Suspected Al Qaeda militants struck their first major Saudi target Wednesday when a suicide car bomber blew himself up in front of national police security headquarters.
The attack is seen by Saudi analysts as a tactical shift in a growing confrontation here between Islamist militants linked to Al Qaeda and the Saudi government.
"The militants previously did not attack security forces. They only fought them in self-defense. They were on the defensive. Now they're going on the offensive," says Abdullah Bjad al-Otaibi, a columnist with al-Riyadh, a daily newspaper in the capital.
"Previously their target was Americans and Westerners in Saudi Arabia. Now their war is also against the security forces," says Mr. Otaibi. Militants struck two housing compounds last year killing more than 50 people.
Last December, an Al Qaeda group claimed responsibility for attempting to assassinate Lt. Col Ibrahim al-Dhaleh, a senior Saudi security officer, by blowing up his car. He escaped. The scale of Wednesday's attack on the police headquarters, and the indiscriminate destruction, is characterized as an audacious shift.
"This is a strategic change in Al Qaeda's tactics. This is their first direct attack on both a Saudi and a security target," says Saudi lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem.
The attack in Riyadh comes within days of a major crackdown on militants which netted eight suspects, weapons caches, and five booby-trapped cars laden with more than four tons of explosives.
Last month, a militant group linked to Al Qaeda vowed to avenge the killing of a leading Al Qaeda figure in Saudi Arabia and said it would start targeting Saudi security forces if they continued to hunt down Muslim fighters.
Last week, the US State Department ordered nonessential personnel out of Saudi Arabia and the US Embassy in Riyadh urged all Americans to leave the country, based on information of possible attacks against Western targets.
Mr. Lahem says Wednesday's attack was in response to the recent successes of the Saudi security forces against local militants. "The security forces were making good progress and the ball was in Al Qaeda's court. They were trying to prove that they are still a presence to be reckoned with."
Since the May residential compound bombings, Saudi police have launched a massive crackdown, rounding up hundreds of suspects and setting up road blocks and checkpoints in the major cities. They've also circulated thousands of booklets with photos of 26 suspects wanted in connection with the housing-complex bombings, offering close to $2 million for help in foiling terrorist attacks.
Following last week's shootouts, in which six members of the security forces were killed, police used helicopters and a massive manhunt in and around Riyadh in search of the suspects. Police "located their hideouts and smoked them out of their holes," the Saudi Press Agency reported on Sunday.
Local newspapers showed pictures of hand grenades, cell-phones, laptops, women's black cloaks and veils for disguises, guns, and more than 10,000 riyals in cash found on the suspects and in their hideouts.
Eyewitnesses at the scene of Wednesday's bombing said several bodies were carried away on stretchers. Associated Press reported nine dead, but at press time there was no official report yet of the number of deaths.
The blast, which shattered the entire glass front of the General Security building, destroyed cars as far as several hundred yards away.