|LEFT: Saudi police investigate a car bombing that killed a British banker June 20 in Riyadh, one of four attacks or attempts on Westerners since May 22. [Photo: AP] RIGHT: A truck bombing at Khobar Towers killed 19 U.S. soldiers in 1996. Anti-Western extremism tapered off for four years after the attack. [Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Violent anti-Western extremism is nothing new to Saudi Arabia, but several bombings in the past two years raise fresh questions.
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 22, 2002
KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia -- For Gary Hatch, a chiropractor from Florida, the day began with his usual morning rituals at the Saad Specialist Hospital.
Hatch, 49, was going through memos and checking appointments when a nurse laid a manila envelope on his desk. Hatch's name was handwritten in black ink and the envelope was sealed with a single piece of tape.
It looked like ordinary interoffice mail and Hatch didn't think much about it. But as he started to open it, something told him to stand up. Then he did another strange thing -- he unsealed the envelope not with his right hand, but his left, and turned his head away from the desk to glance at his computer.
It was a weird position, Hatch later thought. But it might well have saved his life.
"As soon as I opened it, I heard a pop! like a pop gun. It blew both my eardrums out. All I could see were flashes of light and confetti and my ears were buzzing. I realized I couldn't see or hear. My hand was dangling by a thread. That's when I started screaming for help."
That letter bomb on May 3, 2001, cost Hatch a hand and an eye.
Michael Martin, a 33-year-old oil engineer from Oklahoma, would not live to tell his story. On Oct. 6, less than a month after the terrorist attacks on the United States, Martin was coming out of a store in Khobar, not far from the hospital where Hatch had worked, when a man grabbed him and set off a bomb.
Martin and the bomber died instantly. Five foreigners were injured.
The bombings that maimed Hatch and killed Martin are among a string of attacks in the past two years against Westerners working in Saudi Arabia. While Hatch's case has never been solved, Saudi authorities blamed the Martin killing on a Palestinian suicide bomber. They say other bombings appear to have been the work of Western expatriates fighting for control of the kingdom's huge illegal liquor trade.
Saudi officials have consistently rejected suggestions that at least some of the attacks were perpetrated by Saudis and sprang from anti-Western extremism. It is a denial many find hard to swallow, in light of Saudis' involvement in the Sept. 11 hijackings and other terror attacks against Americans.
Saad Al-Fagih, a Saudi dissident living in exile in London, said sources in the Saudi government and extremist circles admit the bombings were done by "small splinter groups" loosely connected to Osama bin Laden. Like bin Laden, their No. 1 goal is to drive U.S. troops from the birthplace of Islam and purge the country of non-Muslim infidels.
Such splinter groups "want to embarrass the regime and terrorize the Westerners in the country, but they do not have the capacity nor the clear strategy of bin Laden so that's why they choose soft, reachable targets," Al-Fagih said.
For its part, the Saudi royal family has been reluctant to admit there is a "credible internal challenge" to its rule from violent factions, Al-Fagih said. That's because "the regime has always told Americans and Europeans and others that it is in full control of the country and has eradicated all of bin Laden's links to other groups in Saudi society."
Whoever the perpetrators, anti-Western extremism is nothing new in Saudi Arabia.
In 1979, Islamic fundamentalists, outraged at what they considered the corrupting influence of Western culture on the monarchy, seized the Grand Mosque at Mecca. The takeover, crushed after two weeks with scores of deaths, failed to incite Saudis to rise against their rulers. But it scared the royal family enough to let the religious establishment take even greater control over Saudi life.
In 1995, five Americans were killed when a 220-pound car bomb exploded in Riyadh near a U.S.-run training center for the Saudi National Guard. Four Saudis confessed on TV that they were "inspired" by bin Laden. They were later beheaded.
And in 1996, 19 U.S. soldiers were killed by a truck bomb in their barracks at Khobar Towers. Eleven Saudis were arrested; some have been sentenced but their fates were not revealed.
For the next four years, things were relatively quiet in the kingdom. But on Nov. 17, 2000, a series of bombings began that would become increasingly hard for Saudi authorities to explain.
'It got a bit crazy'
That Friday, Christopher Rodway, a British hospital engineer, was on his way to a garden center in Riyadh when his jeep blew up. He died instantly.
Five days later, a bomb ripped apart another car in Riyadh. Among the wounded were two British men who worked for Al-Salam Aircraft Co., partly owned by Boeing.
Saudi police quickly arrested several Westerners and blamed the bombings on a turf war among bootleggers.
