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Saudi security forces 'agreed to let al-Qa'eda killers escape'
Witnesses said yesterday that the terrorists who killed 22 civilians in Saudi Arabia and took more than 40 people hostage were let out of the besieged compound by security forces in an apparent deal to avoid more people being killed.
Saudi officials maintained that the kidnappers had used hostages as human shields before finding a vehicle and making their escape.
However, an employee at the compound in Khobar said a hostage told him that he had heard the gunmen shouting that they would release captives if security forces let them go.
Security forces at first refused, but agreed after the militants, who also threatened to blow up the building, began killing hostages.
As Saudi Arabia yesterday vowed to hunt down al-Qa'eda "deviants", a senior Saudi official claimed that five of the six terrorist cells known to be active in the country have been dismantled in the past year.
In an attempt to reassure the outside world that the security situation was under control, Prince Turki al Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to London, said there appeared to be no new recruits to the core of al-Qa'eda members identified last year by the Saudi intelligence services.
But his comments were unlikely to assuage Western fears that Saudi Arabia's security forces were ill-prepared and deeply penetrated by the militants. Even Prince Turki admits that it would take "decades" to defeat extremists.
Time and again, when Saudi police have mounted raids on al-Qa'eda suspects, many terrorists have been able to slip away as they did on Sunday.
In November, several terrorists escaped from a raid in Mecca; 10 militants vanished on Aug 10 during a gun battle with police; and last May 19 al-Qa'eda suspects shot their way out of a police trap.
The inevitable conclusion over last weekend's operation is that the terrorists have often had help on the inside - help to plan the operation, help with knowledge of the area and help in escaping.
It is not just that al-Qa'eda has almost limitless wealth with which to bribe and fund operations - last year al-Qa'eda spent more than $500 million in maintaining its network in Saudi Arabia, much of it coming from the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan - but it enjoys the support of a cross-section of Saudi society. Saudis acknowledge privately that al-Qa'eda has infiltrated its security forces and military.
The CIA concluded in an internal report last year that al-Qa'eda could draw from a pool of up to 10,000 Saudis for operations and logistics.
Insurgents who attacked residential compounds in Riyadh in November, like the Khobar terrorists at the weekend, used military vehicles and uniforms to penetrate the secure areas. Several tailors in Riyadh routinely sell military and national guard uniforms without asking clients for identification.
Foreign intelligence agencies are known to be concerned at the number of Egyptian, Pakistani, Sudanese, Syrian and Indian nationals who have been integrated into the Saudi air force, army, navy, police and security forces.
There are about one million Pakistanis in the kingdom, of whom many are also employed as computer operators and in the maintenance and training at Saudi airbases.
Saudi attempts to cut down on its huge foreign labour force in sensitive positions, started after the September 11 attacks on America, have made little progress.
Out of a total Saudi workforce of 7.2 million, about 200,000 foreigners still work in the public sector and even more in the private sector.
Mohammed al-Masari, a leading Saudi extremist who lives in Britain, has said two types of Saudis sympathise with Osama bin Laden.
"Some are sincerely fed up with the corruption and lack of respect for Islam," he said. "The others hope to use the jihadis for their power game inside the royal family."
Friction between King Abdullah and his half brothers fuels al-Qa'eda's dreams of destabilising the kingdom to the point where it creates the climate for a coup while providing it with extra funds from embittered members of the extended family.