Maureen Dowd NYT
Thursday, May 15, 2003
WASHINGTON America has had its regime change in the Middle East. Now Qaeda terrorists want theirs.
Even before Al Qaeda claimed credit for the explosions that ripped through Riyadh on Monday night, the Saudi princes were frightened and seeking American help. They were scared that Al Qaeda, which they once used to deflect resentment away from their own corruption, had succeeded in infiltrating various levels of society, including the government.
The problem with Saudi Arabia is that it is such an opaque society, you can never be sure what’s going on there from the outside – and apparently it’s not spectacularly transparent from the inside, either.
U.S. intelligence analysts warned the Saudis that an attack on American interests in the kingdom was coming. The Saudis reacted the way they typically do, defensively. Intercepted anti-American chatter had become such a din in the last two weeks that the State Department had warned Americans not to travel there.
The Saudi princes reluctantly began an investigation into the possible Qaeda plot. But even in such a repressed and repressive state, Saudi security forces couldn’t stop the terrorists. They tried to seize an Islamic militant cell with links to radical clerics on Tuesday last week. But although the authorities found 365 kilograms (800 pounds) of explosives, all 19 cell members – 17 Saudis, one Iraqi and one Yemeni – escaped.
So, with a new Qaeda spokesman warning that “an attack against America is inevitable” and that “future missions have been entrusted” to a new team “well protected against U.S. intelligence services,” now we have to worry about 19 slippery Islamic terrorists coming at us from Saudi Arabia?
Talk about a sickening sense of deja vu.
Busy chasing off Saddam Hussein, the president and vice president had told us that Al Qaeda was spent. “Al Qaeda is on the run,” President George W. Bush said last week. “That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated,” he added. “They’re not a problem anymore.”
Members of the U.S. intelligence community bragged to reporters that the terrorist band was crippled, noting that it hadn’t attacked during the assault on Iraq.
“This was the big game for them – you put up or shut up, and they have failed,” Cofer Black, who heads the State Department’s counterterrorism office, told The Washington Post last week.
Of course, the other way of looking at it is that Al Qaeda works at its own pace and knows how to conduct operations on the run.
Al Qaeda has been weakened by the arrest of leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But Osama bin Laden, in recent taped messages, has exhorted his followers to mount suicide attacks against the invaders of Iraq. And as one ambassador from an Arab country noted, the pictures of American-made tanks in both Iraq and the West Bank certainly attracted new recruits to Osama.
The administration’s lulling triumphalism about Al Qaeda exploded on Monday in Riyadh, when well-planned and coordinated suicide strikes with car bombs and small-arms fire killed at least 20 people in three housing complexes favored by Westerners, including seven Americans.
The attack was timed to coincide with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to the kingdom, and clearly meant to hurt both America and Saudi Arabia. Even though Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced two weeks ago in Riyadh that he was pulling out of Saudi Arabia the U.S. troops bin Laden hated so much, Qaeda leaders still want to undermine the Saudi monarchy that has been so receptive to infidel U.S. presidents.
Buried in the rubble of Riyadh are some of the Bush administration’s basic assumptions: that Al Qaeda was finished, that invading Iraq would bring regional stability, and that a show of American superpower against Saddam would cow terrorists.
Bob Graham, the Florida senator running for president, said at the Capitol on Tuesday that Iraq had been a diversion: “We essentially ended the war on terror about a year ago. And since that time, Al Qaeda has been allowed to regenerate.”
Doing a buddy routine with Rummy on Tuesday in Washington, as the defense secretary accepted an award, Vice President Dick Cheney was as implacable as ever. “The only way to deal with this threat ultimately is to destroy it,” he said.
So destroy it.