The Iraqi-born American engineer stood listening to two of the four terrorists who had attacked his luxurious residential compound in this Gulf oil center wrangling over his fate.
“He’s an American, we should shoot him,” he recalled the younger of the two as arguing. He looked about 18 and was wearing desert camouflage.
“We don’t shoot Muslims,” responded the older man, perhaps 25 with wispy facial hair.
The argument seesawed back and forth for several minutes, both men displaying a certain calm determination. The engineer had a stark example of their determination because a few meters away lay the body of a Swede he knew, oozing blood. Two other militants cradled guns as they paced nearby.
The engineer stood there silently, hoping, praying that the older man would prevail. “I was on the borderline,” he said, “but finally the older one said, ‘We are not going to shoot you.'”
Instead, they gave him a brief lecture about the merits of Islam and their cause, then tried to make him point out the houses of non-Muslim neighbors.
The engineer, who has a fringe of black hair and gold-rimmed glasses, only wanted to be identified by his adopted name of Mike because three of the four gunmen remained at large. He remains too nervous even to have his current home mentioned.
While the 242 residents rescued from the upscale Oasis compound here were departing the country as quickly as possible, the way the hostage drama ended Sunday, with three militants escaping and with 22 people dead and 25 wounded, left more questions than answers in the heart of the kingdom’s oil industry along the Gulf.
Many Saudis and expatriates wondered aloud whether the gunmen and the police had struck a deal, speculating about how it was possible that the militants could escape from a walled compound surrounded by hundreds of police officers.
“It makes me very nervous,” said Ismail Rahim, a 33-year-old Saudi computer technician. “We are all really upset about how these people left, how they just ran away from that compound.”
Hours after the standoff, the Interior Ministry said that the gunmen had taken hostages with them. But Western diplomats and some Saudis discounted that argument, saying that at some point the militants had released the few residents they still had with them and had managed to get away in a stolen car.
“We don’t really know what happened yet; the Saudis haven’t given us a readout,” said a Western diplomat.
Saud al-Musaibeh, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the safety of the residents still trapped in the compound during the ordeal, about 41 of whom were actually held captive, had been the primary concern. He said a nationwide dragnet would find the men.
There have been few developments in the case, although rumors ricocheted around of gunfights, explosions and dead bodies found. A radical prayer leader in a mosque in Khobar was picked up on suspicion of having a link to the men, said a Saudi close to the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The Saudi said that the leader of the militants, Nimr al-Bigami, who had recently been released from jail and is the son of a Riyadh businessman, remained in a coma after being wounded in the shootout early Sunday.
For Mike, the 45-year-old Iraqi-American engineer, the ordeal started early Saturday morning as he was trying to leave the Oasis compound. As the heavy metal gate clanged open to let him out, he heard gunfire and drove home to wake up his wife.
Coming downstairs afterward, he saw blood on the carpet and smelled smoke. A quick check of the family, including his daughter and son, revealed no wounds, so he went to summon security.
On the way, he encountered four men in uniforms and carrying guns and asked them if they were security. They said yes, and he began detailing the problems in his villa. At that point they demanded his residency card, which indicates nationality and religion, sparking the argument over whether to kill him.
Mike shook his head at the memory, noting that it shows how little he was expecting an attack inside the heavily guarded compound. “I mean, until the very last minute I thought the terrorists were security guards,” he said.
After deciding not to shoot him, the men tried to justify their cause.
“They told me, ‘We are here because we want to promote Islam, we don’t want non-Muslims to come to our country, we are promoting a Muslim cause,'” Mike recalled Monday. They asked him to point out the houses of non-Muslims. The Saudi public was particularly disturbed by the killing of Muslims in previous attacks.
He lied and said he had only recently moved there, although he had been in the Eastern Province since 1999, building a gas and oil development company that he now hopes to transfer to Bahrain.
The gunmen let him go, apologizing as he left that they had searched his house and that one of them had bled on his carpet. Mike went home and gathered some neighbors, calling the American Embassy and the Saudi police to sound the alarm.
He said Monday that he had still not heard back from the embassy. But on the day of the drama the police eventually sent three armored personnel carriers to rescue him and about 15 neighbors. The compound’s owner came with them.
Since Mike got out, calls have poured in from friends as far away as Dearborn, Michigan, as well as from family still living in Najaf, Iraq, and from his brother in Baghdad.
“He told me I should come there, it’s safer,” Mike said.