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RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has used an unrivalled network of tribal and family connections to infiltrate Islamist militant strongholds in Yemen, enabling it to help thwart a bomb plot against the United States, say Gulf officials and former diplomats.
Deploying agents against an al Qaeda target that has learnt to shun electronic communications allowed Saudi security services to disrupt a third would-be attack in 30 months, a regional security official told Reuters on Wednesday.
Asked about reports the world's top oil exporter and Washington's chief Gulf ally had run the operation, the official replied: "It's absolutely true".
Tip offs from Riyadh helped foil a planned suicide bomb attack on a plane over Detroit in 2009 and revealed a bomb disguised as a printer cartridge loaded in Dubai onto a plane bound for Chicago in October 2010. The latest alleged plot involved a suicide bomber, apparently a double agent, charged to conceal explosives in underwear and bring down a U.S. airliner.
U.S. officials faulted Saudi Arabia for a slow response to the al Qaeda threat after the September 11 2001 attacks on the United States; but much changed after bombers hit targets in Riyadh in 2003, prompting a joint campaign that drove al Qaeda from the kingdom.
Intelligence cooperation between the United States, Saudi Arabia and Yemen is now "very effective" said Robert Jordan, who was U.S. ambassador to Riyadh from 2001 to 2003.
"By May 2003 they realized al Qaeda were as much a threat against the regime and royal family as they were to the westerners. They began truly infiltrating the cells," he said.
Saudi recruits are present at all levels in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), now seen as the most dangerous wing of the militant group.
That has helped Riyadh to penetrate a regional movement that migrated to Yemen after it was driven from the kingdom in 2006 and has sworn to bring down the kingdom's Al Saud ruling family.
Saudi security is able to put pressure on AQAP through their family members still inside Saudi Arabia and has previously deployed former militants who defected to the government when under arrest.
It also uses ties between Saudi royals and some of the Yemeni tribes that have sheltered AQAP, ties that have been strengthened over decades by lavish displays of patronage.
"Senior princes are close to different tribes and can get cooperation with them," said Jordan.
Although the security official did not specify which Saudi security branch handled the agent, who passed investigators a state-of-the-art bomb last month, independent experts say it was probably the Interior Ministry's counter terrorism unit.
"The ministry considers Yemen the first line of defense in its confrontation with al Qaeda and it has moved its counter-terrorism operations heavily into Yemen, setting up its own offices there," said Mustafa Alani, a Gulf security analyst with good connections to regional governments.
The counter terrorism unit has arrested a number of people inside Saudi Arabia in recent days, emphasizing the cross-border nature of the militant threat it is battling.
"In the past few days (we) have arrested a few people who wanted to execute an operation," said Lt-Col Sultan Mohammed, a section head at the unit. He told a group of visiting reporters that he had no information on whether those detained in Saudi Arabia were linked to the alleged bomb plot against U.S. targets.
That Yemen's militants are watched by the kingdom's Interior Ministry instead of its foreign espionage service, the General Intelligence Presidency (GIP), shows how far Riyadh views al Qaeda in the Arabian Pensinsula as its biggest domestic menace.
"Internal has an external head," the GIP chief Prince Muqrin, the youngest surviving son of the kingdom's founder Ibn Saud, explained to U.S. diplomats in 2009, according to a Riyadh embassy cable released by WikiLeaks.
Prince Muqrin went on to tell how he had made numerous trips to Yemen with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, son of the current crown prince and head of the Interior Ministry's counter terrorism unit.
"These sorts of operations are probably going on a daily basis and we never read a word about them nor should we read about them," said Nick Pratt, Professor of Strategy and International Politics at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany.
"It takes a lot of information to get into the system to turn into actionable intelligence, and in this case it would have taken coordination between at least two and possibly four intelligence services," he added.
Prince Mohammed, who has earned praise from foreign diplomats for his department's campaign against militants, was himself the target of a 2009 assassination plot when a would-be al Qaeda defector arrived at a meeting wearing a concealed bomb.
That device - like those aimed by AQAP at airliners - was built by Yemen-based Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, one of the most influential Saudis in the movement.
Additional reporting by Arlene Getz in Riyadh, Tom Finn in Sanaa and William Maclean in London; Editing by Reed Stevenson