At least five militants penetrated two layers of security at the U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Dec. 6, sparking a standoff with U.S. Marines and Saudi security forces that lasted at least three hours. Three militants were killed and two were arrested. Nine other people, including four Saudi national guardsmen, also were killed and several other people were wounded in the attack, which began at 11:15 a.m. local time.
In addition to the Saudi guardsmen, one local guard and four foreign service employees at the consulate also were killed, according to the U.S. State Department. Their nationalities were unknown. Initial reports indicated that several hostages were held during the standoff, but the U.S. State Department later said it has not been confirmed whether a hostage situation took place.
An attack of this nature was not unexpected. STRATFOR has been saying for some time that renewed attacks against U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia were likely to take place in the fall. Nevertheless, a number of lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of both the attackers and the defenders of the 30-acre compound.
The attackers, likely Islamist militants, successfully exploited defensive shortcomings in a number of areas, beginning with Saudi security forces outside the compound. Once they blasted through Saudi security, shooting to death four Saudi guards in the process; the attackers then succeeded in penetrating the compound's outer wall. Sources in the U.S. State Department said the attackers waited until security opened the compound's gate to allow a vehicle to enter or exit, and that they then possibly launched grenades in order to fend off efforts to stop them. The attackers then tried to storm the consulate building, but ran up against U.S. Marine security guards and additional Saudi security forces, setting off the standoff.
The choice of the consulate compound as a target indicates the militants engaged in some planning before launching the attack. According to U.S. security sources, the compound is the oldest U.S. government facility in the kingdom. It also is the most vulnerable facility, from a surveillance standpoint, because it is located on a heavily trafficked thoroughfare. Militants conducting preoperational surveillance outside the facility apparently went undetected amid the normal stream of traffic, despite the fact that countersurveillance teams were in place, according to sources within the U.S. government. The time of the attack also indicates a level of forethought. Like most U.S. consulates, the Jeddah facility does not provide nonstop consular services. Visa services are offered until 9:30 a.m. and U.S. citizen services begin after 1 p.m. The attackers apparently waited for a lull in consular activity before striking, as this lull likely was accompanied by a reduction in visible security. Furthermore, the line of Saudi citizens waiting to apply for visas was not as long at that hour, which would suggest the attackers hoped to limit Saudi casualties. However, this attack must be considered a failure because the militants neither penetrated the building itself nor did they take U.S. casualties. From a security perspective, the concentric rings of security surrounding the compound functioned well. Although the attackers successfully breached the two outermost rings, they failed to penetrate the heart of the compound. This is because of the response by U.S. security teams within the facility and to the compound's layout, which separates the main building from the outer wall by about 100 yards of guarded space. Therefore, the time it took the militants to crash the gate and rush the building provided more than enough opportunity for consulate personnel and security forces to react to the attack and mount a resistance. The sources also said several other buildings on the compound were in the potential line of fire during the attack, but that few U.S. personnel were in those buildings at the time. The physical security of the building itself also could have helped stop the attackers, as it is constructed of bulletproof and blast-resistant walls and doors. Additionally, the doors are specially designed to protect against forced entry. Furthermore, a second "hard line" of security barriers is located inside the building. This is in contrast to the May 29 attacks against the Oasis compound in the city of Khobar, in which at least six expatriates were killed. In Khobar, a hard perimeter surrounds the compound but there is a "soft middle" inside. In this case, the consulate had a hard wall — and even harder inner defenses. It seems the militants' preoperational surveillance was limited to the exterior of the building, suggesting they were unaware of the lines of defense inside. This failure of intelligence on their part led ultimately to the death of some and the capture of others.