There is no doubt that the illegal liquor trade is big in Saudi Arabia, a conservative Muslim nation where alcohol is banned. Many foreigners who work in the kingdom make their wine from Danya grape juice, sugar and brewer's yeast -- all readily available in Saudi supermarkets. Others become involved in the risky but highly profitable business of smuggling liquor into the kingdom from Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates.
Briton Paul Moss managed a residential compound for AT&T in Riyadh, but discovered he could make more in a day selling illegal booze than he could in a week at his regular job. By late 2000, he was smuggling in 100 cases at a time of Johnnie Walker scotch, Moet & Chandon champagne and other sought-after labels. Each case contained 12 bottles, and most of them went to rich Saudis.
"Three of the guys I delivered to are princes," Moss said in a phone interview from Australia where he now lives. "These guys are very powerful and have a lot of cash and there wasn't enough (liquor) for them. What would happen -- and it got a bit crazy toward the end -- they'd be phoning me at 3 and 4 in the morning when they were really drunk, hassling me to get more. There was never enough, the 100 cases would last about two weeks."
Moss was unloading 18 cases of whiskey a few days after the first bombing when he was caught by the mutaween, the Saudi religious police. Moss had heard it was easy to bribe one's way out of trouble so he kept 5,000 riyals -- about $1,400 -- on hand for such an occasion. But to his surprise he was hauled off to prison.
"I felt this was unusual, and the very first thing they said to me was, 'We know you planted bombs.' You could have knocked me down. I said, 'I'm happy to talk about alcohol but I know nothing about bombs.' They weren't interested in alcohol -- everything was related to these bombings."
The Saudis' efforts to pin the bombings on foreign bootleggers would soon become more difficult. By March 2001, several Westerners were in jail and in what were widely seen as forced confessions, three men admitted on TV to planting the bomb that killed Christopher Rodway.
They gave no motive and the bombings continued. That suggested there was some other group, or groups, behind them.
A British ex-officer who works as an adviser to the Saudi military says few expatriates think Westerners would blow each other up because of booze.
"There's too much money in it for anyone to fall out over it," said the officer, who didn't want his name used because he too ran a "winery in Saudi Arabia," as he jokingly puts it.
"Something very fishy is going on."
'They meant for me to die'
Hatch, the Florida-born chiropractor, had been working in Los Angeles when he heard about an attractive, high-paying job at the new Saad hospital in Khobar. He was in Saudi Arabia at the time of the 1996 Khobar Towers attack, but that didn't scare him.
"I always thought I was safer in Saudi than in L.A. because I wasn't worried about being robbed or mugged. I never felt threatened, never thought I'd come across a terrorist."
In some ways, Hatch considers himself lucky. Had he not stood and turned his head away that morning in May 2001, he almost certainly would have been killed or at least blinded in both eyes.
"The policemen said whoever did this bomb knew what they were doing. These bombs are designed to hit in the neck and sever major arteries. They meant for me to die."
Hatch feels lucky, too, that the bomb went off in a hospital. He was in the emergency room within minutes and later was transferred to Aramco Hospital, owned by the Saudi national oil company and considered one of the best medical centers in the Middle East.
But Hatch got little solace from Saudi police.
"They were there the first day. I felt very threatened. I felt like I was the criminal. I had to be sedated after their interrogations I was so upset. I had them come in at 12:30 at night and wake me up. The (U.S.) Embassy was not allowed to come see me for the first three or four days. The police wanted complete access to me."
Though groggy from morphine, Hatch was repeatedly grilled. Did he know any of the people involved in the previous bombings? Had he been to parties at the British Embassy?
No, he replied, he didn't know any of the others. And no, he didn't drink or have involvement in the underground liquor trade.
Still, "they were assured I was into something illegal. . . . They ransacked my apartment, they got my address books, my e-mails." Whenever police found the names of "a Sri Lankan or Indian or Pakistani, that's who they really wanted to pin it on I could tell."
"I was scared they were going to plant drugs or something in my apartment to put some sort of spin on it so the Western community wouldn't panic and think there were terrorists in their midst. I felt like they had an ulterior motive to make it look like it was not a terrorist. They kept saying, 'It's somebody you know, you're not telling us everything.' "
Had the bomber known him, Hatch speculates, he would have sent the package to Hatch's home or put it on his car, which he parked in an area with no security. "To risk coming into the hospital and being seen -- that was pretty brazen."
Instead, Hatch thinks the bomber was a stranger who might have recognized him as an American from his picture on his employer's Web site or a photo that had run in a Saudi newspaper.
For two months Hatch stayed in the hospital under an alias. He was told not to talk to any Arab newspapers because it would jeopardize his status under the Saudi equivalent of workers' compensation. "It was a pretty veiled threat," he said.
