RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Friday it foiled an al Qaeda-linked plot to attack oil facilities and military bases, arresting more than 170 suspects, including some trainee pilots preparing for suicide operations.
The Interior Ministry said police seized weapons and more than 20 million riyals (2.5 million pounds) in cash from 7 armed cells.
“Some had begun training on the use of weapons, and some were sent to other countries to study aviation in preparation to use them to carry out terrorist operations inside the kingdom,” a ministry statement said.
“One of their main targets was to carry out suicide attacks against public figures and oil installations and to target military bases inside and outside (the country).”
Saudi Arabia is the world’s top oil exporter, supplying about 7 million barrels a day to world markets. It holds nearly a quarter of the world’s oil reserves.
News of the arrests helped push oil up by around 52 cents a barrel to $68.17 just after 1600 GMT (5 p.m. British time). Al Qaeda has called for attacks on oil targets.
Most of the 19 al Qaeda militants who commandeered hijacked planes in the September 11 attack on the United States were Saudis.
Islamist militants swearing allegiance to al Qaeda launched a violent campaign to topple the U.S.-allied Saudi monarchy in 2003, carrying out suicide bomb attacks on foreigners and government installations, including the oil industry.
Five of the men played a role in an attempt to storm a major oil facility at Abqaiq in February 2006, a security source said. It was not clear why they were uncovered now.
Analyst Fares bin Houzam, a former militant sympathiser, said the arrests showed the failure of the government’s campaign to demonise the militant movement.
“This suggests that over the last four years not much has been achieved. Security forces find groups, but at the ideological level progress is very slow,” he told Reuters.
Tough security measures and a publicity campaign helped quell the violence but analysts and diplomats say the underlying currents of radical Islamist ideology and anger at Western policy in the region remain strong.
The security source said the core of the group was 61 men who had taken an oath of allegiance to their leader during trips to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.
But one Western diplomat questioned the announcement, saying he doubted many of the men had played a key role in the plans, which come only four months after the authorities last announced the break-up of a major cell in December.
“It sounds like a small number of serious arrests, but with a lot of padding,” he said, suggesting the government wanted to play up its anti-terrorism efforts. “The specific nature of the targets could be pie in the sky.”
Saudi authorities arrested 10 men in February on suspicion of “terror funding”, but Saudi reform activists have suggested the men were really seized because of efforts to campaign for democratic reforms in the U.S.-allied absolute monarchy.
TRAINING IN “RESTIVE AREAS”
A Saudi intelligence source said the group included many young Arabs and Africans, arrested over several months, who had hoped to recruit fighters and arms from Iraq, where insurgents are fighting the U.S.-backed government and U.S. troops.
Interior Minister spokesman Mansour al-Turki told state television that some foreigners were among the 172 suspects.
“They are linked to foreign elements and had benefited from restive areas to recruit, plan and train (for attacks),” he said, in an apparent reference to Iraq.
State television showed police digging in desert areas, searching buildings, and seizing rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles, computers and bundles of Saudi riyals.
“It seems serious because of the money and weapons found,” said prominent Muslim preacher Mohsen al-Awajy. “If it’s true it means we are living on a field of dynamite.”
Militants in February killed four French expatriates in the latest attack on foreigners in the kingdom, whose close U.S. alliance is often at odds with public opposition to U.S. policies in the region.
Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest sites, warned foreign embassies last month that a group blamed for the killings could strike again.
Officials say about 144 foreigners and Saudis, including security forces, and 120 militants have died in attacks and clashes with police since May 2003, when al Qaeda suicide bombers hit three Western housing compounds in Riyadh.
Additional reporting by Gulf newsroom and Peg Mackey
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.