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From the August 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 8)

The Costs of Terrorism

The Terrorists Strike Back

Paul Harris, Martin Bright, Hamid Yousef, Ali Bouzerda, and Nick Pelham, The Observer (liberal weekly), London, England, May 18, 2003

The week ended as it began: with the chaos of burning buildings, shattered lives, and the sudden death of innocents. Outside the gates of the Jewish cemetery in Casablanca’s old town yesterday, the tattered and torn corpse of a suicide bomber lay surrounded by blood and bodies. He had been almost completely blown apart by the explosives strapped to his waist. Body parts were scattered over the road. The blast had destroyed the wall of the cemetery and flattened a nearby home.

It was one of five attacks on Friday night that ripped through Casablanca. A few kilometers across town, smoke was already rising from the five-story Belgian Consulate, damaged in an explosion aimed at a Jewish-owned Italian restaurant opposite. A Jewish community center was also in flames and the Hotel Safir—popular with Israeli tourists—was hit, killing at least eight people inside.

A restaurant that acted as a Spanish cultural center was also targeted. Three men with grenades strapped to their chests rushed the door. When they were stopped by a security guard, one of the men pulled out a sword and slit the guard’s throat in front of horrified onlookers. The trio then burst in on scores of diners and detonated their explosives. Wearing a shirt stained with members’ blood, the club’s president, Rafael Bermudez, was in shock. “I don’t know why terrorists would attack this place,” he said.

The attacks horrified Morocco, which has sought to be a staunch ally of the West while being mindful of its own radical Islamic groups. Attention swiftly turned to the Casablanca slum of Sidi Moumen, a rough and tough shantytown where Saudi-funded mosques act as a fertile recruiting ground for Morocco’s Islamists.

Over the past seven days the specter of terrorism has re-emerged from the grave to which it had been consigned by some overeager commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. It was only at the beginning of the month that Cofer Black, a CIA official who now heads the State Department’s counter-terrorism office, was boasting that they had “these guys on the run.”

No one in the Saudi capital Riyadh is now saying that Al-Qaeda is finished. Three devastating attacks on Monday night left a trail of dead and injured. That was just the beginning of last week’s grim toll. On the same day in the devastated Russian Republic of Chechnya, suicide bombers drove a truck packed with explosives into an administrative building in the tiny town of Znamenskoye. When it exploded, more than 50 people were killed. Two days later, two women terrorists wearing explosive-laden belts detonated themselves at a Muslim festival in the village of Ilishan Yurt. One of them had carried more than half a kilo of explosives around her 46-year-old waist. She exploded as a prayer was being read. She and her co-bomber took 14 people with them as they embraced martyrdom.

By then Pakistan too had suffered from 18 bomb blasts. They were small, little more than crude devices put in rubbish bins, and injured few people. But the targets were obvious: Shell petrol stations. And the devices were sophisticated enough to have timers to ensure that they all exploded within an hour of each other.

On Wednesday, an explosion ripped through a courtroom in the Yemeni town of Jibla. Four people, including a judge, were injured. No case was being heard, but a week earlier a terrorist had been condemned to death there for killing three U.S. missionaries. The link was obvious and the symbolism powerful: For any strike at a terrorist, expect a counterstrike. Revenge will come. The terrorists will choose the time.

The terrorists were thwarted this week in Lebanon. On Wednesday, police announced a series of high-profile arrests, made with Syrian help, that had broken up a cell plotting an attack on the U.S. Embassy. The timing was convenient for two nations keen to boost their standing with Washington.

But terrorism can be damaging without bombs. On Thursday, Britain issued an extraordinary alert to British targets in Kenya. British Airways stopped flying to Nairobi, mindful of an attempt last year to shoot down an Israeli jet in Mombasa with a missile. The impact was devastating for a poor country that relies on tourism for foreign currency. Almost 100,000 Britons holiday each year in Kenya. That represents the loss of millions of dollars.

The Kenya alert was followed on Friday by warnings on Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda. The United States also warned of a growing threat in Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia. In a region where the scars of last year’s Bali bombing run deep, it was another reminder that the war on terror spans the globe.

The attacks in Riyadh in particular have opened a terrifying new front, for Saudi Arabia is where Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were born. It is home to the holiest places of Islam, and yet its rulers are allies of the United States. That is untenable for the Islamists. And this was the week that the war on terror finally came home.

At first Tariq thought it was fireworks going off. But as he sat inside his smart apartment in Riyadh’s Al-Hamra Oasis compound, he soon realized the loud bangs were getting closer. Then his windows exploded. Tariq was flung to the ground amid shattered glass and looked up to see his front door had been blown off its hinges. “I noticed that my hands were cut and bleeding. Then I went outside to see what had happened,” he said.

