The well-coordinated bomb attacks in Saudi Arabia Monday night - the worst against Americans since 9/11 - may represent an attempt by terrorists to exploit tensions between the United States and a key ally in the Middle East and to send a stark message to Washington: We're still here.
The series of truck-bomb explosions, in which dozens of people were killed, including seven Americans, is presumed to be the handiwork of Al Qaeda, which experts say underscores how potent the terrorist organization remains despite significant US strides in disrupting it.
At the least, they say it shows that the network still has the ability to carry off multiple strikes in one of the most secure countries in the world - and in one that is among the most closely associated with the US.
"Since Sept. 11, countries that had never cooperated with the US government have been providing intelligence support and law-enforcement support to our war on terror," says a US government official, who requested anonymity. But they were were still able to carry out "simultaneous explosions at three different locations in [Riyadh, Saudi Arabia], reminiscent of the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Africa and 9/11."
To be sure, the latest attack wasn't as sophisticated as that on 9/11. The terrorists in Saudi Arabia drove three trucks packed with explosives into gated compounds, which, experts say, is still much easier than hijacking aircraft and turning them into guided missiles. But the coordination involved in the latest strike is, nonetheless, significant.
"Various bits of legs and arms [of Al Qaeda] have been cut off," says Simon
Henderson, a veteran Saudi watcher in London. But "the rest of it is still there, which demands continuous vigilance and tough police action."
Moreover, it's noteworthy that the attacks were carried out in Saudi Arabia's capital only a little more than week after Saudi officials raided a safe house. In the gun battle that ensued, 19 suspected terrorists escaped. But the Saudis confiscated a large cache of explosives.
The strike comes, too, at the onset of a visit to the country by Secretary of State Colin Powell and follows a devastating suicide bombing at Mike's Place in Tel Aviv, Israel, in which five people were killed. Officials and experts say there is evidence that Al Qaeda may have funneled the two Muslim radicals from Britain into Israel to carry out that attack.
"These two incidents are bookends to the radicals' determination to interrupt US efforts to broker a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terror at the RAND Corp. in Washington. "Even though the US has announced it will withdraw military forces from Saudi Arabia, they're saying it doesn't matter. The war is about American influence in the region, not just one country."
One reason for Mr. Powell's visit to Saudi Arabia is to ask Riyadh to try to limit charitable contributions to both Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad - two groups that have been instrumental in carrying out suicide bombing attacks against Israel.
But Saudi Arabia has long been the target of Mr. bin Laden and his loosely connected network. One of his original aims was to expel Americans from the country that houses Islam's most holy sites.
In fact, in November 1995, a car bomb exploded in Riyadh, killing five Americans. In June 1996, terrorists bombed the Khobar Towers, a complex near Dhahran that housed many US soldiers. Nineteen Americans were killed.
That caused the US to recalibrate its troop placements inside Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the investigation that followed - carried out by the FBI in tandem with the Saudis - resulted in a higher degree of tension between the US and Saudi Arabia.
Al Qaeda's possible motives
It is those differences that Al Qaeda is now attempting to exploit. Prior to the Iraq build-up, some 4,400 service members were based in the country. But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced in late April that the US plans to withdraw all its troops from Saudi Arabia.
Besides the close military cooperation, however, US interests maintain extensive business ties.
One of the companies targeted in this latest attack, for example, is Vinnell Corp., which trains the Saudi National Guard that is controlled by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah. "That was no accident - striking Americans in the heart of Saudi Arabia," says Jean-Francois Seznec, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Columbia University in New York. "Al Qaeda is sending a message to the Americans and to the Saudis. Even though the military may leave, Americans are still too strong in the kingdom. [Al Qaeda] wants all links severed."
Just investigating who was behind the attack could exacerbate tensions between Washington and Riyadh. Because American civilians were killed in this attack, there will be pressure on the US to manage the probe and punish the culprits. And that may be hard for the Saudis to deal with at home: Its population is already unsettled over what they see as a repressive leadership.
"The majority of Saudis are not a violent people," says Mai Yamani, a Saudi fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "But with repression, you are going to find these few radicals who are prone to listen to the inflammatory rhetoric of Al Qaeda, and more of this violent behavior."
Most experts and officials say they are not surprised by the attacks. They say it shows that even though Al Qaeda has suffered leadership losses and other types of disruptions, it is still dangerous. And it still intends to exploit conflicts in all parts of the world that relate to its cause.
"There were as many as 5,000 highly trained Al Qaeda terrorists who escaped Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002," says Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies in London. "These terror cells have spread out worldwide and are now melding themselves into Islamic organizations and newly formed terror groups."
Mr. Heyman and other experts and government officials agree that there has been a weakening of the Al Qaeda network, but that it has continued to adapt and remains dangerous.
The latest attack, in fact, shows that Al Qaeda members are extremely capable. They managed to pull this attack off even after being disrupted by Saudi authorities and with the knowledge they were being watched. It obviously, officials say, took a great deal of time, effort, planning, and precision to carry off.
"This is evidence of not only their determination, but their capability," says Mr. Hoffman.
US officials, though, say they are intent on breaking up the network.
President Bush, speaking at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Tuesday, denounced the attacks, and said it was the work of "killers whose only faith is hate." He vowed that the US will "find the killers, and they will learn the meaning of American justice."
The Saudis, for their part, have pledged to continue to cooperate with the US in the war on terror.
• Scott Peterson in Moscow and Philip Smucker in Cairo contributed to this story. Wire service material was also used.