Some had trained abroad to become pilots and were planning to hijack airplanes to destroy oil refineries, Saudi Arabian officials said over the weekend, revealing alleged details of a foiled Al Qaeda plot on the kingdom.
Government officials announced on Friday the arrests of 172 suspected militants, one of the largest such roundups inside the country and the result of months of work involving informants and intelligence gleaned from captured militants.
While the arrests may have thwarted a 9/11-like plot, stopping the attacks in the planning highlights how successful the country's security services have been in restricting the group's ability to operate since 2004. By then, dozens of Saudi nationals and foreign-born residents had been killed by Al Qaeda's adherents as the group appeared to be growing in strength and support.
What happened, analysts say, is that the Saudis came to view Al Qaeda as a legitimate threat as average Saudis – who had been somewhat supportive of Al Qaeda when its attacks seemed targeted at driving the US out of Afghanistan or Iraq or focused on foreigners in the kingdom – grew disgusted with bloodshed on their own soil.
"In May 2003, when the first attack happened, the Saudi security was not prepared. They never thought there would be an attack" inside the country, says Mustafa Alani, referring to the Al Qaeda attacks on three compounds where many American residents lived in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that killed 35 people.
Now, "security services have improved," says Mr. Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, a think tank funded by a Saudi businessman.
"More importantly, there has been a change in Saudi society," says Alani. "Al Qaeda made a strategic mistake by attacking Saudis, Arabs, and Muslims. For the sake of killing one foreigner, they are killing five or 10 Saudis. The average man no longer believes it is jihad. Any attacks in Saudi Arabia they see as unjustifiable, illegitimate, and terrorism, not jihad."
That shift in local attitudes, he says, has made policing the country easier.
"Society became the main source of intelligence … there are many cases when the information is coming from the family. Someone calls and says my son or brother has disappeared and I believe he has been recruited," Alani says.
There's no question that Al Qaeda's ability to successfully carry out attacks inside Saudi Arabia has been severely degraded in recent years.
According to data compiled by Alani, 50 civilians and members of the security services were killed by Islamist militants inside the kingdom in 2003, 68 in 2004, and seven in 2006. Alani didn't provide data for 2005, but a review of press reports from that year shows at least five deaths.
Saudi Arabia has also moved away from what appeared to have been a state of denial regarding Al Qaeda. In 2002, there were a series of assassinations of local officials and foreigners in the country, but at the time the Saudi government described many of the killings of the foreigners as tied to gangs involved in alcohol smuggling (alcohol is illegal in the Kingdom).
"It's been night and day, says a European businessman in Riyadh who has worked inside the kingdom for 10 years and was friends with one of the first foreigners killed, British banker Simon Veness, murdered by a bomb placed in his car.
"They were going on and on about this being gang violence – everyone knew it was Al Qaeda, but the government didn't want to admit it had a problem.... Now, they seem to be grappling with the reality."
The Saudi government still typically refers to Al Qaeda – whose leader, Osama bin Laden, is a Saudi – not by name, but as a "deviant group."
This time, at least one official was more blunt. Those arrested, "are carriers of Al Qaeda ideology, working on achieving Al Qaeda goals," Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki told the Associated Press.
While the security services have shown some improvement in confronting the terrorist threat, Faris bin Hizam says the government still has a long way to go in the battle against Al Qaeda.
"It's like we have done nothing against Al Qaeda in the past four years. It's only the security forces that are working against the militants. The other branches of the government are not doing anything. Where are the ministries of education and Islamic affairs?" says Mr. Hizam, a Saudi expert on Al Qaeda who is based in Dubai.
Hizam says that most of the those arrested over the past few months are young Saudis in their early 20s and that Al Qaeda has found a fertile recruiting ground on the Internet. "They recruit them mostly now through the Internet, and they communicate through [text messaging]," he says. "Most of the new recruits are students in high school and college, and not all of them are from religious families. I just visited a liberal Saudi family in Dammam whose son has joined the ranks of Al Qaeda," says Hizam.
Hizam said that many Saudis were puzzled at the lack of a coordinated government plan to fight militants in the kingdom and said that he thought arrests of more militants would continue for many years to come.
"No one can understand what the ministries of Education and Islamic affairs are doing to fight these terrorists," he says. "I don't believe that the government is going to do anything new in the future to fight terrorism."
Over the weekend, the Saudi government did take the occasion of the arrests to reiterate to the Saudi public that Al Qaeda is working against the kingdom's interests.
State TV showed security forces digging up weapons and explosives, and a government statement said the men had received training in an unspecified, nearby "troubled" country, and that they intended to target both Saudi nationals and foreigners.
General Turki told the AP that the men might have been trained in Iraq, Somalia, or Pakistan. Counter-terrorism officials inside and outside of Iraq say that a growing number of young Saudi men have been crossing the border to fight in Iraq, and that the conflict there is inspiring a new generation of radicals.
• Rasheed Abou-Alsamh in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Jill Carroll in Cairo contributed reporting.