Bombing saps support for al-Qaida

Many Saudis appalled that Arabs were targeted

November 11, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- The bombing Saturday of a residential compound almost entirely populated by Arabs and Muslims has appalled Saudis far more than other terrorist attacks, evaporating expressions of support for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network that have been vaguely whispered or occasionally shouted over the past two years.

"They lost their support on the street," said Ehab Al-Khiary, 27, a computer security specialist standing on a broad avenue packed with cars during the typical 10 p.m.-to-midnight rush hour of Ramadan. "They are killing people with no cause."

"The street was divided before," he said, referring to similar attacks against three compounds in May that killed numerous Americans and other Westerners. "At that time it was seen as justifiable because there was an invasion of a foreign country, there was frustration."

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there were reports of a celebratory air in some Saudi neighborhoods, of congratulatory messages being sent back and forth between mobile phones.

After that and subsequent violence, the attackers seemed to be succeeding in reaching a constituency that among other things wants to remove a ruling family it sees as stooges of the Americans.

But that mood, fueled by the sense that behind it all was some sort of religious endorsement, is diminished, replaced by confusion and the feeling that the bombings this year are the opening salvos in a long fight.

"They can no longer say they are more or less raising the banner of jihad," said Saad A. Sowayan, a professor specializing in Bedouin poetry at King Saud University. "Jihad is not against your own people."

Because the attacks targeted fellow Muslims, there is a sense that the attackers might just be trying to cause chaos.

"If they were really seeking change, they would resort to actions that would win them the support of the people," Sowayan said. "Before, people could find excuses. It is getting so irrational that you cannot explain it, you cannot defend it, you cannot understand it."

Of the 17 people killed in Saturday's bombing, all 13 who have been identified are Arabs. Most of the 200 townhouses in the Muhaya compound were occupied by Arab families.

Their strong Arab identity, residents said, helped give them a sense of security.

"You don't want to stay in a place where Westerners are common because then it would be a major target," said Shakib el-Qasim, 40, an electrical engineer who became an American citizen while studying at the University of Texas in the 1980s.

"I did not expect them to hit that compound because the culture inside the compound is more Arab than it is Western," said el-Qasim. "It is more like you are in Egypt, you are in Syria, you are in Jordan."

There was no obvious explanation for an attack on a compound full of Arabs, although the presumed security of the Arab population might have made the guards less vigilant.

Killing Muslims shattered the illusion that the violence was vaguely connected to the idea of pushing reform.

"For al-Qaida, reform is not an issue. They want radical change," said Mushairy Al-Zaidy, a journalist at the Al-Madina newspaper who specializes in militant religious groups. "They want the regime out; they want the Americans out of Saudi Arabia and everywhere; they want to set up a Taliban regime in Saudi Arabia."

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