Cumbers, an Irish freelance cameraman on assignment for the BBC, was shot dead by Al-Qaeda gunmen in the Al-Suwaidi district of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, according to news reports. BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner was critically injured in the attack, which left him partly paralyzed.
Cumbers was with Gardner, a driver, and a minder, assigned by the Saudi Ministry of Information, as he filmed a house belonging to an Al-Qaeda militant killed by Saudi police in 2003, according to news reports.
According to Gardner’s 2006 book Blood and Sand, the crew originally agreed to spend no more than 10 minutes in Al-Suwaidi, given the district’s reputation for its strong Al-Qaeda presence. At the time, the government minder did not express concern for the safety of the crew, so Cumbers and Gardner decided to stay for another 30 minutes to film multiple takes, Gardner wrote. As they were about to pack up and leave, a young Saudi male dressed in the traditional white thobe got out from his car and approached the crew. He greeted Gardner, saying in Arabic “Peace be upon you,” to which Gardner replied with the traditional “And upon you the peace and mercy of God and his blessings.” The man hesitated a moment, pulled out a pistol, and began to fire.
Gardner wrote that he tried to run away, but was hit in the shoulder. A second round struck him in the leg and he fell to the ground in front of a second group of gunmen who were inside a minivan and had opened fire on him. One of the shooters then rifled through his pockets before the group left the scene. Gardner wrote that he lay bleeding on the ground for more than a half-hour before police drove him to a hospital.
In a meeting in 2005, Saudi detectives told Gardner that Cumbers died as he got into the van to try and escape, Gardner wrote in his book. News reports said Cumbers was shot in the head. The detectives said that the driver and the government minder survived.
The Saudi detectives told Gardner that six gunmen had undertaken the operation, according to the book. The detectives said that members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were headed to meet Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, the head of the group, in the Al-Suwaidi neighborhood when they spotted the TV crew. The detectives said that al-Muqrin gave the order to kill the journalists.
The detectives told Gardner that the gunman who first shot him was named Abdullah al-Subaei, but that it was Faisal al-Dakheel, a senior member of the group, who fired again at Gardner from the minivan.
Al-Muqrin and al-Dakheel were killed in a shootout with security forces on June 18, 2004, in Al-Suwaidi, according to news reports. At least three other expatriates were killed in the 12 days between Cumbers’ murder and the shootout, according to Jihad in Saudi Arabia, a 2010 book written by scholar Thomas Heghammer. Three of the other assailants were also killed in clashes with security forces.
The sixth member of the attackers, Adel al-Dhubaiti, was arrested in 2005, Gardner told CPJ. In the 2005 meeting with Gardner, the Saudi detectives told him that al-Dhubaiti was the gunman who shot Cumbers.
On November 18, 2014, the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court sentenced al-Dhubaiti to death for his role in multiple Al-Qaeda attacks, including the murder of Cumbers, according to news reports. Two other defendants, members of Al-Qaeda, were sentenced to death and five others were sentenced to up to 30 years’ imprisonment, the reports said.
The Saudi embassy in the United States and the Saudi Ministry of Justice did not respond to CPJ’s requests in late 2014 for comment. Gardner told CPJ in an email shortly after the sentence that the Saudi government had provided him and the Cumbers family with “absolutely ZERO information about the trial.” He added that the Saudi government had never apologized nor paid any compensation to his or Cumbers’ family for what he said was Saudi incompetence in both ensuring security for the crew and handling the aftermath of the shooting.
Cumbers’ father, Robert, said in a statement after the November 2014 sentencing that he had “mixed feelings” about the issuing of a death sentence. He said he was relieved the wait was over but expressed sympathy to Al-Dhubaiti’s parents.
On January 2, 2016, the Saudi Ministry of Interior said in a statement it had executed 47 prisoners, including al-Dhubaiti. The list of executed prisoners mostly included those accused of carrying out attacks on behalf of Al-Qaeda.