WASHINGTON - Yesterday's attack on the U.S. Consulate in Saudi Arabia's commercial capital, Jiddah, shows that Islamic militants remain capable of lethal assaults on fortified Western targets despite a fierce, monthslong crackdown by the Saudi royal family.
The attackers lobbed grenades at the consulate and then entered the compound until Saudi security forces stormed in. Nine people, none American, were killed in the gunbattle.
The group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula said the attack was part of its "war on the crusaders and the Jews .... [aimed at] getting them out of the Arabian peninsula." In a statement posted on a militant Web site, the group said the attack had been named "the blessed Fallujah battle," referring to the former insurgent stronghold in Iraq invaded last month by U.S. troops. It also said it was carried out by the "unit of the martyr Abu Anas al-Shami," who was a spiritual adviser to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most feared terrorist in Iraq. There was no way to confirm the claim. Analysts said the attack does not mean that militants are gaining ground against government forces, who claim to have killed or imprisoned hundreds of al-Qaida-linked terrorists in the 18 months since Saudi rulers were jolted into action by a coordinated attack on three housing compounds in the capital, Riyadh.
However, it exposes anew what W. Patrick Lang, a former U.S. defense attache in Saudi Arabia, called a "permanently unstable situation" between Islamic militants and a government bound by history to adherents of a deeply conservative and sometimes anti-Western brand of Islam known in the West as Wahhabism.
The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh and the consulate in Dhahran were ordered closed for two days, as was the Jiddah consulate. The embassy urged the thousands of Americans in the country - many of whom already live under tight security - to "exercise utmost security precautions."
The assault shows that despite increasingly close cooperation against terrorist groups between Riyadh and Washington, the Saudi government's intelligence apparatus failed to uncover a well-organized plot.
"They know they have a serious problem, but they clearly thought they had the upper hand," said Rachel Bronson, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In fact, "they did not have their eyes and ears on the right people. It must be incredibly chilling to them."
Analysts said yesterday's target may be the best-fortified of any that Islamic militants have attacked in a violent campaign intended, many believe, to weaken or topple the ruling Saud dynasty and divorce the Arabian peninsula, site of the world's richest proven oil reserves, from American and Western influences.
Surrounded by a 10-foot wall topped with razor wire, the sprawling U.S. Consulate compound is guarded at its entrances by the Saudi National Guard. A small force of U.S. Marines protects the main consulate building.
The compound, which Lang said includes a nine-hole golf course, is also an important symbol of the decades-long U.S.-Saudi relationship, built on the need by the West for an abundant source of oil at stable prices and the royal family's need for protection against threats to the kingdom.
"It's quite clear that those terrorists who attacked our consulate in Jiddah had observed our procedures for some time," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said yesterday. "Clearly, we'll do an after-action report and we'll take any remedial activity that is necessary."
Chas W. Freeman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, a high point in relations between the two countries, said he did not believe the attack meant the extremists were gaining strength.
"Actually, they're on the run. The government is doing a very effective job of rolling them up," Freeman said. "It makes the point that whatever the state of the [extremist] movement, there is always a danger of terrorist incidents," he said.
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Saudi authorities were widely viewed as being in a state of denial about the extent of home-grown terrorism in the kingdom. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
This Saudi attitude changed sharply after suicide bombers attacked three residential complexes in Riyadh on May 12, 2003. In sweeps and gunbattles since then, Saudi authorities claim to have broken up many terrorist cells with suspected links to al-Qaida and killed top reputed terrorists, cracked down on charitable contributions funneled to suspect groups and fired and retrained Muslim clerics accused of incitement.
"The Saudis have killed virtually all the Afghanistan-experienced terrorists," Freeman said, referring to veterans of the 1980s drive by militants from throughout the Islamic world to drive Soviet forces out of Afghanistan.
After yesterday's attack, Saudi authorities drew appreciation from President Bush for the speed and sacrifice demonstrated by the National Guard in defending the U.S. compound.