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Lawrence Wright on the Riyadh Compound Bombings - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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File photo of US journalist and writer Lawrence Wright (AAA).

File photo of US journalist and writer Lawrence Wright (AAA).

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Lawrence Wright, Al-Qaeda expert and author of The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, said that the Riyadh Compound Bombings marked the beginning of a new phase of global terrorism, as well as security coordination between Saudi Arabia and the US.

The Riyadh Compound Bombings saw coordinated suicide attacks targeting three residential compounds in the Saudi capital on May 12, 2003, killing 34 and wounding 149. This infamous attack represented the first Al-Qaeda strike on Saudi territory and the beginning of a fierce conflict between the security authorities and the terrorist organization. This conflict ultimately ended with Al-Qaeda’s expulsion from the kingdom.

Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, Wright revealed that “months before the attack on the Riyadh compound, there had been signs that a major attack was coming in Saudi Arabia. The country had become a seedbed for radicalism and the US State Department had issued travel advisories to its citizens in the Arabian Peninsula.”

In fact, the Saudi Interior Ministry issued a list of 19 most wanted terrorists on May 7, 2003—just five days prior to the Riyadh attacks. This list included a number of those with ties to this infamous terrorist act, most prominently Al-Qaeda leaders Khalid Hajj, Abdulaziz Al-Muqrin, and Turki Al-Dandani. It was the Dandani cell that was responsible for the compound bombings.

As for what lessons Saudi Arabia learned from this attack, Wright said: “The main lesson that the Saudis learned from this event was that their policy of tolerating Islamist radicals was dangerous and self-defeating. After that [the compound bombing], the Saudis cracked down ruthlessly.”

However the Riyadh Compound Bombings—targeting the Al-Hamra Oasis Village, the Vinelli Corporation Compound and the Dorrat Al-Jadawel compound—did not just affect Saudi Arabia, but the whole international scene. At this point, the US was in the middle of a controversial “war on terror”, and the effects of the Riyadh bombings were felt across the region, and as far afield as Washington.

Wright told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The lesson for America was different. The primary reason Al Qaeda gave in targeting Western compounds was the presence of American troops inside the country, but only days before the US government announced that it was withdrawing American forces, eliminating the most obvious provocation. At the time, the decision had been criticized as appeasement toward Al Qaeda, even though it was a move that should have been made years before.”

Most analysts believe that Al-Qaeda shot themselves in the foot with the Riyadh Compound Bombings, and Wright concurs.

“When Al Qaeda attacked anyway, it became clear that there was no point in appeasement or negotiation with Bin Laden and his movement. The terrorist leader had hoped to put a wedge between his country and the West, but after the attacks in Riyadh the Saudis and the Americans worked together more closely than ever,” he added.

Wright has spent 35 years of his career investigating Al-Qaeda and former leader Osama Bin Laden. He interviewed more than 500 of Bin Laden’s acquaintances, relatives, and friends, as well as officials from twenty different countries. He published The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 in 2006 which won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. In this book, Wright looks at Al-Qaeda activities leading up to the 9/11 attacks.