RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has detained 88 people, more than half of them Saudis, on suspicion of plotting “terrorist” attacks at home and abroad, the interior ministry said on Tuesday.
A ministry statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency said the ministry had been following a number of suspects in view of what it called the spread of “strife and sick ideas” that lured members of the community to “places of strife”.
Some of the suspects had links to the Islamic State group operating in Syria and Iraq, to the Nusra Front group in Syria or to the al Qaeda branch in Yemen, Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour Turki told Reuters after a news conference.
“They showed their support to the organizations in Syria and Iraq and also in Yemen, and they wanted to get involved in their activities. Some of them tried to get ... instructions of what he should do, how he should act inside the kingdom,” said Turki.
He said those who were in contact with militant groups overseas may not have also been in contact with each other.
Turki told the news conference that 48 of those arrested were Saudis and many had been planning assassinations.
The detentions included eight people whose arrest in the town of Tumair was reported last week. One of those arrested had been preparing sermons for use by Islamist militant groups in Iraq and Syria, Turki said.
The likely targets for assassination were government security officials, he said, but might also include clerics who argued against militant ideology.
Turki said that around 2,500 Saudis were believed to be involved in militant activities abroad, including in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
He added that since King Abdullah in February decreed long prison terms for any who went abroad to fight, around 300 Saudis had been detained after returning to the kingdom from Syria and Iraq or being caught planning to travel there.
Riyadh has long expressed fears of being targeted by Islamist jihadists, including by some of its own citizens, who have taken part in insurgencies in Iraq and Syria.
In 2003-6, Saudi al-Qaeda militants who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan returned to the kingdom and launched attacks on foreign and government targets. The campaign was crushed and hundreds have since been sentenced to prison.
Saudi King Abdullah warned on Saturday that terrorism would soon spread to Europe and the United States unless it was quickly dealt with in the Middle East.
Reporting By Noah Browning, Editing by William Maclean and John Stonestreet