CAIRO, Egypt - A huge suicide car bomb tore through a Saudi police headquarters in Riyadh yesterday, killing at least four people, wounding 148 and turning the wrath of Islamist militants directly against the Saudi government.
The attack apparently signaled a radical new tactic in the string of suicide bombings and shootouts waged by militants against the oil-rich kingdom this past year. It was the most brazen strike yet, designed to kill scores of Saudis in the heart of the capital on a bustling workday. Two Saudi security officers, one civil servant and an 11-year-old Syrian girl were killed.
"This target, a totally Saudi Arabian location, is a big blow to whatever claims they have that they're against only the Americans," said Jamal Khashoggi, an adviser to Saudi Arabia's ambassador in London. "They must have gone to a really extreme position in their thoughts. It's an unorthodox approach they're adopting."
No group took responsibility for the attacks; Saudi officials blamed the shadowy "group of terrorists that is targeting the Kingdom's stability." Saudi officials have said the continuing violence is the work of Islamist militants affiliated with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
In Washington, a U.S. intelligence official said there is "strong suspicion" the bombing was carried out by an al-Qaida cell.
"Saudi authorities had launched a number of raids in the last week and a half, and had located a number of vehicular bombs," the official said. "This may have been an attempt on the part of al-Qaida elements to strike back at Saudi authorities."
It was midafternoon on the last day of the Saudi workweek when a suicide bomber drove a bomb-laden car toward the seven-story police station. Stopped at the gate by police and concrete barriers, the car blew up there. The force of the blast sheared the face off the building and rattled Riyadh for miles around. For hours afterward, rescue crews sifted through the rubble in search of survivors.
"What has happened here? It used to be the safest country in the world," said Ibrahim Majed. Standing two blocks away, Majed was thrown off his feet by the explosion. "What do they want now? Do they want us Saudis to leave our homeland?"
The bombing stood as stark proof of the strength and tenacity of Saudi Arabia's jihad movement, which has long been intent upon overthrowing the ruling family, cutting ties with foreigners and installing an even more austere form of Islamic rule.
The depth of the insurgency became plain in May when a suicide attack on a heavily Western housing compound killed 34 people, including eight Americans. Suicide bombers struck again in November, killing 17 in a compound that was home to many foreign Arabs.
The government blamed al-Qaida and hit back hard. Security forces have waged a relentless crackdown on armed cells this year, arresting hundreds of people, killing militants and forcing fiery clerics to tone down their rhetoric.
"We've captured or killed the top leadership in Saudi Arabia," a Saudi official said yesterday. "Now what we're dealing with is the second level."
Despite the crackdown, few officials were surprised by yesterday's attack. Saudi officials said they'd foiled five car bomb attacks over the past 10 days, and footage of bomb-rigged trucks was broadcast on Saudi television to remind citizens of narrowly averted havoc.
Earlier this spring, a masked militant on videotape urged his followers to kill Americans and warned of a strike on Saudi police. Meanwhile, gunbattles blazed in the streets of the capital. Suspected Islamist militants killed five Saudi police officers last week.
"We all thought we were getting it under control, but those guys are still around," Khashoggi said. "Five cars have been rounded up, and each car has thousands of kilograms of bombs. So we're talking about a big, well-established network."
Citing "credible indications of terrorist threats aimed at American and Western interests in Saudi Arabia," the U.S. government pulled all of its nonessential staff out of the country last week.
The blast came a half-hour before Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage met nearby with top Saudi officials to discuss U.S. plans in Iraq and frayed U.S.-Saudi ties. Before leaving Riyadh yesterday afternoon, Armitage said the United States and Saudi Arabia are fighting a common battle.
"On the question of terrorism we have an absolute identity of views, that we need to root out these terrorists," Armitage said. "We've both suffered terribly."
President Bush, speaking to newspaper editors meeting in Washington, said the Riyadh attack "was a reminder that there are people that would like ... to overthrow the ruling government." Bush also acknowledged a "frightening" prospect of a pre-election attack in the United States.
The battle in Saudi Arabia between Islamist militants and the nation's rulers is old and bitter, stretching to the days when the Saudi regime sent eager young Muslims to fight in Afghanistan - only to marginalize them when they trailed home from battle. Many foreign analysts argue that the Saudi regime has only itself to blame for radicalizing its populace with the ultraconservative preachings of its Wahhabi clerics.
The Saudi government has labored to tone down the political rhetoric in mosques and to spread the idea of peaceful Islam.
Yesterday, a leading cleric appeared on Saudi television to condemn the attack.
"Now these terrorists have run out of excuses, for this is not a place for foreigners," Abdullah al-Mutlaq said. "We might have made mistakes in the past and brought up fanatics, but these [attackers] are from the school of old Afghanistan and al-Qaida - criminal groups."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.