The discovery by Saudi police of two Al Qaeda extremists wearing explosive vests in preparation for an "imminent" suicide attack underscores yet again the rising threat to Saudi Arabia from the deteriorating security situation in neighboring Yemen.
The target of the foiled Oct. 13 attack is not yet known, Ministry of Interior spokesman Gen. Mansour Al Turki said Monday. But equipment found in the men's car last week, including explosives, machine guns, grenades, and two additional vests, suggests that the operation would have been significant – potentially resulting in the loss of many lives.
The men, one of whom spent several years in the US detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had been sent to Saudi Arabia by an Al Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen, according to a Saudi Interior Ministry statement. Their foiled attack was the second close call for Saudi security forces in less than two months involving Saudi militants from the Yemen-based group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Made up largely of Saudis and Yemenis, AQAP is reportedly being reinforced by veteran jihadi fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to some analysts. It is able to work in relative freedom in Yemen because of the Yemeni government's preoccupation with its own more pressing issues, namely a full-blown rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. Another reason the Yemeni government tolerates the group's presence may be because the jihadi fighters sometimes assist Yemeni forces in military operations against the rebels, a Western diplomat said – all of which make the precarious state a potential haven for militants.
"In Yemen there is great potential for [AQAP] to take advantage of undergoverned spaces to regroup, plot, and prepare for attacks against US and Western targets in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the region," says Christopher Boucek, author of a September report on Yemen called "Avoiding a Downward Spiral."
The Saudi government, which shares a long, rugged border with Yemen, is extremely concerned about its neighbor's internal turmoil.
"Yemen is the backyard of Saudi security," says Mustafa Alani, a counterterrorism expert at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. "The Saudis look at Yemen and see separatism, sectarianism, terrorism, so they have genuine concerns."
Yemen: A terrorist haven?
In an effort to stop further deterioration, the Saudi government is publicly "standing 100 percent behind" the Yemeni government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, says Mr. Alani. "They think it must be supported despite all its shortcomings."
The kingdom has been the second-largest contributor – after the United States – to an international appeal for humanitarian aid in Saada, where an estimated 150,000 Yemenis have been displaced from their homes because of ongoing fighting between government forces and Houthi rebels.
"For the US government, Yemen is a counterterrorism priority second only to Afghanistan/Pakistan," Boucek said in an interview.
In his report, he said that while the international community must be "realistic about the limitations of intervention in Yemen. In the near term, however, inaction is not an option."
Operations inside Saudi Arabia
The recent interception of two suicide bombers follows earlier arrests this year of extremists operating inside Saudi Arabia with links to Al Qaeda. In April, 11 men who allegedly had stored components for more than 30 suicide vests, some of it in caves, were detained. Their main targets, spokesman Al Turki said at the time, were to have been Saudi security officials and policemen.
In August, the Interior Ministry announced that a year-long surveillance operation had led to the detention of an Al Qaeda-linked cell of 44 men. The men, most of whom held advanced university degrees, had hidden away machine guns and electronic circuits for bombs, a statement said.
On Aug. 27, Abdullah Asiri, pretending that he was surrendering to authorities, blew himself up while seated next to Saudi Arabia's top counter-terrorism official. He allegedly had secreted the bomb inside his body. The official, Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, escaped serious injury.
The two fighters discovered last week, Rayed Abdullahi al-Harbi and Yousef Mohammed al-Shihri, were both on a Saudi government most-wanted list issued in February. Al Shihri is a former Guantanamo detainee, and the brother-in-law of Saeed al-Shihri, the Yemen-based deputy commander of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who also was at Guantánamo, spokesman Turki said.
Dressed like women, their faces hidden by veils, Harbi and Shihri were stopped at a highway checkpoint last week in the southern province of Jizan near the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border last week.
When police on duty asked a policewoman to check the identities of the "women," the militants began firing. In the shoot-out that ensued, the would-be suicide bombers and one policeman were killed, the government statement said.
Two additional suicide vests found in the men's black GMC, suggesting that others would have joined their operation.
"The whole group was planning one terror attack and each of them had a specific role to play," Turki told the Associated Press. "The presence of the extra belts indicates they were working with people inside the kingdom."
The car's driver and six Yemenis allegedly collaborating with the slain extremists were arrested, the ministry said.