JEDDAH // Some of the 149 suspected al Qa'eda militants recently arrested by Saudi authorities allegedly had planned to send gifts of poisoned perfume to Muslim clerics, as well as to security officials and media figures, a senior Saudi official said.
"The main target was the ulema," said the source, who asked not to be named.
He said the scheme was described in documents seized during the arrests, which took place over the past eight months, but that the conspiracy had not yet become operational.
The alleged militants, who have not been named, also planned to rob banks and businesses to finance their activities, the source added.
The source said the idea for the poison plot "came from al Qa'eda in Yemen".
He noted that the al Qa'eda affiliate had recruited many of the 149 suspects to carry out attacks inside the kingdom, adding that such a plot "has to be discussed. It has to be approved, whoever has to do it has to be trained how to do it".
Senior officials were not the intended targets, the source explained.
These include people such as the deputy interior minister, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the kingdom's counter-terrorism chief, and others who do not open their own mail, or who would not likely receive the contents of packages. Instead, the idea was to send poisoned gifts to people likely to actually directly receive them.
"This was one of the means intended to be used for assassinations" of those viewed by al Qa'eda as enemies, the source added. "It's another way of indirectly reaching a target."
The official said he had no names of intended targets, and did not know what type of poison would have been used. Disclosing the 149 recent arrests on November 26, the interior ministry said they had been organised into 19 cells of varying size whose members did not know one another. The cells were located across the kingdom.
The detained militants, 124 Saudis and 25 foreigners from countries in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, allegedly were planning to attack government facilities and assassinate Saudi officials and journalists, as well as non-Muslim foreigners. Most had links to al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni branch of the terrorist group. Others had ties to al Qa'eda's network in Somalia, Gen Mansour Al Turki, the ministry spokesman, said at the time.
About 10 attacks, some of them "in advanced stages", were aborted by the arrests, he added. One Saudi arrested was a woman who had been posting "al Qa'eda ideology" on the internet, Gen Al Turki said. She was later released to her family, he added.
During the arrests, police seized weapons, dozens of laptops and 2.24 million Saudi riyals, (Dh2.19m), which was going to be sent to al Qa'eda abroad. Most of it had been collected from Saudis under the pretence that it was for poor Muslims, Mr Al Turki explained.
AQAP is one of al Qa'eda's most aggressive affiliates and is concentrating on attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia and the United States.
In August 2009, a suicide bomber sent by the group attempted to assassinate Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the top counter-terrorism official, by blowing himself up in the prince's majlis, or receiving room.
Last December, a Nigerian trained in Yemen by AQAP tried to detonate explosives in his underwear on an American airliner as it landed in Detroit on Christmas Day. And in October, AQAP sent two bombs by airfreight to addresses in Chicago.
Saudi Arabia alerted US officials to the plot, allowing the bombs to be found and defused. As for the poison perfume plot, the switch "from explosives to chemicals is significant because it demonstrates resolve and the ability to try to trick the security services", Theodore Karasik, a security analyst at the Dubai-based group Inegma, told Reuters, which first reported the scheme.
The last time officials announced mass arrests was in March, when they disclosed that 113 people linked to AQAP had been detained. The larger number of cells broken up in the recent eight-month round-up of suspects suggests the militants are "trying to create independent cells, to make sure that if you arrest anybody ... you do not find the other cells," Mr Al Turki said then.
"Al Qa'eda will never give up," he added.
"This is a continuous effort by al Qa'eda to target this country."