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Schuster: Jeddah new front in Saudi terror war

Smoke rises Monday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
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Saudi Arabia's al Qaeda wing claims responsibility for the Jeddah attack.

Attack on U.S. Consulate in Saudi Arabia leaves several dead.
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Osama Bin Laden

(CNN) -- Messages on several Islamist Web sites Tuesday claimed that a Saudi al Qaeda-linked group was responsible for a terrorist attack at the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that killed at least five employees.

CNN senior producer Henry Schuster -- who spent part of July and August in Saudi Arabia investigating terrorism with CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson -- provides some insight on Monday's Jeddah attack.

Q: Why Jeddah?

SCHUSTER: This is a new front in the Saudi terror war. Most previous terrorist attacks have taken place in the center of the country, in Riyadh, which is in the middle of the country.

There has been a series of low-level attacks in Jeddah since August, but nothing until [Monday] that appeared to be on the scale of the car bombings and suicide attacks that have occurred in Riyadh or Khobar. However, in August, a U.S. consular car was attacked.

Q: How could [that] happen?

SCHUSTER: The attack on the U.S. vehicle in August came at a time when security was already at an extremely high level. With previous terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia -- including the kidnapping and beheading of American Paul Johnson -- the fact that one of the gates of the consulate could be breached raises serious questions about the ability of Saudi security forces.

Q: Was it al Qaeda?

SCHUSTER: There is a group called al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. It has claimed responsibility via the Internet for most of the attacks in the last 18 months. It puts out slick video propaganda and has online magazines, and makes itself seem larger and more formidable than it is.

Q: How big is Saudi al Qaeda and who runs it?

SCHUSTER: Probably no more than 200 people, according to Saudi security sources and those who have mediated with the militants. The original leader of Saudi al Qaeda was a former Osama bin Laden bodyguard. Now, the newer leaders seem to be more homegrown, with much less experience in places like Afghanistan or Chechnya. It is not thought likely that they are taking direct orders or are in direct communication with bin Laden.

Q: Is the Saudi government winning the fight against al Qaeda?

SCHUSTER: It says it is, and most of those on its most-wanted list have been killed or captured. Saudi al Qaeda now has its fourth leader in 18 months, so the government is obviously doing something right. But even the most optimistic members of the security forces expect more attacks and more cells.

The more outspoken Saudi opponents will say that until there is political reform, al Qaeda and like-minded individuals will resort to terrorism. Osama bin Laden has a far higher popularity rating than members of the nation's royal family, although most Saudis detest his tactics.

Q: Why else be worried?

SCHUSTER: Millions of Muslims will be coming through Jeddah next month as they make their Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Such obvious security problems in Jeddah ought to be worrying. And Jeddah as the latest front presents even more security challenges for the Saudi government.

Q: What about Iraq?

SCHUSTER: Every Saudi says this is key. The current round of attacks in Saudi Arabia started just weeks after the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Saudis are almost unanimous in their condemnation of the U.S. policy in Iraq. While that hasn't led most Saudis to attack Americans, it has made the U.S. government extraordinarily unpopular among the Saudi population.

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