The Bombings in Riyadh : Some Thoughts on the War on Terrorism

 The May 12 Al-Qaeda terrorist bombing of three residential complexes in Riyadh-which thus far has killed thirty-four, including seven Americans, and wounded nearly two hundred others-is a stark reminder of the ongoing war on terrorism.

 The May 12 Al-Qaeda terrorist bombing of three residential complexes in Riyadh-which thus far has killed thirty-four, including seven Americans, and wounded nearly two hundred others-is a stark reminder of the ongoing war on terrorism.  Moreover, while much remains to be discovered about the attacks, it already seems possible to draw several preliminary conclusions:  

First, despite a variety of complaints from the sidelines, the United States and its allies are doing a reasonably good job of pursuing and destroying al Qaeda and disrupting its operations.  The often criticized Saudi government raided a safe house of the specific Al-Qaeda cell suspected of organizing the bombings just days ago and seized a considerable supply of weapons and ammunition.  For its part, the U.S. intelligence community was aware that an attack could be imminent and had alerted other agencies; this prompted the State Department to issue a warning that terrorists "may be in the final phases of planning attacks" in Saudi Arabia.  

Second, Al-Qaeda seems to be escalating its effort to undermine the Saudi regime, which it has long resented for permitting a substantial American military presence in the country.  The compounds that were attacked included both U.S. contractors training the Saudi National Guard-a force under the personal command of Crown Prince Abdullah-as well as some of Saudi Arabia 's elite.   And the suicide bombers appear to have attempted to disguise themselves as members of the Saudi National Guard.   

Though the Bush Administration is taking appropriate steps to scale back that presence by closing the Prince Sultan air base and pulling out 4,000 U.S. troops, Al-Qaeda appears to remain committed to destroying a government it views as sympathetic to the United States .  

Third, the attack again calls attention to the links between Al-Qaeda and Chechnya 's terrorist groups.  According to Saudi government officials, Khaled Jehani, the leader of the Al-Qaeda cell thought to be behind the bombings, had fought in Chechnya (as well as in Afghanistan and in Bosnia, where Al-Qaeda links seem to have drawn insufficient public attention).  

Though Chechens have their own grievances vis-à-vis Moscow , and many have sought only independence rather than holy war and a theocratic state, it is increasingly clear that the war in Chechnya was far from being a strictly internal affair.  

Finally, notwithstanding American successes in tracking down and capturing or killing Al-Qaeda leaders and breaking up some al Qaeda operations, a great deal remains to be done in the war on terrorism-and the United States cannot do everything alone.  

Yet, effective cooperation with other governments with similar but not identical interests in the war on terrorism, and more broadly, is not easy.  Saudi Arabia has been justifiably criticized for poor cooperation against terrorism in the past and could probably do more today.  But the Saudi government has its own concerns as well, some of which are likely quite compelling.  The United States is fighting the war on terrorism to save American lives and protect American interests, but Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups do not threaten its very existence.  The survival of Saudi Arabia 's present regime is threatened-and seriously.  

Similarly, Russia has been justifiably criticized for brutality in Chechnya .  But Russia , which has 12 million Muslim citizens, sees the conflict there as a real danger to its territorial integrity and a potential danger to the stability of key regional states.  Even some historical U.S. allies, such as France and Germany , have been justifiably criticized for gratuitous and in some cases outrageous anti-Americanism over Iraq .  They, however, also face their own constraints, including democratic polities with their own views of international affairs and, like Russia , large Muslim populations.  

This does not mean that the United States should not continue to press for more Saudi cooperation in fighting terrorism, less Russian brutality in Chechnya , or more friendly behavior by putative American allies.  It does mean, however, that Washington must be sensitive to the interests of those from whom it seeks help and weigh the costs and benefits of accommodating those interests against the costs and benefits of failing to do so. The difference between pro forma cooperation and substantive cooperation is already apparent in joint counter-terrorism efforts with Russia and with Saudi Arabia -and it can be measured in American lives.


Paul J. Saunders is director of The Nixon Center.