RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Wednesday it had arrested 208 militants for involvement in cells planning an imminent attack on an oil installation, as well as attacks on clerics and security forces.
State television in the world’s biggest oil exporter said one of the cells was planning to smuggle in missiles. Al Qaeda sympathizers have mounted a campaign against the U.S.-allied monarchy since 2003.
A cell of eight militants led by a foreign resident planned an attack on an oil facility in the Eastern Province, it said. Saudi Arabia has been building a 35,000-strong rapid reaction force to protect installations after a failed al Qaeda attack in 2006 on the world’s largest oil processing plant at Abqaiq.
“Security forces foiled an imminent attack on an oil support installation in the Eastern Province after the perpetrators prepared themselves and set a date,” it said.
The report, citing an Interior Ministry statement, said 18 of those arrested belonged to a cell led by an “expert in launching missiles” who had slipped into the country. It said they planned to smuggle eight projectiles into the kingdom.
Another 22 were part of a group that plotted to assassinate clerics and security forces, it said.
The government has warned clerics in recent months to do more to stop Saudis heading to Iraq to join al Qaeda militants fighting U.S. forces and the U.S.-backed Shi’ite Muslim government, considered heretical by hardline Sunni Saudis.
Al Qaeda militants regard many clerics in Saudi Arabia as having been co-opted by the authorities into supporting the policies of the royal family, which dominates government.
Al Qaeda sympathizers — boosted by calls from Saudi-born Osama bin Laden to target the pro-Western Saudi government — have targeted foreign residential compounds, government buildings and energy sector installations since May 2003.
“This was a very large effort by security forces over the past ... five months, Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki told state television, adding that the main arrest operations took place more recently.
The report also said the arrests included a “media cell” of 16 in Medina which aimed to promote “takfiri thinking” — the ideology of Sunni Muslim radicals that supports violence against Muslims branded as infidels and apostates.
Those arrested also included 32 people — both Saudis and foreigners — involved in providing financial support for militants, the ministry said in the statement.
After the February 2006 failed attack on the Abqaiq plant, authorities have announced the break-up of cells involving several hundreds of people.
“They are unraveling networks but these are not hardcore people, they are peripheral,” a Western diplomat said, adding the government was worried about public “complacency” that the militant campaign was over.
“These are people caught by monitoring Web sites and looking at financial flows. The hard core is really decimated already,” said the diplomat.
Reporting by Andrew Hammond and Inal Ersan; Editing by Charles Dick