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Mideast Analysts Offer Theories Behind Saudi Bombing - 2004-04-22

A militant group linked to al-Qaida has taken credit for Wednesday's bombing of the national police headquarters in Saudi Arabia. Some analysts say the attack opens a new chapter in al-Qaida's fight against the West and its allies in the Middle East. Analysts in the region are offering explanations, and advice on what the Saudi government should do about it.

The Saudi government expressed outrage at the bombing, and in Cairo, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa condemned the attackers for, in his words, terrorizing our societies.

Mr. Moussa said most of the victims are civilians, and he called the attack unacceptable.

The attack, carried out by Muslims against Muslims, also drew harsh condemnation from Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority, which said unjustly killing a Muslim is the gravest crime.

In Egypt, the banned Islamic group known as the Muslim Brotherhood also condemned the Saudi blast as destabilizing and damaging to Islam.

So why do such attacks continue in spite of both secular and religious criticism in the Arab world? Mohammed Salah, director of the Arabic language al-Hayat newspaper in London, says anger against U.S. policies in the region is encouraging groups like al-Qaida.

Mr. Salah says antagonistic feelings against the West are leading the attackers to target governments they see as supporting the United States. Anger is particularly sharp over the invasion of Iraq and U.S. support for Israel.

But in Jerusalem at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, researcher Yael Shahar says al-Qaida's operations cannot be so easily blamed on U.S. policies in the Middle East.

"It doesn't really even matter what America does in this case, it is what the public perceives America is doing, whether it is correct or not correct their perception is really what is running the show here and of course that is an outcome of what is shown in the media and the sermons at the mosque and things like that so al-Qaida strategy would not be changed regardless of what the U.S. would do," said Yael Shahar. "I think they are more able to get recruits and sympathizers because Americans are perceived as the bad guys."

Ms. Shahar also notes that Saudi Arabia has long been al-Qaida's primary target. The terrorist group's leader, Osama bin Laden, was born in Saudi Arabia, and is an outspoken critic of the country's royal family.

The Saudi government has been actively fighting militants linked to al-Qaida for years, and particularly since terrorists bombed housing complexes in the capital, Riyadh, last year, killing more than 50 people. Saudi authorities have arrested hundreds of suspected militants in the past year alone.

But Ms. Shahar says this attack represents a different level of operation for al-Qaida inside Saudi Arabia.

"I think now they are going on to Stage B, as it were, of their plan by attacking Saudi government offices and government targets directly, whereas before they only targeted foreign targets in Saudi Arabia," she said. "There is kind of a shift there."

The Israeli researcher says economic problems and the slow pace of political reform in Saudi Arabia are providing more support for the terrorists.

And at al-Hayat in London, director Mohammed Salah agrees, but he says the reforms need to come from inside the Arab countries, not from outside influences like President Bush's initiative for reform in the Middle East.

Mr. Salah says Arab governments need to provide an environment that is suitable for freedom, one that can absorb the anger of young people through the channels provided by democracy.