The United States is boosting security at its diplomatic missions in Saudi Arabia after an attack by a squad of gunman Monday against the U.S. consulate in Jeddah. A total of eight people including three gunmen were reported killed in the incident, but U.S. officials say the toll could have been much higher.
Officials here are crediting U.S. Marine guards at the consulate, and Saudi security forces who responded to the attack with quick and decisive action that prevented a serious terrorist incident from having been much worse.
The State Department says five gunmen in a vehicle tried to ram their way onto the consulate grounds in the late-morning Monday but were thwarted by security measures.
The attackers, who also carried hand grenades, managed to fight their way past security guards and into the compound.
But because of security measures inside, they were unable to enter what apparently was their main objective, the consulate office building where Consul-General Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley and other U.S. diplomats were at work.
U.S. officials are still piecing together details of the incident. But they say Saudi national guard troops arrived on the scene soon after the attack began and "pursued and subdued" the attackers, three of whom were killed and two others captured.
The State Department said four non-American employees of the consulate as well as a security guard employed by a private company were killed, and at least four of the local staff were wounded.
News reports quoting Saudi police said four members of the Saudi national guard were also killed.
None of the American staff was killed or wounded in the incident, but parts of the compound including the Marines' living quarters were seriously damaged in the incident, which lasted nearly four hours.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said physical security at the Jeddah facility had recently been updated and said that, coupled with timely action by Marines and consulate staff members, helped limit the casualties:
"In spite of the fact that you had what had all the markings of a very carefully thought out, carefully prepared and well-executed attack, the defensive measures and training provided to our diplomatic personnel and local employees responded in just the way that they're supposed to, and prevented and frustrated what could have been a much more lethal attack," said Mr. Ereli.
Mr. Ereli said additional security personnel from the State and Defense Departments were being flown to Saudi Arabia to bolster protection of U.S. diplomatic facilities.
He said the consulate in Jeddah, the embassy in Riyadh and the other U.S. consulate, in Dhahran, would be closed as least through Tuesday for a review of protective measures.
The Jeddah attack was the latest in a series of assaults targeting foreigners in Saudi Arabia in the last 18 months.
In late October, the State Department issued a travel alert warning Americans to defer travel to Saudi Arabia and strongly urging private Americans already in the country to depart.
Since August, the State Department has not allowed dependents of U.S. diplomats to reside in that country.
Spokesman Ereli said the affiliation of the attackers in Jeddah, if any, was unclear. Saudi officials referred to them as members of a "deviant group," a term they commonly use for Islamic militants.
At the White House, President Bush said the attack is a reminder that terrorists "are still on the move," and are hoping to make Americans "timid and weary" and abandon Saudi Arabia and Iraq and other friends in the region.