The Riyadh Compound Bombings saw coordinated suicide attacks targeting the Al-Hamra Oasis Village, the Vinelli Corporation Compound and the Dorrat Al-Jadawel compound on May 12, 2003, killing 34 and wounding 149. This infamous attack represented the beginning—and the beginning of the end—of Al-Qaeda operations on Saudi soil. In just a few short years, Saudi Arabia had clamped down on Al-Qaeda and its elements in the kingdom, forcing them to relocate south of the border.
Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat on the tenth anniversary of the attack, Egyptian Islamist Yasser Al-Sirri revealed some of the background and consequences of the Riyadh Compound Bombings.
Sirri, who heads up the London-based Islamic Observatory Center—an organization concerned with the human rights of Islamist fundamentalists worldwide—revealed: “Prior to the attacks, the US had issued warnings about an impending terrorist attack targeting US citizens in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Following this, Saudi Arabia released a number of most wanted lists. The first such list included 19 of the most wanted terrorists, which was issued on May 7, 2003—just five days before the Riyadh attacks. It included a number of senior Al-Qaeda members, such as the first leader of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Qaeda branch, Khalid Hajj, as well as Riyadh cell leaders Abdulaziz Al-Muqrin and Turki Al-Dandani, and a number of individuals known to have been involved in the compound bombings.
Sirri, who is also known as Abu Ammar Al-Masri, acknowledged that there were huge divisions within Al-Qaeda at this time, particularly over operational issues and leadership.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had appointed Khalid Hajj as head of the Saudi branch of the organization, while Muqrin and Dandani were leaders of separate Al-Qaeda cells based in Riyadh. This is something that led to disputes between Dandani and Muqrin over future plans, particularly after the Saudi Al-Qaeda leadership received a message from Bin Laden ordering the beginning of a domestic terrorist campaign.
Dandani wanted to begin attacks at once, fulfilling Bin Laden’s stated objective of inciting chaos across the kingdom, while Muqrin wanted to postpone operations until preparations could be completed.
Sirri revealed: “The dispute between Muqrin and Dandani was brought to the attention of Al-Qaeda emir Khalid Al-Hajj, who inclined towards Dandani’s view. He gave the cell a deadline to finish preparations, although the security forces were closing in. This led to Hajj issuing the final orders for the Dandani cell to start the attacks, which culminated in the three suicide bombings in eastern Riyadh.”
One striking piece of evidence is a letter seized by security forces from senior Al-Qaeda member Youssef Al-Uyari. Addressed to Al-Qaeda’s security chief Saif Al-Adel, it asked permission for the cell to postpone the operations until further preparation could be made, while it is widely believed that Saif Al-Adel and Saad bin Laden were responsible for ordering this attack.
This message is important because Saif Al-Adel, along with a number of other senior Al-Qaeda members, were being held in Tehran under house arrest during this time, after fleeing Afghanistan following the 2001 US invasion.
Saif Al-Adel is believed to have masterminded the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salasm and Nairobi, resulting in hundreds of deaths. According to the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list, Saif Al-Adel is wanted by the US for “conspiracy to kill United States nationals, to murder, to destroy buildings and property of the United States, and to destroy the National Defense utilities of the United States.”
Saif Al-Adel joined Al-Qaeda in the 1980s; he is a former Egyptian intelligence officer and is known to have provided Al-Qaeda members with military and counter-intelligence training. Following Bin Laden’s death in 2011, he was widely considered to be a contender for leadership of the terrorist organization; however, deputy leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri was later announced as the new emir.
As for the consequences of the Riyadh Compound Bombings, Sirri told Asharq Al-Awsat: “By attacking innocent civilians, Al-Qaeda critically wounded itself.”
He clarified, “Any organization loses a lot by targeting innocent civilians, so we must not take the shedding of blood lightly.”
Sirri also revealed that “Muqrin, who was killed in an ambush in Riyadh’s Al-Malaz district in 2004, had previously fought in Algeria, Bosnia and the Horn of Africa. He had been captured in Ethiopia in the late 1990s, when he was fighting in Somalia. The Ethiopian authorities handed him over to Saudi Arabia, and he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.”
However, Saudi authorities released Muqrin from prison just two years later, cutting his sentence in half as a reward for memorizing the Qu’ran. Muqrin was known as being intelligent, charismatic and a master tactician; he was also a skilled propagandist who used the Internet to recruit followers.
Sirri told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Riyadh Compound Bombings were the beginning of events that lasted for several years, and over the past ten years 120 have been killed and 1,050 injured in the domestic war on terrorism.
Sirri is an Egyptian Islamist who was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment and execution during the Mubarak era as part of the so-called Returnees from Albania case. Sirri was convicted of taking part in an attempted assassination of former Egyptian interior minister Atef Sadki.