The daring daytime attack Monday on the fortresslike US Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second-largest city, is calling into question one of the basic precepts of the country's security strategy: that killing or capturing enough militants will eventually bring security back to the troubled kingdom.
Instead, it seems to be evidence of the militants' ability to regenerate quickly in the face of concerted government efforts to disrupt their networks, and then target some of the country's most closely guarded installations. Recent Al Qaeda videotapes threatening assaults on US interests had seen Saudi Arabia beef up security.
"It's a surprise they were able to hit such a high-profile target. Clearly, someone took their eye off the ball,'' says Turi Munthe, the head of the Middle East program at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "This is just one of the attacks that got through, but there have been lots of other attacks that haven't gotten through. The problem is, while security gets better inside the country, [the militants] are getting better too."
The assault, which started at around 11 a.m., involved a team of militants with rifles and bombs who scaled a wall and fought their way into the US compound, though they failed to kill or capture any Americans. The US Embassy in Riyadh said all US diplomats and citizens were accounted for, and the Saudi Interior Ministry said four civilians and three attackers were killed, while two other militants were arrested.
Thick gray smoke billowed out of the consulate grounds, located in the upscale al-Hamra neighborhood near Jeddah's seafront, and three helicopters circled as ambulances hurried to the site. Surrounding streets were blocked off for several miles, and parents were seen accompanying their children on foot away from the area.
The US Consulate in Jeddah has been heavily guarded and fortified since attacks against foreign compounds in May 2003. Cinder blocks surround the compound and sides streets around it are blocked.
Saudi security guards in small armored tanks protect the main gate. Monday, Saudi security forces in bulletproof vests stood with machine guns along the main road by the consulate as three fire trucks bordered the compound gate.
While there were no immediate claims of responsibility, all similar attacks in Saudi Arabia have been carried out by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the Al-Haramaine Brigades, an Al Qaeda splinter group that carried out an attack on the Interior Ministry last April.
It was the first all-out terrorist assault inside Saudi Arabia since last May, when an Al Qaeda attack on the Oasis housing compound for foreigners in Khobar led to a daylong standoff and killed 22 civilians.
Since then, at least three successive leaders of Al Qaeda inside the country have been killed. Last June, Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence and the current ambassador in London, told Jane's Intelligence Review that Al Qaeda was severely disrupted inside the country. "Only one Al Qaeda cell remains operational," he said. "Even now, it's in the process of being dismantled."
The attack was also the first major one in Jeddah, though it follows the September murder of a Frenchman in the city and a recent shootout that ended with the death of a suspect in a November 2003 assault on a foreign compound that left more than 15 dead.
But the latest Al Qaeda leader inside Saudi Arabia, Saud bin Hamoud al-Otaibi, emerged in early November, signing an editorial in the group's online magazine, "The Voice of Jihad," that urged stepped up attacks on Americans and encouraged Saudis to travel to Iraq to attack the US there. In a separate statement, he taunted Saudi security for lacking detailed knowledge of the organization.
"[Mr. Otaibi] is a big fan of Juhayman al-Otaibi [who attacked a mosque in 1979] and was always trying to emulate him," says Abdullah Bjad al-Otaibi, a former associate of Saud al-Otaibi who rejects extremism. "The reason they attacked the consulate is that they want to go back to their original raison d'être: getting the Americans out of Saudi Arabia," he says.
The Saudi regime has long been a target of the ire of militant Islamist groups like Al Qaeda because of its close ties to the US. The Saudi decision to allow US troops to be stationed there after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 - a military presence that continues - is seen by most militants as a betrayal of Islam, since they believe that non-Muslim fighters should be kept at all costs from the land of Muhammad and the holy city of Mecca.
While ongoing insecurity - there have been at least 18 attacks on foreigners, killing almost 100 since 2001 - has scared thousands of foreign workers out of the oil-rich kingdom, what it means for Saudi Arabia's political future is more muddled.
Though militants retain the ability to strike, they haven't shown the ability to threaten the government, instead carefully picking their spots every few months or so. "The regime isn't under direct pressure, but what we're virtually guaranteed of is continued insecurity and instability in Saudi Arabia,'' says Toby Jones, the Saudi Arabia analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.
He says the violence comes against the backdrop of increasing political ferment and anti-Americanism inside Saudi Arabia, with some preachers emboldened by anger at the war in Iraq to use the issue as an oblique way to criticize the monarchy. Saad al-Faqih, a leading Saudi democracy activist in exile, has called for street protests on Dec. 16. The Saudi government, meanwhile, is planning elections for largely ceremonial municipal councils in February - the first of any kind inside the country since the 1960s.
Mr. Jones says the violence could push the government further from any opening of its political system - something that will allow the dissatisfaction that feeds terrorism to fester.
The militants "don't want to participate in this process in any rational way, but they complicate it for everyone else,'' says Jones. "These sorts of attacks ... will support the Saudi iron-fist approach to dealing with upheaval. You can't ignore the Saudis' fears about what opening up the political system could do."
Indeed, popular clerics have in recent months stepped up their criticism of the US in Iraq. They avoid direct criticism of the monarchy - something that might land them in jail. But, analysts say, by encouraging attacks in Iraq, clerics provide an indirect way to speak out against the government and give a wink and a nod to men like those who carried out Monday's assault.
In early November, 26 Saudi preachers issued a statement saying it was the duty of all able-bodied Muslims to fight the Americans in Iraq.
In some ways, the latest attack is a return to form for militants inside Saudi Arabia. In jihadi circles there have been a number of disputes over legitimate targeting, with some militants and many Saudi citizens enraged after attacks last year focused at the Saudi state left Muslim civilians dead.
Adel al-Toraifi, a Saudi writer who is an authority on Al Qaeda, says Al-Qaeda is "becoming more sophisticated and mature in their attacks. They are no longer targeting Saudis or Saudi security forces. Now they're attacking their main enemy, the United States. That is a target that is more popular."
Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's chief ideologue and a close confidant of Osama bin Laden, promised more attacks on American interests in a video tape released to Al Jazeera on Nov. 29.
Mr. Munthe says that militants inside Saudi Arabia and figures like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a leading jihadi in Iraq, "calculate that by attacking US military targets abroad they will garner more support for a more wide ranging jihadi ideology."
But, Munthe says, they are making a mistake.
"Most traditional Muslims, who might have some affinity for Islamist ideology, are invariably turned away from it by the violent methods used to pursue their agenda."