May 15, 2003
The militants behind the devastating car bombings in three residential compounds on Monday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, were part of an Al Qaeda cell whose members fought a gun battle last week with Saudi authorities before escaping arrest, according to Saudi officials.
At the time, police raided a suspected hideout, uncovering a weapons cache that included 55 hand grenades, 829 pounds of explosives and 2,545 bullets of different calibers.
The cell was formed in the kingdom after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, officials said. It is led by Khaled Jehani, who left Saudi Arabia when he was 18, later fought in Bosnia and Chechnya and was based at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, the officials added.
Jehani, 29, assumed a leadership position in the cell after the capture last November of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, suspected of being instrumental in planning the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, the officials said. Al-Nashiri, Al Qaeda’s former director of operations in the Gulf, is in US custody.
The cell has at least 50 to 60 members, they added. Jehani, who remains at large, came back to Saudi Arabia after the US assault on Al Qaeda in the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan in December 2001. Jehani, who is part of the Harbi tribe in a western province of Saudi Arabia, began to recruit new members and assemble arms, mostly smuggled through Yemen, they added.
Prince Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, said last week that some of the members of the cell involved in the gunfight were Al Qaeda suspects who had received military training in Afghanistan and had been released by authorities because ‘‘their role was very limited.’’ Jehani has been on the FBI’s list of Al Qaeda suspects since January 2002. He was one of five
Al Qaeda operatives, including Sep 11 figure Ramzi Binalshibh, who recorded ‘‘martrydom’’ videotapes recovered from the rubble of an Afghan compound.
Western and Saudi security officials were aware of the imminent threat posed by the cell, leading the State Department on May 1 to warn that the United States had received intelligence reports indicating that militants ‘‘may be in the final phases of planning attacks’’ on American interests in Saudi Arabia.
A senior US law enforcement official said there had been a high level of intelligence ‘‘noise’’ for several weeks indicating an attack was planned in Saudi Arabia or in Africa. ‘‘That’s where the indicators were,’’ he said. Five days after the State Department warning, Saudi officers hunting for suspects in a March bombing case discovered the safe house in the Ashbiliya district of Riyadh. Several militants escaped after hijacking cars at gunpoint.
After they fled from the house, security officials found not only weapons but cash and documents, including Jehani’s identity papers. The Interior Ministry announced afterward that it was searching for 17 Saudis, a Yemeni and a Kuwaiti-Canadian of Iraqi origin.
The government published the names and photographs of 19 members of the cell. Nayef also posted a reward of $80,000 for anyone who led authorities to the cell and more than $10,000 for any information about the militants.
That represented an unusually frank admission for a government that has consistently maintained that it has curtailed Al Qaeda activity inside the country. In late February, Nayef said, security services were holding 253 people suspected of ties to Al Qaeda, including 90 with proven links.
While Monday’s car-bombings were an assault on Western, particularly American, residents of Saudi Arabia, they also appeared to be a direct threat to the country’s royal family, which rules an increasingly restive population. ‘‘This was an attack on the royal family,’’ said one Saudi official. ‘‘That is the harsh reality.’
Despite the Saudi actions, there have been a number of attempted attacks believed to be the work of Al Qaeda. Operatives have planned bombings at the Tabouk air base, the Ras Tanurah oil facility and the ministries of Interior and Defense, officials said. Arrested militants linked to Al Qaeda also explored the possibility of using silencer-equipped weapons to kill Americans at close range in public places, Saudi officials said.
(Finn reported from Berlin. LA Times-Washington Post)
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