The sight that greeted him was a nightmare. Smoke, bodies, and shattered glass littered the ground as far as he could see. A British resident of the compound joined Tariq as he knelt down to check on a seriously wounded woman who was lying on the ground and hysterically asking where her children were. 

Two other wealthy residential compounds were also exploding. Suicide bombers had blasted their way past security guards, throwing grenades and firing machine guns, before detonating vehicles packed with explosives in the center of the estates. They shot indiscriminately: men, women and children, Western and Arab. By morning, 34 people, including nine bombers, were dead and scores of innocents injured.

Much was made of the fact that the compounds are home to most of the Western community in Saudi Arabia. But for Tariq that is not the point. He is an English-speaking investment banker, eager to embrace a more liberal lifestyle. For the bombers, that makes Tariq as much of a target as any Westerner. And for Saudi Arabia that is key. The Riyadh blasts have brought to the fore the religious and economic forces tearing apart the world’s largest producer of oil. Saudi Arabia could be on the brink of collapse or Islamic civil war.

Last year, King Fahd, who has had no real grip on power since suffering a near fatal stroke in 1995, holidayed in Spain. He took 50 black Mercedes cars, 350 servants, a yacht, and had $2,000 of flowers delivered daily. Back in Saudi Arabia, slums sprout amid the palaces. Many poor Saudis see themselves more in league with the poor of Casablanca, Karachi, and Chechnya than with the 30,000 pampered Saudi princes. Genuine poverty and a growing underclass grip a shriveling Saudi economy.

In the early 1980s, Saudi per-capita income stood at 17,250 pounds [US$28,128]. Now it is 4,450 pounds [$7,250]. The country’s population has exploded 300 percent since 1973. More than 80 percent of people live in Riyadh, Jidda, and Dammam, in packed slums teeming with radicalism.

At the same time, the middle class has been squeezed by growing unemployment, which some economists rate as high as 25 percent. They have been shut out of the job market by better-qualified, cheaper expatriates. Enormous resentment has sharpened the appeal of Saudi’s ultra-puritanical Wahhabi Islam.

Imams and Islamic teachers preach sermons demanding all Westerners leave the country. Support for Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda is high. Some of Saudi Arabia’s foremost preachers issue fatwas approving killing Americans and mocking Westerners’ lewd alcohol-soaked lifestyles. It is a clash of two worlds that can never be reconciled.

Fear has gripped Western-orientated Saudis. Imams have called for the death of intellectuals. One linguistics professor, Hamza al-Muzini, who said his young son was being taught a “culture of death” at school, has received death threats. Newspaper editor Jamal Kashoggi, who ran editorials against the militants, had armed police stationed outside his office last week. “Saudis are now scared that this is a war not just against the expatriates, or the government, but against Saudi civilians themselves,” said Othman Al Omeir, publisher of a news Web site.

Certainly the government is weak. Competing princes fight for power as King Fahd grows weaker. The situation is getting worse as factions try to drum up support from reformers or Islamists. British diplomats admitted to The Observer last week that they no longer considered that any one prince has complete control. Sympathy for the Islamists stretches up the regime right from the lowliest policeman to the highest prince.

Nearly all the senior Saudi royals have been named in a massive U.S. lawsuit, brought by victims of the Sept. 11 attacks seeking to punish those they believe finance Al-Qaeda. The legal papers read like a Who’s Who of Saudi society. Prince Sultan, the second deputy prime minister, is there. As is Prince Nayef, the interior minister. Prince Abdullah al-Faisal, a former minister of health, is part of the suit and so is Prince Turki, a former intelligence chief who is the Saudi ambassador in London. All are accused of being involved in a web of donations that feed Al-Qaeda’s need for large amounts of ready cash.

All deny the charges. But some of the mud has already stuck. In legal papers submitted by lawyers, Prince Sultan openly admits giving huge donations to two Islamic charities accused of links to Islamic terrorism. Sultan’s lawyers said the gifts were a part of state policy.

But why, with all its terrorist links and internal turmoil, is Saudi Arabia still seen as a key ally? Why is a place so holy to Islam also seen as so vital to Western interests?

The answer is oil. Saudi Arabia’s oil is the only important surplus capacity—at 2 million barrels a day—in the world oil market. As a result, it is Saudi’s control of its oil flow that regulates the price of petrol. Some experts predict that if war or revolution hits Saudi Arabian production, the price of a barrel of oil would rise from $40 to $150. The effect on the world economy would be calamitous.

And so, as the oil keeps pumping, the Saudi princes keep a tenuous grip on their country. After the Riyadh bombings no one knows for how much longer that can continue.

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