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Peter Bergen: Attacking the heart of Saudi kingdom

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

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(CNN) -- Saudi Arabia is preparing for more terrorist attacks following a suicide car bombing in Riyadh on Saturday, which killed 17 people and wounded more than 120. Officials in the kingdom blame al Qaeda for the attack, and now fear terrorists might strike the city of Mecca, a pilgrimage destination during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen spoke Monday with anchor Bill Hemmer about the possible motivation behind attacks in Saudi Arabia.

HEMMER: This attack really runs the list of victims from everywhere -- Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Pakistan, Romania, the list continues. What do terrorists gain by an attack like this in Saudi Arabia?

BERGEN: Well, I think, you know, Bill, it's an attack in Riyadh, obviously, the capital. It is a sign, a way of saying that the Saudi regime is not fully in control even of its own capital. We saw on May 12 another devastating attack similar to this. That was really Saudi's 9/11. For them, that was a big wake-up call. They hadn't really been cracking down on al Qaeda until that point. They had not really been cooperating in the 9/11 investigation.

After May 12, we've seen something quite different, really an attempt to go after al Qaeda inside the kingdom. But obviously, even with the arrests of hundreds of militants, they're still capable of doing the sort of thing we saw this weekend. And obviously there is intelligence indicating that there may be more similar attacks.

HEMMER: You set up an excellent premise based on the past six months about the attacks back there in May and what has happened since then. But at this point, knowing what happened Saturday night, how do [the Saudis] effectively respond?

BERGEN: Well, I think more of the same. I mean they've arrested, the figure is 600 militants, that they've used in the past. They're obviously going to keep going. But I think there are two problems. One is there obviously is quite a significant opposition movement inside the kingdom. Secondly, I think that some of the people -- we're seeing a push and a pull towards Iraq. A number of these Saudi militants, because of the crackdown inside the Saudi kingdom, are going to Iraq. Not only are they attracted by the fact that there are U.S. soldiers over there as targets, but also this crackdown has been pretty heavy by the Saudi authorities.

But obviously not sufficient because they're still capable of pulling off what we saw on the weekend.

HEMMER: What's your response to Sen. Joe Biden from Sunday, when he was talking with Wolf Blitzer about turning it up another click, he said, to crack down on the funding? Do they respond to this now or does it take another attack and another one after that to get movement?

BERGEN: Well ... they're going to be burying their heads in the sand on the al Qaeda problem for some time. They're in a sort of Catch-22. The Saudi royal family are the custodians of the holy places of Mecca and Medina. And so they are, in a way -- if, by cracking down on the religious extremists, it puts them in a rather difficult position because they're supposed to uphold the Wahabi religion, which is the religion, the state religion of Saudi Arabia.

So for a long time they chose not to crack down.

Sen. Biden's comment about turning it up a click, I think, makes a lot of sense. But even if you cut down on all the funding, at the end of the day this is not entirely about money because you can't get people to commit suicide in these attacks because of money. Obviously there's something more here.

They really believe that this is a fight against the forces of evil, the West. They also identify the royal family as part of the problem. They regard the royal family as just being too Western. Osama bin Laden, obviously, the sort of ideological leader of the movement and the leader of al Qaeda itself, has repeatedly called for the overthrow of the royal family. And I think we're seeing protests in the streets of Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh recently, hundreds of people taking to the streets. Now we're seeing these attacks inside the kingdom.

There's been a debate within al Qaeda about whether these attacks make sense. Obviously, they have decided that they do make sense, even though this is the source of their funding, as you pointed out, and also sort of one of their most important bases.

They are prepared to take this fight ... right to the heart of the Saudi kingdom and I think we can expect more of the same, unfortunately.


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