Riyadh, May 14 (Reuters): US defence and security officials described today how a group of men in two vehicles penetrated a well-defended compound on the edge of the Saudi capital Riyadh and blew the front off a four-storey building housing US defence contractor employees.
An advance party in a white Ford Crown Victoria led the attack, driving up the approach road and along the perimeter wall, towards the gate where at least four armed men were on duty at about 11.20 pm on Monday, they said.
First they fired six shots through the front window of a Saudi military truck posted near the gate, killing one soldier and injuring two, one official said.
“It was late and dark, so the soldiers would not necessarily be suspicious that an American car was approaching,” the senior official said.
The attackers then turned on the guard in the sentry box at the gate, killing him and pressing the button which controlled the metal gate and the barrier installed in the roadway.
“It was your typical operation. You kill the guards, you push the button, you let yourself in,” one officer said.
“All this took 30 seconds to a minute.”
Once the gate was open and the path clear, the car pulled aside and let through a Dodge Ram truck loaded with about 200 kg of explosives of the RDX or Semtex type.
The car drove about 100 metres into the compound, turned to the left, drove another 40 metres, then right and up to the edge of the building which housed 70 unaccompanied or bachelor employees of a company, based in Fairfax, Virginia.
“They went for the spot where they do most damage. If they had stopped at the corner the blast would have dissipated down the street,” said a senior official.
The blast left a crater about two metres deep and threw the chassis of the truck off the side, where it lay scorched.
At least 10 people were killed, including seven Americans, in just one of three attacks that night.
The operation indicated the attackers knew the compound layout and which building had the most inhabitants, but many people could have had such knowledge, the officials said.
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.
“This was a well-planned terrorist attack. Obviously the place had been cased, as had the others,” said US secretary of state Colin Powell, who visited the site.
The compound was run by the Vinnell Corporation, a Northrop Grumman company which has operated in Saudi Arabia for 29 years.
It trains the National Guard, a military force separate from the army and commanded by Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
The other attacks were similar in style and took place within minutes of the attack on the Vinnell compound — a characteristic of operations by Osama bin Laden’s group.