SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

"We Will Hunt Them Down"

Published June 26, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

It looked like Oklahoma City, only the crater left by the truck bomb that exploded at a U.S. military compound in Saudi Arabia last night was even bigger. At least 19 Americans were killed, the most in any Mideast terrorist action since 241 marines were blown up in Lebanon in 1983; hundreds were wounded. FBI investigators were dispatched to the scene, millions of dollars in rewards offered, and the supposed terrorists denounced. "America takes care of its own," President Clinton said today. "We will not rest until these terrorists are brought to justice," echoed Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in Jerusalem. "We will hunt them down."

But who are these terrorists? Experts suggest that they may have been involved in the car bomb explosion which killed five Americans and two Indians outside a U.S. military building in Riyadh last November. But while four Saudis were beheaded for that bombing, the organizers remain at large and unknown. And the perpetrators of last night's terror may be an entirely new group.
We talked to Judith Miller, a senior correspondent for The New York Times and former Cairo bureau chief. She is the author of the recently published "God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting From A Militant Middle East" (Simon & Schuster).

Connections have been made with the bombing in Riyadh last November. Did the four Saudis who were beheaded for that bombing provide any clues about who this group might be?

We still don't know much. We know the four were home-grown boys -- all Nejdis, who come from the hot, harsh desert heartland where the various kingdoms of Saudi Arabia have all started. It's a hotbed of Islamic militancy. We also know that none of them had a college education. We know that three out of four of them had fought in Afghanistan. We know that they were imbued with ultra-traditionalist ideas, which include notions like democracy being incompatible with Islam. They also believe that the Saudi rulers are only masquerading as Muslims, because they drink, they go to Monaco to gamble, they're corrupt, etc.

But they were not the brains behind the operation.

No. The belief is that those guys are still at large, especially given the assumption that there is a link with last night's bombing. We don't know much more than that, and I don't think the Saudi government does, either. They say these attacks are the work of an isolated group of wackos, but we know that this "isolated group of wackos" managed to buy C-4, a very deadly explosive, on the black market in Yemen. And we also know that at least one of them has traveled to Algeria.

So there could be a foreign connection.

We just don't know, though I wouldn't rule out external support, or even sponsorship.

Like Iran?

Less likely. As much as Iran would enjoy the demise of the Saudi regime, their contacts with the Saudi militants, who are Sunni Muslims, are not good. One of their planks is that the Shia in Saudi Arabia -- there are about 700,000 of them -- should either be made to convert, or expelled, or killed. So Iran would have to be extraordinarily pragmatic -- one might say opportunistic -- to use a group like this against the Saudi kingdom. But they might; they have crossed that ideological and sectarian divide before.

There have also been suggested links to a London-based dissident group.

The Committee for Defense of Legitimate Rights, the CDLR.
Yes, they are often cited as the one that may have funded or assisted operations like the one we saw yesterday. After the Riyadh bombing, its leader, Dr. Muhammad Massari, said that whoever had done it had chosen well; that Americans were "a legitimate target," because they were a hated foreign presence. But we have to be careful about blaming Massari. The British government, wary of losing its lucrative arms sales to the kingdom, is looking for any reason to chuck him out.

But that endorsement does suggest some link with the terrorists on the ground in Saudi Arabia.

It certainly suggests sympathy for the actions and the goals. But again, one must be careful. Since I wrote my book, Massari's group has effectively split in two, and he has been more quiet than usual. Though I did notice that a couple of weeks ago he said that Jews who supported Israel's recent attacks in Lebanon ought to be "annihilated."

It sounds like Americans, hated as their presence is, are really proxy targets for a group whose real aim is to topple the Saudi monarchy.

Yes. We're the means to the end, the Great Satan, the unwanted Western infidel presence in their country. But their target is their own ruling family. They want to be the ones who ride around in the Mercedes and go to Monaco and run the two holy mosques.

Could they succeed? There have been questions about the stability of the Saudi regime. King Fahd is said to be very ill.

Never underestimate the determination of the ruling Al Saud family to survive. They have proven to be masters of manipulation and co-optation. Their policy of buying off their citizens and their opposition, instead of killing them, has avoided the kind of clan and tribal quarrels and blood feuds that go on for generations. But these days they have a problem: Saudi Arabia has gotten much poorer since the Gulf War, and they don't have the money to buy off their enemies anymore. So they are resorting increasingly to the kind of repression that you see in countries like Syria, though it's still milder.

I also think there is a good chance the terrorist group will be rooted out. They have very good police surveillance. After the November bombing, they went over the list of every single Saudi Arabian who had fought in Afghanistan. They will use their expertise to stop things like this.

There was apparently intelligence that something like last night's bombing was in the works, especially after the November bombing. Could the Americans have done more to protect themselves?

Not really. That truck was 100 yards away from the compound when it blew. There was a huge set of barriers in front of it. In a city, I don't think it's realistic to expect a greater degree of physical protection. And that's part of the problem -- 40,000 Americans live throughout the kingdom, in places that don't begin to have the kind of security that this one did. That's the great concern, unless they get these guys fast, there could be more bombings and more dead Americans.

The last time significant numbers of Americans lost their lives in a Mideast terrorist action, we immediately pulled out of Lebanon. Will Clinton be tempted to do the same?

The United States is not going to get out of Saudi Arabia. It can't. One quarter of the world's oil resources are there. It is our single largest supplier of oil. It is a guarantor of Western oil at reasonable prices. There is no way the U.S. can disengage from Saudi Arabia -- unlike Lebanon.

Quote of the day

The rap on the lock: analyzing Dole's do

"Because hair must be cut constantly, it can be constantly shaped ... for good and for bad. It's a very nice indicator of where a person is at the moment...(Bob Dole's hair is) flat and undemonstrative, showing his gravitas. It's saying, 'This is just a haircut -- what else do you expect?'"

-- Grant McCracken, anthropologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and author of "Big Hair." (From "An Expert Combs Over the Dos Of This Year's Political Candidates," in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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