Today, Hatch is at home in Florida where he continues to recuperate. The Saudi government paid his hospital expenses, and he had insurance that covered some subsequent care. Everything else is out-of-pocket, including $2,600 for a hearing aid and $13,000 for a prosthetic hand.
The case remains unsolved. After the liquor tie was discounted, rumors swirled that the bomber was a disgruntled former patient or a maybe a colleague at the hospital.
Though the U.S. consular staff in Khobar was very helpful -- "they went above and beyond the call of duty" -- Hatch thinks the U.S. government has little interest in delving too far into the bombing.
"I think it was hushed. They didn't want to create a problem because of the oil. And I think the Saudi royal family wants to keep it hushed because they don't want people to realize there is a problem."
'Rampant anger against Westerners'
Saudi authorities eventually released Paul Moss, the Briton who had been selling bootleg scotch, and several other Westerners who were arrested after the first bombings. Though all served time for alcohol violations, none was charged in connection with the attacks.
Seven other men -- a Canadian, five Britons and a Belgian -- were not so lucky. They remain in prison and reportedly have received sentences ranging from eight years to death by beheading.
But if Gary Hatch's case raised serious doubts that the bombings were liquor-related, what happened to Mike Martin might have shattered the idea forever.
Martin, a Native American from Oklahoma's Caddo tribe, was an outdoorsman who loved hunting and fishing. An employee of Halliburton, the U.S. energy company where Vice President Dick Cheney spent several lucrative years, Martin was working in Saudi Arabia on a 30-days-on, 30-days-off schedule.
On the night of Oct. 6, Martin and a co-worker went to the Al-Mushiri Trading Establishment on busy King Khaled Street in downtown Khobar. The store, well-stocked with knives, watches and electronic gear, was popular with Western expatriates because of its comparatively cheap prices. Knowing Martin, relatives say, he had started buying Christmas presents for his fiance and two children.
Ibrahim Al-Mushiri, the store's owner, was across the street when he heard a boom. He rushed back to his store to find Martin dead of gaping chest wounds, another body in bits and pieces, and five men injured. None of his employees was hurt even though the blast shattered every window, destroyed much of the merchandise and hurled one of the bomber's hands 30 feet to the back of the store.
Al-Mushiri says Martin's co-worker told him they had noticed a man following them down the street that evening. He apparently waited while they shopped, then grabbed Martin as he came out of the store.
Initially, Saudi authorities floated the idea that this, too, might be related to the illegal liquor trade. A few weeks later, though, they identified the bomber as a 30-year-old Palestinian dentist who worked at a clinic in Riyadh but visited his father in the Khobar area on weekends. A search of the father's house turned up traces of explosives and two valid Indian passports, police said.
Martin's family back in the states finds this story strange. What was a Saudi father doing with a Palestinian son who had Indian passports and Egyptian travel documents?
"This was the only Palestinian bombing ever in the history of Saudi Arabia and right there that raises flags," said Martin's brother, Darrell.
"It's tough when you have the Saudis investigating. What if a Saudi dissident actually did it instead of a Palestinian -- what would that have done to our (relations) between the two countries, right after Sept. 11 especially?"
Martin's relatives say they got little help or information from the U.S. State Department and never heard from Saudi authorities. They're irked, too, that the Saudis kept Martin's body for a month.
Al-Mushiri, the store owner, accepts his government's claim that the bombing was the work of a deranged person and had nothing to do with organized anti-Western extremism.
"This is something that can happen in Oklahoma City," he said. "There are crazy people all over the world."
But Martin's family can't shake the idea that it was a deliberate attack against an employee of a major U.S. company whose former CEO is vice president of the United States.
"It could have happened by coincidence but I really don't believe that after Sept. 11," Darrell Martin said. "The anger against Westerners, it's rampant."
The U.S. government has said little about the Hatch or Martin bombings. But on May 22 it issued this warning:
"There is growing concern that individuals may be planning terrorist action against United States citizens and interests, as well as tourist sites frequented by Westerners in the region of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. . . . In light of these reports, prudence dictates that American citizens continue to follow good personal security practices."
Since that warning, there have been at least four attacks or attempted attacks against Westerners working in Saudi Arabia. On June 5, a sniper fired five shots at an Australian driving in the northern part of the kingdom. On June 20, a British banker was killed when his car blew up in Riyadh. On June 29, a bomb was found under an American's car in Riyadh. And just a day later, also in Riyadh, a "suspicious device" was found under another Briton's car.
-- Times researchers Cathy Wos and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.