May 20, 2003
Posted at: 12:17 p.m. CDT
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - The United States and Britain said Tuesday they were closing their embassies and consulates in Saudi Arabia for a few days because of "imminent" terror threats.
The embassy and consulate closures were announced a day after Saudi and U.S. officials said they had new intelligence pointing to Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida group possibly launching fresh attacks in the United States or against American interests overseas.
Near-simultaneous suicide attacks on three residential compounds on the outskirts of Riyadh on May 12 killed 34 people, including eight Americans and nine attackers, and wounded almost 200.
"The Embassy continues to receive credible information that further terrorist attacks are being planned against unspecified targets in Saudi Arabia," Americans were warned in a statement posted on U.S. Embassy and consulate Web sites.
"In response to information that some strikes may be imminent, the embassy in Riyadh and the consulates in Jiddah and Dhahran will be closed" Wednesday.
The statement said diplomatic offices would reopen Sunday after the Saudi Thursday-Friday weekend and a previously scheduled holiday for Memorial Day.
The British Foreign Office said its embassy in Riyadh, consulate in Jiddah and the trade office in Khobar will close to the public Wednesday. The offices are expected to reopen May 24.
Last week, Britain advised its citizens not to travel to Saudi Arabia unless absolutely necessary. In a statement on its Web site, the Foreign Office said there remained a "high threat" of further strikes and warned of the possibility of chemical and biological attacks.
A Saudi official said on condition of anonymity Tuesday that investigators believed Muslim militants were ready to volunteer for more suicide strikes.
Saudis were aware of about 50 militants, some now dead, believed to belong to three cells, including the one that carried out the May 12 bombings, the official said. Another cell has fled Saudi Arabia and the third is at large in the kingdom, the official said.
The official indicated the militants were tied to al-Qaida, the group U.S. and other Saudi officials have linked to the Riyadh bombings. He said the militants prepared to attack had hard-core sympathizers numbering "in the low hundreds."
Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, said in Riyadh "there is chatter, a high level of chatter regionally and in other international spots" about possible new attacks in Saudi Arabia or America.
The FBI is warning that al-Qaida could mount new attacks in the United States as well as target American and Western interests overseas.
"The U.S. intelligence community assesses that attacks against U.S. and Western targets overseas are likely; attacks in the United States cannot be ruled out," said an FBI bulletin dispatched to state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide.
The bulletin was described Monday to The Associated Press by federal law enforcement officials on condition of anonymity.
The Riyadh attacks have been seen as not only an attack on U.S. and other Western interests, but also a strike on the Saudi government for its close ties with America and its decision following the 1991 Gulf War to allow American troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia.
Bin Laden said the U.S. presence defiles the country, which is custodian of Islam's two holiest shrines.
The United States announced last month that its air operations base would move from Saudi Arabia to Qatar.
Also Tuesday, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud, said his country was increasing security measures to prevent further attacks.
"Nobody can guarantee that nothing will happen in the meantime. But we are secure in the knowledge that at least we are doing everything that we can," he said after meeting with Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller.
Saud stressed that removing the cause of terrorism was an international responsibility and suggested that resolving the Palestinian issue would remove "a great part of the reasons for terrorism in our region."
Crown Prince Abdullah held a palace reception Tuesday for the families of those killed and wounded in the bombings. He told the families the "apostates" responsible for the attacks would be caught and punished.
"All the necessary steps will be taken to achieve this goal and prevent those hateful people from damaging the kingdom," the official Saudi Press Agency quoted him as saying.
More than 60 FBI and other U.S. investigators are assisting Saudi authorities with the probe into Monday's attacks.
Interior Minister Prince Nayef has said four suspects in custody for the Riyadh car bombings are apparently linked to al-Qaida.
Nayef said investigators had identified three of the badly mangled bodies of nine Saudi men thought to have carried out the Riyadh attacks. The three were among 19 suspects sought in connection with a weapons cache found May 6 linked to al-Qaida.
The government had said the 19 were believed to be receiving orders directly from the Saudi-born bin Laden and had been planning to use the seized weapons to attack the Saudi royal family and American and British interests.
Al-Qaida has been blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks and the October 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen that killed 17 American sailors. Al-Qaida espouses a militant form of Islam and opposes what it sees as Western attempts to control the Arab world. It has criticized the Saudi royal family for its close ties to America.