The Times (London) carries a story today, "Disguised gunmen try to free terror leader," that details how three Islamist terrorists (or in the Times' vernacular, "al-Qaeda militants") staged an audacious attempt yesterday to spring Nimir Bigami, the badly wounded ringleader of the massacre in al-Khobar that took place on May 29-30, from a prison hospital. Here are the details: the trio
slipped through the main entrance. The bombproof metal security gates had been left open at the Ministry of Interior medical complex in Riyadh. All visitors are meant to show identity documents, but reports say that the terrorists were cloaked from head to foot in women's veils.
An Asian businessmen who was visiting the hospital said: "The guards don't bother to check women even though there have been several incidents in recent weeks where terrorists have worn abayas. Security staff simply don't challenge or search women but this will have to change."
Witnesses said that, once inside the hospital, the gunmen threatened foreign staff and shouted out Bigami's name, saying that they were willing to die to free him. Although the hospital treats senior figures in the Saudi Royal Family there is a wing where terrorist suspects are given medical aid.
It is not known if the three gunmen opened fire, but when they failed to reach the prison wing they were able to flee the hospital, again evading security guards.
It is hard to decide what staggers the imagination more: that Saudi law enforcement has not wised up to male terrorists disguising themselves as females; or that three terrorists have now eluded capture by Saudi authorities for the second time in ten days.
And, incidentally: Sultaana Freeman – the woman suing the State of Florida to win the right to be pictured on her driver's license wearing a niqab and showing just her eyes – is back in the news today, with a report in the Orlando Sentinel on the arguments yesterday in front of the judges at Florida's Fifth District Court of Appeal. The paper summarizes these:
Howard Marx, Freeman's attorney, argued that the state should not substantially burden his client with the requirement that she appear without her veil on her drivers license. Conversely, Assistant Attorney General Jay Vail relied on the decision last year in an Orange County circuit court that favored the state's argument that 9-11 security concerns must outweigh a person's individual rights.
This case will go some way to deciding whether Saudi norms, with all their implications, will be imposed on the United States or not. (If judges read the opinion polls, there won't be any doubt; see the unscientific but convincing WFTV survey that finds 97 percent of respondents replying "no" to the question "Should the judge allow her to wear her veil in her driver license photo?") (June 9, 2004)
July 5, 2004 update: One clue to the reasons for Saudi counterterrorist incompetence came today in an eye-opening article in the Times (London): The Ministry of the Interior intelligence organization mainly responsible for combating Al-Qaeda is completely riddled with agents linked to Al-Qaeda. "Their staff is 80 per cent sympathetic to Al-Qaeda," said one Arab source. "All Saudi intelligence agencies are compromised. To fight al-Qaeda they will need to start from scratch."