Prior to these attacks, there was only one, probably two Al-Qaeda attacks in Saudi. The first attack, in November of 1995 was on a National Guard headquarters in the capital, Riyadh. While variously called an attack on SANG (Saudi Arabian National Guard) Headquarters or the US trainers by the media, it was actually an attack on the Office of the Program Manager for the SANG Modernization Program. The function of this organization was to supervise contracts let to train and modernize the Saudi Arabian National Guard. The attack was a simple car bomb, in the parking lot. The building housing this headquarters was in the middle of downtown Riyadh, and not on a compound or some secure area as has also been claimed in the media. At the time, it was thought the bombing was the work of dissatisfied religious fundamentalists who were unhappy about a planned firepower demonstration that SANG was to conduct in one of the areas where most of the dissidents resided. SANG was established as the crown prince's "personal army" and to protect the royal family from a coup by the regular military. To insure loyalty, SANG is mainly recruited from the tribes that have traditionally been most loyal to the al Saud family.
The second bombing was Khobar Towers. This has been attributed to Al-Qaeda.
The night of May 12th was no different from any other until about 2315 hours. It was about that time that the first of three attacks on Western compounds occurred. The first attack was on the Al-Hambra Compound. This compound housed many Westerners who worked for individual concerns, and a number of Saudis with foreign wives. The attack was initiated when a force of men on foot attacked the gate security force, killing the guards and opening the gate for the bomb vehicle that was brought in. The gunmen on foot then proceeded to the swimming pool, where a party was going on, and fired several shots. There followed a quick hunt for specific Saudis in the compound, who were then dragged out into the street and executed. Among those executed was the compound manager, who was the son of the Deputy governor of Riyadh. Rumors also claim that at least one child was executed, and an infant was thrown in the pool and drowned. The gunmen withdrew in good order and the bomb truck was detonated. An accurate count of the dead at this compound has never been given, though at least one American died here. The blast from this compound was large enough that it broke windows at two other Western compounds almost a mile away.
The second compound attacked was the Jadawal Compound. This housed several Western defense contractors. This attack was similar to the Al-Hambra attack, in that there were several gun men on foot trying to force the gate for the bomb truck. Apparently they were unsuccessful in gaining entry, and the driver of the bomb vehicle panicked. He detonated the bomb before the gate could be opened, killing himself and his armed escorts on foot. This compound was only 400 meters from the safe house raided by Saudi Ministry of Interior police on the 8th of May.
The third attack commenced shortly after the other two. Many of the witnesses on this compound reported being awakened by the blasts at Al-Hambra and Jadawal. This compound was the office and residential compound for a company training the Saudi Arabian National Guard. While National Guardsmen guarded this compound, the existing Rules of Engagement at the time did not allow the guards to have loaded weapons.
The attackers approached in a sedan, identical to one used by the work force, and seemed to follow the usual entrance procedures until it arrived at the inspection area outside the gate. At that time, the gunmen on foot started firing at the guards, killing one SANG soldier, wounding others and driving the others away from the gatehouse. The gunmen on foot proceeded to the gatehouse and opened one gate for the bomb vehicle. The sedan was jammed against the second gate, blocking it, and preventing the sedan from entering as well.
The dismounts either mounted the bed of the bomb vehicle or ran behind it. The bomb truck was driven to the front of one of the high-rise residential buildings, where many of the guu men left it. They ran through a block of single story residences, throwing grenades and firing their weapons. The bomb truck was then detonated, with at least two terrorists onboard. The explosion stripped the front off the high-rise, killing seven of the American occupants and injuring several others. It also collapsed some of the nearby single story residences, killing two of the Filipino occupants there. The only saving grace was that most of the Americans who lived in the high-rise were out on a previously scheduled field exercise, or the number of casualties would have been far higher.
The surviving gun men moved to a far wall of the compound, climbed over it and escaped. On the way they continued throwing grenades and firing randomly at other buildings on the compound.
The bomb in the vehicle was estimated at about 3-400 lbs of plastic explosive. One of the news networks in the US reported early on that chemical tags in explosives indicated they had been pilfered from the Saudi National Guard.
In the aftermath, several things became obvious. First was that the Al-Qaeda attackers used men on foot to force the gates. This had not been done in the past. The other two attacks, on the US Army headquarters of the Saudi National Guard Modernization Program and the Khobar Towers bombing, car or truck bombs had been used, but there was no associated ground assault.
The executions at the Al-Hambra compound and the killing of a National Guard soldier at the other compound demonstrated a willingness to kill Saudis. One was even a member of the Royal Family. The message to Saudis was that if you are not with us, you are against us. Also, the Al-Hambra attack was a signal to Westernized Saudis that they needed to mend their ways and give up the Western lifestyle.
The Al-Qaeda terrorists also had good intelligence. They obviously knew that a vehicle of a particular type normally entered the third compound at that time of night, and they knew the mechanical procedures to open the gates at this compound. They were well versed on the locations of the guards, and quickly eliminated those that would be a threat. They also took advantage of the existing rules of engagement to make their attack successful. Their intelligence was not quite up-to-date however, as they apparently did not know of the exercise that caused many of the residents to be in the field.
The timing of the attacks worked out well for them. While not executed simultaneously, they occurred close enough together that the guard forces at the third compound were not prepared to receive them. The first attack occurred at Al-Hambra at 11:15 PM and the last attack, at 11:25 PM at the third compound.
The attacks proved that once again, Al-Qaeda changed has their tactics. They had fairly good intelligence and made good use of it. They struck when and where they were not expected, and, in Saudi Arabia at least, they are not finished yet.
What Really Happened When Al Qaeda Attacked; The attack on Western style housing compounds in Riyadh on May 12th demonstrated a new chapter in the way Al-Qaeda does business in Saudi Arabia. The timing, forces and methods of attack were different from any previously attempted.