RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Underscoring Al Qaeda’s continuing threat to the world’s largest oil producer, Saudi officials announced today that in recent months they had arrested 113 alleged extremists, including six apparently preparing for suicide attacks on the kingdom’s vital oil installations.
The arrests included a network of 101 people, including 47 Saudis and 51 foreigners, as well as two alleged suicide bombing cells of six men each.
The three groups were not working with each other, but all were sponsored by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based branch of the terrorist movement, Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Mansour Al Turki said in a phone interview.
“What we dealt with is very much linked to Al Qaeda in Yemen,” Turki said.
This Al Qaeda franchise has become a major concern for counterterrorist officials in Saudi Arabia as well as in Washington. It claimed credit for the near-assassination of a senior Saudi prince last August, and also reportedly trained the Nigerian charged with the attempted bombing of a U.S. passenger airliner on Christmas Day.
The arrests in Saudi Arabia, made over the last five months, arose from a police investigation sparked by a shoot-out with two extremists last October, Turki said.
Such criminal investigations are a key part of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism efforts that also include a rehabilitation program for detained extremists, media campaigns against “deviant” Islamic ideologies and revisions to religious textbooks.
The government’s counterterrorism campaign, which began in 2004 after a succession of bombings in the kingdom by Al Qaeda, has improved everyday security and shifted public opinion against the terrorist movement.
However, it is apparent from continuing arrests that some of the organization’s operatives are still at large, and are now coordinating with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in neighboring Yemen.
“These arrests demonstrate that, despite a relative lack of successful attacks in recent years, terrorists maintain a consistently high level of intent to stage attacks inside the kingdom,” Henry Wilkinson, senior intelligence analyst at Janusian Security Risk Management, told Reuters news agency.
Turki said that investigators believe the two smaller six-man cells were intending to carry out suicide operations because "this is what Al Qaeda does ... . A suicide cell is usually six people. Two will do the action [of blowing themselves up] and the other four help them prepare and get to the target."
He said he did not know the specific installation targeted by the alleged suicide bombers, but a statement from the Interior Ministry said that it was in the kingdom’s Eastern Province.
This is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has announced a large group of arrests. In 2008, it detained more than 700 people over several months, later releasing about 200. In 2007, 200 suspects operating in six separate cells were detained.
Turki said that the 113 recent arrests, carried out at different times in different parts of the country, 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 Oct. 13, 2009.
The men were disguised as women with their faces veiled. 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. 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 men had been wearing explosive vests and that two additional suicide vests were found in the their black GMC, which also was transporting machine guns and grenades.
Turki said that this deadly paraphernalia suggested that “there has to be somebody in Saudi Arabia related to this,” sparking a police search for the accomplices.
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 U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Most of the recent detainees are between 18 and 25 years old. The ministry’s statement added that the foreigners are Yemeni, Somali, Eritrean and Bangladeshi. It also said that police had seized guns, cameras, cash, documents and computers.
One woman is among the 101 suspects detained. But Turki cautioned that “we are not accusing her of being a terrorist,” explaining that investigators are still trying to determine if she was an active participant in the network or merely present by accident in one of the raided locations.