| A woman cries in front of her damaged home in the bombed al-Hamra compound in Riyadh. (AFP)
Riyadh, May 14 (Reuters): FBI agents headed to Saudi Arabia today to join Saudi troops hunting for suspects who Riyadh has vowed will be sorry for masterminding triple suicide bombings that killed 34 people in the kingdom earlier this week.
Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal promised on US morning television to find those behind the suicide bombings in Riyadh which killed at least seven Americans and has been blamed on al Qaida by the US. The Monday night blasts gutted housing complexes for foreigners in what was the first major attack on US targets since it waged war on Iraq to stamp out terror and oust Saddam Hussein.
“Whatever success they (al Qaida) think they have achieved they will be sorry for, because this country is now united against them in every way,” Prince Saud said in an interview on NBC’s Today show.
US President George W. Bush said the bombing meant the war on terror launched after September 11, 2001, was far from over. “We’ve destroyed about one half of al Qaida, the top operators of al Qaida, and that’s good. But we’ve got more work to do,” Bush said.
An FBI spokesman in Washington said a team of agents had already left for Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials said the prime suspects in the blasts were a group of 19 al Qaida suspects, who disappeared in Riyadh last week after a shootout with police. A high-level Saudi security official said the army was erecting checkpoints all over the vast desert kingdom.
“We believe this group is behind the terrorist attack and suspect that they have links to al Qaida,” he said. Officials and terror experts said the attacks bore all the hallmarks of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network, the group blamed for the 2001 attacks on America which prompted a US-led war on Afghanistan to try to root it out.
The British foreign office said after the blasts there was a “high threat” of further attacks against Western interests in Saudi Arabia, possibly involving chemical or biological weapons. It said two of its citizens were missing and 15 were injured.
The US ambassador to the kingdom, Robert Jordan, criticised Saudi authorities for not responding quickly to recent US requests for more security at the attacked compounds.
He also said the conservative Muslim kingdom where Saudis sympathise with bin Laden had a “long way to go” to ending terror attacks against foreigners.
“I do believe the crown prince is sincere,” he told NBC’s Today show. “Executing their plan to provide additional security is another matter.”
A US diplomat in Riyadh said the embassy would lay on evacuation flights for any of the 40,000 or so Americans living in the kingdom, the world’s largest oil exporter. The state department also told dependants and non-essential staff at US missions in the kingdom to leave.
But despite the heightened security threat, many Western firms said they had no plans to walk away from the lucrative business to be had in the world’s biggest oil exporter, which also has a huge defence budget.
The bombings were carried out just hours before a scheduled visit by US secretary of state Colin Powell, who is on a West Asian tour to explain US policy after the overthrow of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and is now in Moscow.
Many Saudis are angry at the US for the war on Iraq, but many also said innocent expatriates living in their country did not deserve this. “What does this have to do with Islam' These criminals are harming us Muslims more than anybody else,” said Nala al-Dhaher, a Saudi woman who lost her brother and friends in the attacks.
Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah denounced the attacks and vowed they would not destabilise the kingdom, where there have been several anti-Western attacks in recent years.
But some experts said Saudi Arabia is already shaken up by Islamic militancy and the wrangling between ultra-orthodox Muslims and a range of groups seeking political reforms.
“Saudi Arabia is already destabilised by al Qaida-type militant Islamic activity,” said Simon Henderson from the Washington institute for Near East policy.
Assailants drove, guns blazing, into three guarded housing compounds for expatriates shortly before midnight and set off huge car bombs. US defence and security officials described the operation as swift and sophisticated.
The bombers killed two Saudi soldiers and wounded two others at the main gate of one well-defended compound housing employees of US defence contractor Northrop Grumman Vinnell Corp subsidiary before blowing the front off a four-storey building housing unaccompanied or bachelor employees.
The company said seven US citizens and two Philippine nationals were killed. Of the 70 men who usually sleep in the building, 50 were out in the desert that night on an exercise with the Saudi military.