RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabian authorities have arrested 149 alleged Al Qaeda activists organized into 19 different cells – many of them linked to Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch, one of the terrorist movement’s most aggressive affiliates, security officials said Friday.
Arrested over the past eight months, the militants were allegedly planning to attack government facilities and assassinate Saudi officials and journalists, as well as non-Muslim foreigners.
They also were said to be collecting money to send to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and recruiting Saudis to go to Somalia and Yemen for military training.
“The majority had links with Al Qaeda in Yemen,” Interior Ministry Spokesman Gen. Mansour al Turki told reporters. In most cases, he added, the organization recruited Saudis who “were supposed to carry out plots designed by Al Qaeda in Yemen to be executed inside Saudi Arabia.”
The spokesman said that other detained militants “had links with Al Qaeda in Somalia and ... would use that to send people from here to be trained in Somalia or Yemen.”
The arrests sent a dual message. On the one hand, they demonstrate the continuing appeal of Al Qaeda’s extremist ideology for some Saudis, as well as the determination of Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, to strike inside the kingdom.
On the other hand, the arrests suggest that Saudi security forces are managing to detect militant activities before they become fully operational.
The last time officials announced mass arrests was in March, when they disclosed that 113 people linked to AQAP had been detained.A dozen of those suspects had formed two six-men suicide cells that were planning to attack oil installations, Al Turki said.
The larger number of cells busted in this latest wave of arrests appears to indicate that “they are going in the direction of trying to create independent cells, to make sure that if you arrest anybody ... you do not find the other cells,” Al Turki said.
But this is only an organizational change and Al Qaeda’s “goals are the same,” he added. “Al Qaeda will never give up ... This is a continuous effort by Al Qaeda to target this country.”
In the televised press conference, Al Turki said that about ten different attacks had been foiled, some of them were “in advanced stages.”
One cell was plotting to seize weapons from a security facility, and another was training members “on preparing explosive materials,” he added.
Of the 149 arrested, 25 are foreigners from countries in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. One Saudi woman was arrested for posting “Al Qaeda ideology” on the internet, Al Turki said.
He declined to name the Saudi officials or media personalities who were being targeted for assassination.
During the eight month round-up of the cells, which were based all around the country, police seized weapons, dozens of laptops and 2.24 million Saudi riyals, (nearly $600,000), that was going to be sent to Al Qaeda abroad.
Al Turki said that most of the money had been collected from Saudis under the pretense that it was for poor Muslims in other countries.
He said that militant groups exploit the pilgrimage season, which has just ended, to come to the kingdom in order to draft Saudis into training abroad.
AQAP, one of Al Qaeda’s most robust chapters, is targeting both Saudi Arabia and the United States. It trained the Nigerian who tried to blow himself up on an American airliner as it landed in Detroit last Christmas.
Last month, AQAP air-freighted two bombs to addresses in Chicago. They were discovered and defused, however, after Saudi Arabia alerted U.S. officials to the plot and provided tracking numbers for the packages.