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Bergen: No question, attack was al Qaeda

CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen
CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen

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(CNN) -- Suicide bombings Monday night at three housing compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killed at least 20 people -- including seven Americans, the Saudi Interior Ministry said. Nine bombers also died. Government officials suspect the attacks were conducted by al Qaeda terrorists. (Full story)

CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, author of the best-selling book, "Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden," discussed the attacks with CNN's Bill Hemmer.

HEMMER: Peter Bergen has studied al Qaeda for several years. Do these attacks look like the work of al Qaeda to you?

BERGEN: No question about it. Simultaneous attacks, they went into these compounds with shooting, which they did in the U.S. Embassy bombing attacks in eastern Africa in 1998. Then the bombs went off. Also there is some indication that there may have been initial explosions to bring people out and then another explosion to perhaps kill more people. This also happened in the U.S. Embassy attacks in Africa.

Al Qaeda itself said last week in an interview, one of al Qaeda's spokesmen, in an Arabic magazine published in London that they were planning more attacks. And clearly, this is one of those attacks. There's just an absence of other groups that would be capable of carrying out these coordinated attacks.

HEMMER: You say this is a major embarrassment for the Saudis. How so?

BERGEN: I think this action speaks for itself. I mean, you've got U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arriving in the country. This attack happened. Prince Nayif, the minister of the interior, just last week said that al Qaeda was weak or perhaps nonexistent in Saudi Arabia. Well, this is their answer.

I think the Saudis have consistently downplayed the fact that al Qaeda exists in their country to such a large degree. For obvious reasons they don't want to admit it. But when you have 15 of the September 11, 2001, hijackers were Saudi, isn't it kind of odd that we haven't had any person extradited from Saudi Arabia who might have been a confederate in the 9/11 attacks?

We have had people extradited from Pakistan who were part of the 9/11 plot. We've also seen in Germany the Germans putting on trial people involved in the 9/11 plot. But none of this has happened in Saudi Arabia.

Reports indicate that the largest category of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are Saudi. Clearly, al Qaeda is a group that has benefited from Saudi money. You know Osama bin Laden is a Saudi. In fact, Riyadh is his hometown, where these explosions happened.

This is a Saudi operation to a large degree, and I think this is a huge wake-up call for the Saudis to really get very, very serious about clamping down. They have done some things in the past; for instance, trying to crack down on Saudi charities that may be funneling money to al Qaeda. They say that they've arrested hundreds of people and they've questioned thousands more. But clearly that was not enough to prevent this kind of attack.

And I think this is the moment where the Saudis will finally say, "We have to get very serious about this." Because not only is this politically damaging for them, this is also potentially economically damaging, because the workers at these compounds, many of them work in the oil business, which is the main export of Saudi Arabia.

I think on all sorts of fronts this is terrible news for all of the victims of this attack, but I think this is also very bad news for the Saudis, unless they are seen to really cooperate with an American investigation.

HEMMER: Also relative to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and their strong disdain for U.S. military presence in the Saudi Arabian peninsula, several weeks ago the U.S. announced that about 5,000 military personnel were coming out of Saudi Arabia to go to other Persian Gulf countries. Have we been able to gauge the reaction inside of that country to this move and this announcement by the U.S.?

BERGEN: Saudi Arabia is not somewhere where there is a tremendous free press that we can gauge people's feelings on these kinds of subjects. There hasn't been polling on this. But I would imagine that most Saudis are probably readily happy about the American presence being drawn down. It's been an irritant. You know, it was Osama bin Laden's main plank. His first political demand was the expulsion of American troops from Saudi Arabia.

With the end of the major combat in Iraq over, there's really no particular reason to keep those troops there, particularly since places like Qatar are very enthusiastic about having American troops in their countries, whereas clearly there is resentment of them in Saudi Arabia.

Last week the United States announced that it will draw down its presence in Saudi Arabia to perhaps a few hundred people. But still, obviously, that's not enough for al Qaeda. And in fact they have obviously taken that war now to American civilians and other Europeans living in Saudi Arabia, obviously a softer target than a military target.

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