Why al-Qaeda Struck in Saudi Arabia

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Colin Powell visits the scene of a suicide attack at a housing compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Ten Americans and at least ten other foreigners have been killed in three simultaneous suicide bombings in Riyadh. The bombings are suspected of being orchestrated by al-Qaeda, which would make them the first attacks by the network in Saudi Arabia. TIME Middle East bureau chief Scott MacLeod talks about the attaks:

TIME.com:What message is the location and timing of this attack designed to send?

Scott MacLeod: Although there is no confirmation as yet, we can relatively safely say, at least, that this is an al-Qaeda-inspired attack, and it appears that it would have been done by Bin Laden's own organization or a local group working in cooperation with al-Qaeda. One of Al-Qaeda's primary goals is to eradicate American influence in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. The latest attacks continue that battle, and could also be seen as a response to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The timing of the attack raises some interesting questions. The Saudi authorities had been hot on the trail of 19 suspected al-Qaeda members inside the kingdom for the past two weeks. So there may be some question over whether the attacks were originally planned for this particular date, or whether they were carried out by a group under pressure who chose to stage the best attack they could before being caught by the Saudi authorities.

The most worrisome scenario is that this may be the beginning of a new al-Qaeda campaign directed against the U.S. and its allies and interests, focused on the Middle East and Gulf region.

TIME.com: Bin Laden and his supporters have, for the most part, avoided carrying out attacks in Saudi Arabia. Why might they have changed that pattern?

Scott MacLeod: One explanation for the previous avoidance had been that al-Qaeda lacked a capability inside the kingdom to launch attacks. But the Riyadh bombings show plainly that they had the capability, so why didn't they use it? Another reason might be that they feared a backlash from ordinary Saudis. Many Saudis may sympathize with Bin Laden's ideas, but they don't want to see their country convulsing with chaos and violence. And, of course, terror attacks inside the kingdom would also invite a crackdown on those most sympathetic to Bin Laden's ideas. But these attacks may mark a new phase of their campaign, one that directly confronts the American presence in the region. With the U.S. now embroiled in Iraq, al-Qaeda may feel it has an opportunity to call the attention of the Arab world more successfully to its claim that America itself is occupying the region — before, that was more rhetorical than factual. The number of U.S. troops in the Arab world was small. But now the U.S. is engaged in a full-blown military occupation of an Arab country, and al-Qaeda is going to try and use that in their propaganda, and direct attacks against American targets in the region to win Arabs over.

Another reason they may have decided to launch attacks inside Saudi Arabia: The announcement two weeks ago that the U.S. would withdraw most of its 5-10,000 combat personnel from the kingdom. Al-Qaeda may be taking advantage of that highly publicized announcement to start attacking targets inside Saudi Arabia, in order to create the impression that they are driving the Americans out, in the way that Hezbollah drove the Israelis out of Lebanon. They can't make that claim if they didn't fire a shot. But a series of attacks before the Americans carry out their planned withdrawal will be used in al-Qaeda propaganda to claim a victory. Also, the American withdrawal may have given al-Qaeda the scent of blood. The U.S. troop presence had, at least symbolically, been a major prop of support for the Saudi regime. Al-Qaeda may believe that the U.S. withdrawal signifies a weakening of the Saudi regime, prompting them to strike out against it.

TIME.com: Could al-Qaeda's new strategy be to confront not only the U.S. presence in the region, but also more directly target Washington's Arab allies?

Scott MacLeod: Al-Qaeda has had ample opportunities to attack the royal family and the symbols of its rule, but they haven't done so. There are many more regime targets than American targets in the kingdom. But by attacking so boldly in the center of Riyadh, in compounds in the center of the city guarded by the government, the attackers are certainly issuing a direct challenge to the government. It's a way of attacking the regime without spilling Arab or Muslim blood. Bin Laden will get into trouble in the Arab world once he starts wars among the Muslims themselves. Even many of those who applauded 9/11 may turn on Bin Laden if their country descends into chaos and fratricidal war among Muslims.

Bin Laden is clearly in a long-term fight, calculating when he can do what. Clearly they feel this is a good time to strike given the historic changes in the region. Although the fatalities are nothing near the scale of 9/11, it was a massive attack politically, because it happened in the heart of Riyadh after two years of the war on terrorism and warnings of Saudi extremism. This was meant not only to kill Americans, but also to send an earthquake through the Saudi government. Hitting Saudi Arabia is a major escalation.