BERLIN, Dec. 6 -- Nine people died Monday in an armed attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, as Islamic radicals ended six months of relative calm in the desert kingdom with a new multiple-casualty assault on a Western target.
Saudi officials blamed the strike on a network affiliated with al Qaeda that has killed more than 80 people in Saudi Arabia since May 2003, when suicide bombers devastated a housing compound in Riyadh, the capital, where many foreigners, including Americans, lived. Five consulate employees -- none of them Americans -- and three gunmen died in Monday's attack. Saudi forces took two wounded assailants into custody, one of whom died later in a hospital. Thirteen others, including five Saudi security officers, were wounded.
After long denying the presence of al Qaeda groups on the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi leaders responded to attacks last year with a crackdown on suspected radicals and have worked more closely with the United States and other countries to investigate global terror networks.
Since then, the Saudi government has said at least three al Qaeda cells have been dismantled and 17 of the 26 most wanted terror suspects in the kingdom arrested or killed. Notwithstanding Monday's attack in Jiddah, Saudi officials said they were gradually eliminating the domestic threat.
"This is a last gasp," said Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic radicals who serves as an adviser to the Saudi ambassador to London. "They have not been able to carry out any attacks for the last six months. What they tried to carry out today was a serious attack, but it failed."
No Westerners have been killed in the kingdom since September, when a British engineer and a French businessman were fatally shot in separate incidents that investigators later attributed to al Qaeda. In August, an Irish employee of a Saudi engineering firm was shot and killed in his office in Riyadh.
The attacks on Westerners appeared to crest in June, when three Americans were killed within a period of days in Riyadh. Among those killed was Paul M. Johnson Jr., a defense contractor who was beheaded by an al Qaeda cell that posted a video of the killing on the Internet. In a shootout the next day, Saudi security forces killed the man they said was the cell's leader and have since rounded up dozens of other suspected radicals.
Despite Saudi claims of progress, outside counterterrorism officials and experts have predicted for months that a new wave of violence would materialize, arguing that it was only a matter of time before al Qaeda-affiliated cells regrouped.
"We know that al Qaeda is not dead in Saudi Arabia," said Mai Yamani, a Saudi analyst and research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "Saudi Arabia is a base for al Qaeda, culturally, financially and ideologically. Al Qaeda is Saudi-born and nurtured."
While the al Qaeda groups in Saudi Arabia have focused on U.S. and European targets, they have made clear in Internet postings and other statements that their goal is to overthrow the royal House of Saud, which they view as corrupt and beholden to foreigners. The founder of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, who has long been hostile to the monarchy, is from a wealthy Saudi family.
Al Qaeda has tried to draw support in a deeply conservative Islamic society where many people are strongly opposed to the U.S. presence in the Middle East and have applauded the insurgency against the U.S. military in Iraq.
Last month, 26 prominent Saudi clerics jointly issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling on Iraqi Muslims to fight "the invader occupiers" in their country and saying that armed resistance was "a legitimate right." Two former religious mentors to bin Laden, Salman Ouda and Safar Hawali, were among those who issued the edict.
Until Monday, Jiddah, a city of 2 million on the Red Sea, had largely been free of the violence aimed at Westerners. Most of the al Qaeda attacks have occurred in Riyadh or in oil-producing regions.
The gunmen entered the heavily guarded consulate by throwing hand grenades and smoke bombs at a main entrance, the Saudi Interior Ministry said in a statement. Gen. Mansour Turki, a spokesman for the ministry, told the Associated Press that the gunmen made their way onto the consulate grounds by following an embassy car that was driving through a gate.
Saudi officials said the attackers seized about 18 people in a courtyard outside the main structures but were not able to gain access to the consulate building.
Some of them said the gunmen took them hostage, leading to a standoff with Saudi security forces.
"They held us hostage for an hour, an hour and a half," Muaffa Jilan Ibrahim, a Yemeni maintenance worker who sustained minor wounds, told the Reuters news agency. "They told the security forces in front of us: 'We have hostages. If you approach, we will shoot.' They put us in front of them as human shields. The security forces stormed in and there was an exchange of fire."
A group calling itself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula asserted responsibility for the attack in an Internet posting, Reuters reported. Its authenticity could not be independently verified.
The radicals' assault resembled an incident last May, when gunmen took dozens of Westerners hostage at a residential and office complex in the city of Khobar and killed 22 foreign and Saudi civilians and seven Saudi police officers.