The killing of 22 people in the key oil center of Khobar, Saudi Arabia, over the weekend not only helped push oil prices above $42 a barrel - a 20-year high - but deepened the impression that the country is dealing with a terrorist crisis. With three attackers escaping after being pinned down by Saudi forces - apparently disguised in military uniforms - there are questions about the country's ability to swiftly tackle the problem.
Continued instability in the world's largest oil producer could have serious consequences for the global economy and for the monarchy that Al Qaeda has vowed to destroy.
Saudi Arabia has recognized the extent of the challenge and has stepped up its campaign against domestic militants over the past year. But M.J. Gohel, a political scientist in London, says there are factions standing in the way of a tougher crackdown, pointing to five other escapes by attackers during firefights in the past year. "My suggestion is that this is organized ineptness,'' says Mr. Gohel. "How is it that Saudi security, which protects the house of Saud and the princes and princesses so well, can't afford the same protection to well-known areas housing foreign workers?"
Saudi officials deny there's any infiltration of their security forces and say the extent of the problem inside the country is being exaggerated. Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and now ambassador to London, told the BBC on Monday that all but one of six Al Qaeda cells inside the country have been destroyed, and that there are no signs that the group is winning fresh recruits.
For the US-led "war on terror," events in Saudi Arabia show how tricky the task of counterterrorism has become. While the US State Department's 2003 "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report, released in April, found that international terrorism - defined as incidents in which the members of more than one country are involved - was at a 34-year low, most of the gains were made in Latin America and in Africa.
The report found a 28 percent increase in attacks in the Middle East over 2002 - almost all of them tied to Al Qaeda or militants with similar ideals. Since the US invasion of Iraq last year, there have been six major terrorist attacks in the Middle East, inspired by or linked to Al Qaeda, killing 85, compared to three in the region during 2002.
There is a small silver lining. Analysts like Mustafa Alani, a Middle East security analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, say that the attacks inside Saudi Arabia have turned a broad swath of Saudi public opinion against Al Qaeda, creating the conditions for the kingdom to pursue an "open war" against the group. Until the past year, the kingdom was afraid of inflaming popular sentiment with an all-out campaign, but Al Qaeda operations have given the government a freer hand. It began with the May 12, 2003, suicide attacks on three housing compounds for foreigners in the capital, Riyadh, which killed 36 people, most of them Saudis.
"[Osama] bin Laden can't claim that he's only killing Westerners or foreigners anymore,'' says Mr. Alani. "The May attack ... really changed the perception of the population and that allowed the government to become fully committed in pursuing them."
Part of the problem for Saudi officials in the past has been concern that going after the group would look as if it were being done at the behest of the US, which could present Al Qaeda with a propaganda coup. But now the kingdom feels the risks to its own survival, and with changing public sentiment, a tougher stance is possible.
In addition to the string of arrests and firefights that have seen 300 alleged militants arrested and 25 killed in Saudi Arabia since last year - including two Wednesday that the government says were linked to the Khobar attack - the US and Saudi Arabia have begun to work more closely together. Wednesday, Saudi officials said that the government would now centralize its charity system to give the government more control over where funds are going.
But it's unlikely that the government's campaign will yield fast results, particularly since operatives inspired by Al Qaeda have become adept at working on their own. The extent to which Al Qaeda and its affiliates have decoupled their fortunes from individual leaders was underscored by the latest attack in Khobar. Saudi officials say the key organizer was Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin, the leader of Al Qaeda inside Saudi Arabia.
He's the third head of Al Qaeda's main Saudi affiliate in the past year. The group's chief ideologue, the Afghan veteran Yusuf al-Ayiri, was killed in a shootout in May 2003, and Mr. Ayiri's replacement, Khalid Haj, was killed in the aftermath of the May 1, 2004, attack on the offices of a Houston-based oil company, which killed six Westerners and one Saudi. Both Ayiri and Mr. Haj are said to have trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and Saudi officials say that many more such Afghan veterans are now inside the country. While the killing of leaders can be considered successes, they've scarcely slowed the rising pace of attacks.
"What we're talking about is an Al Qaeda so flexible, [Saudi forces] may kill al-Muqrin soon, but what will the impact be?'' says Alani. The government released a list of 26 alleged terrorist leaders last December; 18 remain at large.