RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Friday it had captured 149 al Qaeda militants in recent months who were raising money and recruiting members to carry out attacks inside the kingdom, with links to other militants in Somalia and Yemen.
The announcement by the world’s largest oil-exporting country was made with elderly Saudi King Abdullah in the United States recovering from surgery to treat a blood clot complication from a slipped disc.
“In the past eight months 149 people linked to al Qaeda were arrested, among them were 124 Saudis and 25 were from other nationalities,” Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Turki told a news conference.
Turki said the attackers belonged to 19 al Qaeda cells and were planning to target government facilities, security officials and journalists in the kingdom. He gave no names of targets.
When asked whether they had also targeted oil installations in Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, he said: “We cannot exclude this. Investigations are ongoing.”
The television channel al Arabiya reported that the kingdom had also foiled plans to attack Saudi oil installations.
The non-Saudi suspects were Arabs, Africans and South Asians, he said, adding that the thwarted cells had associations with al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.
“These cells have links with al Qaeda who are disturbing the security in Yemen, with Somalia and organizations in Afghanistan,” Turki said.
One cell had links to Somalia, but the large majority had ties to Yemen. Most cells were very small, were operating independently and still in the stages of being set up, he said.
The ministry confiscated 2.24 million riyals ($597,000) from al Qaeda suspects, he said, and militants had tried to collect money and spread their ideology during the Muslim pilgrimages of Haj and Umra in Saudi Arabia.
Analysts said that while the announcement was not unusual for Saudi Arabia, it pointed to the kingdom’s continuing struggle against militancy but also its improved intelligence and tactics in fighting al Qaeda.
“There is no doubt that there is a security problem. Particularly it seems (to be) coming from inside Yemen,” said Neil Partrick, an independent Britain-based analyst on the Middle East.
“In the last five years the Saudi security services ... have become more efficient at intercepting security threats, whether those directed against soft targets or those against major installations.”
A Saudi Arabian counter-terrorism drive halted a violent al Qaeda campaign in the Gulf Arab country from 2003 to 2006. Al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi wings merged in 2009 into a new group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen.
”The organization is trying to recruit people inside the kingdom. There are cells that facilitate (the recruits) to travel outside (the kingdom) to train and then they return, Turki said.
“They exploit the Haj season for this purpose,” Turki told journalists at the press conference. The plan was to send them to countries including Somalia and Yemen, he said.
One cell was learning how to build car bombs, he said. A woman was also among those arrested, he said, for spreading al Qaeda’s ideology on the Internet, but she was returned to her family as is customary in the kingdom.
Those who had donated money were not aware they were giving to militant organizations, he said. Saudi banks last month launched a campaign to stem the flow of money to support al Qaeda.
Saudi concerns about al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen deepened after the kingdom’s top anti-terrorism official, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, was slightly hurt in a suicide attack in August 2009 by a Saudi posing as a repentant militant returning from Yemen.
The arrests announced on Friday follow one of the largest al Qaeda sweeps in years by Saudi Arabia earlier this year. In March, the kingdom arrested 113 al Qaeda militants including alleged suicide bombers who it said had been planning attacks on energy facilities in the world’s top oil-exporting country.
The March arrests netted 58 suspected Saudi militants and 52 from Yemen. The militants, who also came from Bangladesh, Eritrea and Somalia, were backed by the Yemen-based AQAP.
Last month a plot to send two parcel bombs from Yemen to the United States was foiled following a tip-off from Saudi Arabia.
Additional reporting by William Maclean in London; writing by Erika Solomon and Raissa Kasolowsky; editing by Mark Heinrich