Saudi Arabia said it has detained more than 110 suspected militants sponsored by Al Qaeda’s branch in neighboring Yemen, including a dozen men allegedly plotting suicide attacks on the Kingdom’s oil installations.
The arrests, which took place in stages over the past five months and in different parts of the country, highlight the continuing risk posed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based franchise is called, but also the stunning strides Saudi Arabia has made in penetrating and undermining militant cells in the past few years.
A network of 101 suspects, and two alleged suicide cells of six men each, were not cooperating with each other, said Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Mansour Al Turki. But “they all were asking for orders to start executing their plans from Al Qaeda in Yemen,” he added.
Since it formally announced its presence in January 2009, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has proven itself a robust branch of the movement.
It nearly assassinated one of Saudi Arabia’s senior counter-terrorism officials in August and claimed it trained the Nigerian accused of attempting to blow up a US passenger jet over Detroit last December.
The extremist group has found a haven in Yemen, whose government is beleaguered by social, political, and economic problems. US and Saudi counter-terrorism officials fear that deteriorating conditions there could allow Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to operate more freely than it does now.
“Saudi Arabia is once again in the sights of terrorists, as Iraq comes under control, the number of foreign fighters there declines, and Al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen expands,” Sajjan Gohel, director of international security for the London-based think tank, Asia-Pacific Foundation, told Reuters new agency. “Hopefully this incident is a wakeup call to the region that this threat is still there.”
Government's stronger hand
With the help of the United States, the Saudi government is in the process of setting up a 35,000-man special security force to protect its oil installations. While the arrests certainly underscore the danger of Al Qaeda, they also demonstrate advances made by the Saudi government’s counter-terrorism efforts.
Unlike in 2003 and 2004, when it was caught totally unawares by a series of deadly Al Qaeda bombings that killed scores of Saudis and foreigners, the government is much more in control today, largely because of intensified police activity.
In fact, the arrests disclosed today arose out of a police investigation sparked last October when two Al Qaeda militants, attempting to infiltrate the kingdom while wearing explosive vests, were killed at a police checkpoint, spokesman Turki said in a phone interview.
“That’s where we started this business,” he said. “You remember we said they had two other vests [in their car?]. That said that there has to be somebody in Saudi Arabia related to this."
According to an account of the October incident released at the time, the two were dressed as veiled women. When police at the checkpoint requested a female colleague check their identities, the militants opened fire. In the shoot-out that followed, both were killed along with one policeman.
The slain militants were identified as Rayed Abdullahi Al-Harbi and Yousef Mohammed Al-Shihri. Both were on a Saudi government most-wanted list issued in February 2009, and Al Shihri had spent time at the US detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
They were stopped in Jizan Province near the border with Yemen, where they had been active with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The recent arrests are not the first time that Saudi Arabia has swept up a large group of suspected militants. In 2008, Saudi Arabia detained more than 700 people over several months, later releasing about 200. In 2007, 200 suspects operating in six separate cells were detained.
Most of those arrested in the past five months are between 18 and 25 years old, Turki said. The suspects include 47 Saudis and 51 foreigners, who are Yemeni, Somali, Eritrean, and Bangladeshi, according to a statement from the Interior Ministry.
Police also seized “weapons and explosives and ammunition found underground in houses and in the desert,” Turki said.
One of the detained suspects is female, but Turki said that investigators have not yet determined if she actively participated in the network or simply happened to be in a home that was raided.