U.S. Consulate Attacked in Saudi Arabia

By  | 

In a bold attack, Islamic militants threw explosives at the gate of the heavily guarded U.S. consulate in Jiddah on Monday, then forced their way into the building and held civilians at gunpoint, prompting a gunbattle. Eight people, including five local staff, were killed in the three-hour assault.

The Interior Ministry said three of the five attackers were killed, with the other two wounded and in custody.

Saudi security officials initially said four Saudi officers also died, but Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki later told The Associated Press that no officers were killed. He said one was seriously injured.

No Americans were killed or held at gunpoint, and just one American was slightly injured as consulate employees were rushed to a safe area in the compound as the attack began, a State Department official said.

It was the first major strike by militants inside Saudi Arabia since May and seemed a clear sign that the Saudi government's crackdown on al-Qaida linked extremists has not yet entirely succeeded.

President Bush said the attack showed "terrorists" are trying to intimidate Americans and force the United States to withdraw from Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

"They want us to grow timid and weary in the face of their willingness to kill randomly, kill innocent people," Bush said at the White House after a meeting with interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer. "That's why these elections in Iraq are very important."

Bush also thanked Saudi Arabia for quelling the attack and said more would be learned about who was behind it.

The Saudi Cabinet, following a session led by Crown Prince Abdullah, condemned the attack and reaffirmed "the Saudi kingdom's determination to fight terrorism in all its aspects and to hunt down perpetrators."

The attack prompted the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to urge thousands of Americans in the country to "exercise utmost security precautions." Saudi officials blamed the attack on a "deviant" group — their way of identifying al-Qaida extremists.

The attackers sneaked behind an embassy car that was entering the consulate through the gate, then lobbed hand grenades at guards to take control of the area, al-Turki told the AP.

He said the attackers also used grenades designed to create fires and send up heavy smoke. Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising in the air shortly after the attack.

After getting inside the compound's outer security wall, the attackers seized about 18 people at gunpoint, said a senior Saudi official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Those held were mostly either in the area — which is like a courtyard — applying for visas, or employees who worked there, the official said.

The attackers never made it inside the consulate's buildings, Al-Turki said.

Saudi security forces, including snipers, could be seen on the rooftops around the consulate compound, and helicopters hovered overhead.

At one point, the attackers called a local police station to report they had hostages and would begin killing them unless Saudi security forces backed away from the compound, according to the Saudi official in Washington. As the call was ending, Saudi security forces stormed the area and fought a short gunbattle, the official said.

Al-Turki denied anyone was held hostage, but said the attackers did hurt those they came across in the courtyard area.

In Riyadh, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Carol Kalin said four of the five employees killed held administrative jobs and one was a private contract guard on the consulate's payroll. Four other embassy workers — all hired locally — were hospitalized, Kalin said. She said all American employees were safe and none had been held at gunpoint.

Asked about hostages, Kalin said: "The investigation of the Saudi authorities is ongoing and the embassy has no comment on this report at this time."

Kalin said it was unclear if any of the U.S. Marine guards inside the consulate were involved in the gunbattle.

A non-American employee of the consulate said staff was moved to a safe area inside.

"We could hear the gunshots outside, but we didn't know what was going on," the employee, who asked that his name not be used, told the AP by telephone. "They were heavy at times and not so heavy at other times."

As a precaution, the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh and consulate in Dhahran were closed to the public through Tuesday, Kalin said.

The attack came a week after the deputy leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri, warned in a videotape that Washington must change its policies or face more attacks by the terror group. Saudi and U.S. officials have blamed al-Qaida, led by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, for all major militant attacks in the kingdom since May 2003.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Saudi officials have blamed al-Qaida operatives for the string of attacks that have hit the kingdom in the past two years.

On Islamic militant Web sites, contributors began hailing the attack even before it was over, with one person praising it as "destruction of a bastion of atheism."

"We were afraid about our brothers in the Arab peninsula, but this proves that they are well and sound, thank God," said the person who made the posting, referring to recent Saudi crackdowns on militants.

The consulate — like all U.S. diplomatic buildings and other Western compounds in Saudi Arabia — has been heavily fortified and guarded since last year's series of bombings against targets housing foreigners. Guard posts are located on the corners of the compound and a road open to civilian traffic runs along part of the wall.

The series of attacks on Western targets in Saudi Arabia started in 2003, when car bombs targeted three compounds housing foreign workers in Riyadh, killing 35 people, including nine suicide bombers. Later that year, a suicide car bomb killed 17 people and wounded 122 at a compound for foreign workers in Riyadh.

The Saudi government then cracked down hard, arresting and killing many key militants, and quieting the attacks somewhat.

In May, however, 22 people were killed, including 19 foreigners, by militants who took over a resort complex in Khobar and held hostages for 25 hours.

In another attack that month, militants stormed offices of Houston-based ABB Lummus Global Inc. in Yanbu, killing six Westerners and a Saudi. All four attackers in Yanbu died in a shootout after an hour-long police chase in which they dragged the body of an American from the bumper of their car.

In June, militants in Riyadh kidnapped and beheaded Paul M. Johnson Jr., an engineer for a U.S. defense company.

About 9,000 Americans live in the Jiddah consular district, which encompasses western Saudi Arabia from Yemen to Jordan. The population of Jiddah is estimated at more than 2 million.