x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Checkpoint attack led to Saudi al Qa'eda arrests

Saudi security forces have arrested 113 suspected al Qa'eda militants in a five-month counter-terrorism operation, the interior ministry said.

RIYADH // Saudi security forces have arrested 113 suspected al Qa'eda militants in a five-month counter-terrorism operation, the interior ministry said yesterday. A network of 101 extremists included 47 Saudis, as well as Yemenis, Somalis, Bangladeshis and Eritreans. In addition, police arrested two terrorist cells of six men each as they prepared to carry out suicide bombings at oil installations in the kingdom's Eastern Province.

Gen Mansour al Turki, the ministry of interior spokesman, said the larger network and the two suicide cells were not working together and did not know of each other. However, they all were operating under the command of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al Qa'eda franchise now operating in Yemen. "The whole organisation was established by al Qa'eda in Yemen," Gen Turki said. Most of those arrested are aged between 18 and 25 and were detained in different parts of the country, Gen Turki said. Some of the non-Saudis had entered the country on work visas and others had come with visas for Hajj or umra, he added.

One woman is among those arrested, but Gen Turki said investigators had not yet determined whether she was an active part of the network or just happened to be present in a raided location. The operation began in October when police detained two Saudis wearing explosives, apparently on a suicide bombing mission. The arrests highlight the continuing threat to the kingdom and its vital oil industry from al Qa'eda's branch in Yemen, which was responsible for plotting the near-assassination of the Saudi deputy interior minister, Mohammed bin Nayef, last August. The prince was only slightly injured when a suicide bomber, who had come from Yemen, blew himself up while seated next to the official in his home.

Al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, a successor organisation to the al Qa'eda network that once existed in Saudi Arabia, said it carried out the attack. It also claimed responsibility for training the Nigerian who tried to blow up a US passenger plane on Christmas Day as it landed in Detroit. This is the not the first time that Saudi officials have announced a large group of arrests. In 2008, the government arrested more than 700 people in the first six months of that year. It later released about 200 of them.

And in 2007, 200 people operating in six separate cells were detained. Gen Turki said that the 113 most recently detained were the result of police investigations that began when two Saudis were stopped at a police checkpoint in the southern province of Jizan near the Yemeni-Saudi border on October 13. The men were dressed like women with their faces hidden by veils. But, according to the interior ministry's account of the incident, when police requested a female colleague to check the identities of the "women", the militants began firing weapons.

Both were killed in the ensuing shoot-out with police, along with one policeman, the ministry said at the time. The ministry also disclosed that the slain men had been wearing explosive vests and that two additional suicide vests were found in their black GMC, which also was transporting machine guns and grenades. This suggested that "there has to be somebody in Saudi Arabia related to this", Gen Turki said in the phone interview yesterday. The investigation that followed eventually led to the recent arrests.

The two extremists killed in October 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 Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. cmurphy@thenational.ae