Saudi Arabia has broken up three cells of al Qa'eda militants that were planning attacks in the kingdom, including on its oil installations, the interior ministry said today in a statement read out on state television. Arms, ammunition, computers, pre-paid telephone cards and unspecified documents were all seized in the operation. "We seized belts of explosives which they were planning to use in suicide attacks," one security official said. One cell consisted of 101 people, and two smaller cells were made up of six men each.
The large cell comprised 47 Saudis and 51 Yemenis, as well as a Somali, a Bangladeshi and a Eritrean, the statement said. The two smaller groups were made up of 11 Saudis and a Yemeni whom security officials describe as being a prominent member of al Qa'eda. The large cell was discovered as the result of an investigation launched after suspected al Qa'eda militants, two of them dressed as women, tried to infiltrate the country in October with explosives. Two were killed in a shootout at the border and a third was arrested.
The foreigners in the largest cell were said to have entered the country under cover of seeking work or visiting Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Medina. Two members of that cell were said to have been preparing suicide attacks, while the others were to have targeted economic and security targets. Each of the two small cells was operating without knowledge of the other, and both were said to be linked to the Yemen-based group al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and tasked with targeting oil installations.
Most of the militants were arrested in the southern province of Jazan, near the border with Yemen. The dates of the arrests were not disclosed. Saudi officials say they have broken up several plots inside the kingdom in the past year, rounding up numerous suspected militants and seizing weapons caches and bomb-making equipment, all linked to al Qa'eda. In August, an AQAP militant, pretending to surrender to the authorities, sneaked a bomb into the palace of the deputy interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in an attempt to kill the top security official.
The bomb, believed to have been hidden in the militant's underpants, exploded very close to the prince, but killed only the bomber himself. The prince suffered minor injuries only. Riyadh is especially concerned about the resurgence of AQAP in Yemen, where government crackdowns on the group have been ineffective. In September, Michael Leiter, director of the US National Counterterrorism Centre, said the group has gained a dangerous foothold in Yemen.
"We have witnessed the reemergence of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, with Yemen as a key battleground and potential regional base of operations from which al Qa'eda can plan attacks, train recruits and facilitate the movement of operatives," Mr Leiter told a US Senate hearing. Earlier this month, King Abdullah said the kingdom is determined to halt extremism. "In domestic policy, the government continues to expend its efforts to strengthen security," he said in his annual speech to the Shura Council, the country's consultative assembly. "A special effort has been made to confront the thinking of the group of deviants, extremists and terrorists," he said, using language the government usually employs to identify al Qa'eda. "The security services have had repeated successes with preventative actions, and will continue their activities to foil the terrorist plots, eradicate the deviant groups, and dry up the sources of terrorism."
In 2003 Islamist militants launched a violent campaign to topple the monarchy, killing nearly 200 people, including foreign residents. But a security crackdown coupled with tighter controls on financing and the spread of militant ideas helped curb violence inside the kingdom after 2006. *AFP / Reuters