RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Wednesday it had arrested 113 al Qaeda militants including suicide bombers who had been planning attacks on energy facilities in the world’s top oil exporter.
The interior ministry said its sweep, among the biggest in several years, netted 58 suspected Saudi militants and 52 from Yemen, which jumped to the forefront of Western security concerns after a failed attack on a U.S.-bound jet in December.
The militants, who were also from Bangladesh, Eritrea and Somalia, were backed by al Qaeda in Yemen, it added in a statement, without giving the dates of the arrests.
Henry Wilkinson, a counter-terrorism expert at Janusian security consultants in London, said the arrests showed the Saudi oil sector remained a priority target for al Qaeda.
Saudi security was making it difficult for militants to operate in the kingdom but counter-terrorist activity was having little impact on al Qaeda’s regional arm, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in Yemen, he said.
AQAP “represents a consistent, if not growing threat to the oil sector and Western interests in the region,” he said.
The 113 militants were organized into three cells, including two planning suicide attacks on oil and security facilities in Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing Eastern Province, home to the world’s biggest oil refinery.
“The 12 in the two cells were suicide bombers,” security affairs spokesman Mansour al-Turki said. “We have compelling evidence against all of those arrested, that they were plotting terrorist attacks inside the kingdom.”
Authorities seized weapons, ammunition and explosive belts, and said the militants were linked to a “deviant group that has chosen Yemen as a base for the launch of its criminal operations,” using terms used typically to refer to al Qaeda.
“The deviant group is using elements inside the kingdom who came (to Saudi Arabia) under the cover of work or pilgrimage or entered illegally,” the ministry said.
Yemen, which is struggling to stabilize a fractious country, has come under international pressure to end a northern war and focus on fighting al Qaeda, whose locally-based arm claimed responsibility for the attempted December airliner bombing.
U.S. allied-Saudi Arabia and Western countries fear al Qaeda is exploiting instability in impoverished Yemen to launch attacks in the region and beyond.
Militant attacks in Saudi Arabia have included suicide bombs at housing compounds in 2003 and at the interior ministry’s headquarters in Riyadh in 2004, plus an attempt to storm the world’s biggest oil processing plant at Abqaiq in 2006.
Saudi Arabia was forced to confront its own role in rising militancy at home and abroad when its nationals turned out to be behind the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
The mastermind of those attacks, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was born in Saudi Arabia. In 2004 he urged followers to attack Iraqi and Gulf oil facilities, saying it was the most powerful weapon against America.
Authorities said the two suicide bombing cells comprised 11 Saudis and a Yemeni whom security officials described as the brother of a prominent member of al Qaeda. It said they were in early stages of preparing suicide attacks.
Altogether 101 militants were detained in the southern province of Jazan, near the border with Yemen.
“The network ... which included suicide bombers was set up to lead attacks within the kingdom and target installations, and monitor security members as potential targets in concurrence with the recent events at the kingdom’s southern borders,” the interior ministry said.
Riyadh, which was drawn into a Yemeni war with Shi’ite insurgents in November, fears Sanaa’s fight with al Qaeda could also spill over to its territory.
Saudi concerns about Yemen were amplified after the kingdom’s top anti-terrorism official, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, was slightly hurt in a suicide attack in his house in September by a Saudi posing as a repentant militant returning from Yemen.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Samia Nakhoul and David Stamp