attack could undermine their regime and at the least cause Westerners to flee, hurting the economy by scaring away foreign workers and investment.
The environment has become so tense that Canada has ordered families of its embassy employees to return home. The U.S. telecommunications equipment maker Lucent Technologies has issued a mandatory evacuation call for all Western dependents, nearly 300 families in all. The U.S. and British embassies have issued an "authorized departure," which is voluntary, for nonessential employees and family members. Many more companies and embassies have not yet made the call to leave, but all are paying close attention to current events.
Authorities can't say for sure how extensive al-Qaida's reach is in Saudi Arabia or the region, but government officials, diplomats and security experts have said the terrorist network has active members here and in other Persian Gulf nations. Saudi officials declined repeated requests for comment, but the government says that it has put 90 Saudis on trial for alleged links to al-Qaida and that 250 citizens are under investigation. Recently, it has increased internal security efforts in both obvious and subtle ways.
Saudi newspapers, for example, have largely stopped referring to suicide bombers in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as martyrs, as part of a concerted effort to stop motivating recruits. Men who have been to Afghanistan in the past few years are being questioned by authorities and in some cases held. And Saudi security agents have begun locking up those who inspire hate and who call on people to commit crimes in the name of religion.
"The new thing is to go after the motivators," said Jamal Khashoggi, deputy editor of the English-language Arab News in Jidda. "Even though they are not involved in the violence, the ideological link is dangerous enough."
The crackdown has been problematic for the kingdom, politically and strategically.
The Western-leaning government does not want to be seen as doing the bidding of the United States, especially at a time when anti-American sentiment is rising in reaction to the Iraq crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it does not want to create an environment that will inspire more terrorism recruits.
Security analysts believe that al-Qaida has grown so frustrated with the crackdown that it has tried to increase strikes within the kingdom.
The suspect arrested in connection with the Feb. 20 shooting of Dent told investigators that he went to a supermarket called Panda because it was frequented by foreigners.
By itself, the killing of Dent might be written off as a hate crime, but the strikes against Westerners and others have been increasing.
Just last month: A deputy governor was shot to death in Al Jawf province in the north; a van full of Egyptian and Philippine doctors and nurses was sprayed with gunfire, though no one was injured; a Briton suffered minor injuries when he was shot while driving in Riyadh, the capital; an Australian man was fired on while jogging in the southern town of Khamis Mushayt; a McDonald's restaurant in Eastern province was the target of an attempted firebombing.
'Innocence has gone'
The events shocked a nation that bases its legal system on the Quran and prides itself on being free of street crime.
"Saudi Arabia, so long held up as a place of great safety for all, now has to face up to the brutal reality of so much of the rest of the world," the Arab News wrote after Dent was killed, in a striking admission rarely seen here. "An age of innocence has gone."
Even as the U.S. declares success against the top levels of al-Qaida - such as the recent arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the Sept. 11 attacks - authorities here say the terrorist network has become so diffused and fractured that individual cells pose serious threats throughout the Persian Gulf region.
Security experts point to a suspected attack plot that was foiled last spring in a gulf state as an example of the kind of strike terrorist groups have tried - and may try again. Details of the incident were disclosed under the condition that the names of the country and the individuals involved not be revealed.
The plot was uncovered when an American former narcotics agent living and working in the Middle East was shopping in two of the largest malls in the region. Over a two-day period, the former agent noticed groups of men who were clean-cut and well-built and carried themselves like paramilitary fighters. They seemed to be staking out the malls, he said.
He contacted local law enforcement. A short while later, counterterrorism authorities detained about 50 men suspected of planning to attack the malls, said a security expert. The target apparently was Westerners, but the goal was to undermine the local economy and thus the government.
Michael Slackman is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.