Thu, May 15, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Saudi dynasty forced to face up to terrorists

LOYALTIES The ruling family will have to shift its allegiance away from the religious establishment which now poses a very real threat to its kingdom

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , KUWAIT CITY

Fifteen-year-old Erika, from Warrington, England lies in a bed at a hospital in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, Tuesday. Erika was injured in a car bomb explosion at a residential compound housing westerners.

PHOTO: AP

The brazen attacks against three residential compounds for foreigners in the Saudi capital of Riyadh late Monday brought home at least one stark truth: The kingdom's ruling family seems unwilling to confront the threat posed by extremists in their country.

To face the threat, analysts believe, the princes of the Saud dynasty will have to shift their allegiance away from the often-militant religious establishment that helped win them their kingdom in the first place.

The rulers have long sought to distinguish between fiery, xenophobic sermons blasting from the loudspeakers of the country's mosques and the violence that some justify in the name of Islam.

The dynasty portrays the violence as something alien, despite the fact that it is often perpetrated by Saudi-bred men like Osama bin Laden.

But some analysts on Tuesday viewed the attacks, which killed at least 29 people, including seven Americans and nine of the attackers, as a harsh example of what happens when extremism in any form is allowed to run unchecked.

"The real problem is in the Saudi society itself," said Khairallah Khairallah, a newspaper columnist and a former editor of Al Hayat, a respected London-based Arabic daily.

"They don't want to ask real questions about why their society is producing such people," he said.

To this day it is possible to find Saudis, even senior princes, who argue that there is no convincing evidence that 15 of 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were Saudis. Even if they carried Saudi passports, they were brainwashed elsewhere, goes the refrain.

But that fiction grows harder to maintain. Last week, the Saudis announced the seizure of a huge arms cache linked to al-Qaeda. The terrorist attacks soon followed.

Security officials took pains, however, to point out that the 19 men who escaped when the arms cache was seized all had been trained in Afghanistan or Chechnya.

But both events -- the attacks and the fact that an underground cell could amass more than 360kg pounds of advanced explosives and a wide variety of weapons -- drew attention to a shadowy network far more extensive than the security agencies have acknowledged.

Although there is no evidence linking the attacks to al-Qaeda, the terrorist network has made simultaneous suicide operations like these something of a specialty.

"This is one of those major developments that indicates that no matter how much people try to cover things up, there are undercurrents that are troublesome and they are not going away," said Joseph Kechichian, an expert on Saudi affairs, interviewed by telephone from Abu Dhabi.

The Saudi dynasty has never been terribly honest about what is happening in the kingdom or elsewhere: In 1990, three days had passed before the government-run news media actually announced that Iraq had invaded neighboring Kuwait.

So the country's residents have taken up the kind of analysis once favored by Kremlinologists to determine what the royal family is really thinking.

One one hand, Prince Nayef, the longstanding interior minister and a contender for the throne, has routinely rejected any reporting that paints the kingdom's security in an unfavorable light.

He had declared al-Qaeda all but finished just days before the attack.

On the other hand, the Interior Ministry took the unprecedented step of publishing the pictures and names of all 19 suspects in the arms case after they eluded capture last week.

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