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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 November, 2003, 12:49 GMT
Overhasty clean-up in Riyadh
by Bill Law
In Riyadh

The young Saudi soldier was sitting cross-legged on a rug. He gestured to me. "There's something over there you might want to see."

Al-Muhaya compound, with a Riyadh palace in the distance
The bombed compound is within sight of Saudi royal palaces
I was inside Riyadh's al-Muhaya compound, wrecked by a massive car bomb 36 hours earlier.

At least 17 dead, 122 wounded, most of them Arab expatriates from places like the Palestinian territories and the Lebanon. Among the dead 5 children in this latest savage attack attributed to al-Qaeda.

All around me earth-movers and diggers were frenetically dumping shattered concrete and twisted metal into waiting lorries. A survivor waved a hand in the direction of a pile of rubble. "That was my house, until yesterday".

I asked him if his family was alright. "Yes," he replied, "but my neighbour and his family were killed."

What did he think of the people who did this, I asked.

He turned away from me, angrily. "I can't say to you what I think of these people."

Over to my left a soldier with white plastic gloves bent down and picked up a smoke-blackened hand gun.

Terrorist weapon? Who knows. The Saudis were hell-bent on cleaning up al-Muhaya compound as quickly as they could.

Intense forensic examination? The cordoning off of the bomb site? The kind of in-depth investigation that went on at Ground Zero in New York or at every IRA bomb that's ever gone off in Britain? Forget it.

Human suffering

The soldier beckoned me again saying: "Over there on the other side of the building is a foot... Do you want to film it?"

I didn't have a camera. I didn't find the foot. I didn't want to find it. But the cloying scent of death hit me.

My neighbour and his family were killed. I can't say to you what I think of the people who did this
Al-Muhaya resident
As did the realisation the Saudis were cleaning up the bomb site with scant regard for those who had survived and those who had not.

I couldn't help but think the remains of some of the victims were still in the rubble being carted off.

As another lorry pulled away, I glanced down... a child's tricycle lay in the street, alongside a blue rubber ball. The blast had torn open many of the flats.

Inside was ordinary life, utterly disrupted - a dining room table set for a breakfast that never happened, a man's jacket fluttering in the breeze from a shattered upstairs window.

Residents with cardboard boxes, allowed back for the first time, were picking up what few personal possessions they could carry out and asking themselves the question Saudis are asking over and over: How could men who cite the Koran as their justification kill fellow Muslims?


The terror war has finally come home to Saudi Arabia, there should be no room left for denial.

There should be no longer any sense that the terrorists could be understood - even forgiven - because they attacked only western targets.

But already the conspiracy theories are doing the rounds.

Saudi consultative council in session
Was it like this in 1789 before the French Revolution?
Some are saying the extremists have been infiltrated by the CIA and Mossad because, as one Saudi lawyer put it me, "who benefits from these attacks?"

And then he answered his own question - "Only the Americans, only the Israelis."

A bizarre response made more bizarre by what I had seen at the clean up at al-Muhaya compound.

The compound is just a kilometre or two away from the palaces of many of the senior princes of the ruling House of Saud.

The blast on Sunday morning did more than rattle their windows. It shook them to the roots.

One western diplomat with a taste for history said it felt like the run up to the French revolution - A gilded aristocracy out of touch with its people was losing control of the situation.

Official line

The Saudi Government has promised to crush the militants with an iron fist, but a hardline cleric I spoke with said that would only provoke more attacks.

Saudi soldier
The government has promised to use an iron fist
And the question hanging in the air is whether this government which for so long had denied it even had a terrorist problem can not put down those people who have thrived in a climate of political repression and religious extremism, a climate the House of Saud helped to foster.

Many people here fear they cannot.

The soldier told me he was surprised I had been able to get into the compound. They were not letting any journalists in.

The next day though, the ministry of information escorted a bus load of journalists to al-Muhaya.

By then, most of the ruined flats that had taken the full brunt of the explosion had been pulled down; the massive crater left by the car bomb had already been filled in.

It was almost as if a glass of milk had been spilled. Mop it up quickly and perhaps everyone will forget the mess.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 15 November, 2003, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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