The Saudi Arrests: How Big a Plot?

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Saudi Arabia arrested 172 suspected terrorists, seizing weapons and millions of dollars in cash.

The arrest of 172 Islamist militants by Saudi security forces represents another blow to al-Qaeda, but it also sheds light on the group's determination to use its base inside war-torn Iraq to spread its jihadist campaign to Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world.

According to a statement issued by the Saudi Ministry of Interior on Friday, Saudi security forces broke up more than seven jihadist cells that had been engaged in an array of activities against the authorities. The statement did not identify al-Qaeda by name, but described the suspects in typical official codewords for the organization, such as "deviant group" and those who had "adopted the takfiri thought [judging Muslims as infidels] toward Arab and Islamic peoples, governments and leaders."

The key objectives of these cells, it said, were suicide attacks against Saudi oil installations, public figures and military bases inside and outside the countries. The ministry said that one of the cells had sent recruits to an unspecified foreign country to receive aviation training for use in suicide attacks, copying the operational method of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. According to the Interior Ministry, the security forces confiscated weapons, computers, cell phones and more than 20 million Saudi riyals (more than $5 million) in cash.

The extent of al-Qaeda's plotting inside Saudi Arabia, as revealed by the authorities, is impressive, considering the major crackdown on the group that began four years ago after it launched a series of deadly attacks on expatriate housing complexes, government offices and oil sector facilities. "This is a movement that is trying to overthrow the government and the system," says Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the influential Saudi newspaper Al Watan. "Al-Qaeda is not dead. Part of its strategy is to win in Iraq and make it an Islamic state, from which it would launch a campaign to other countries and create a unified Islamic state. It is very naive. One should not expect it to succeed in modern times. But those guys are living in the past."

Information released by the Interior Ministry revealed that three of the cells involved had been using Iraq as a theater of terror operations as well as a training and staging area for attacks against Saudi Arabia. That may be a case of history repeating itself — Saudi native Osama bin Laden and other Arabs who had participated in the Afghanistan jihad of the '80s later returned to their home countries to fight the authorities during the '90s. One cell of 59 Saudis and non-Saudis sent members to "external training camps" to "participate in regional conflicts" — a reference to Iraq, according to Saudi sources — with the aim of facilitating "their return to the Kingdom to carry out their criminal plans." Another cell was actually formed abroad with the aim of launching attacks in Saudi Arabia and other countries.

Meanwhile, three of the cells were targeting Saudi Arabia's oil installations, apparently with the aim of crippling Saudi oil revenues and causing massive oil price rises to disrupt to global economy. Saudi officials said that one of the cells consisting of five people had been involved in the February 2006 failed attack on the giant oil processing facility at Abqaiq in eastern Saudi Arabia. Starting in December 2004, bin Laden and al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had called for attacks against Saudi oil facilities.

One of the cells even planned to overthrow Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saudi and replace him with an al-Qaeda leader. The Interior Ministry said that a collection of cells consisting of 61 members had duped a large number of people out of "huge amounts of money" in raising funds for its operations, including the training of suicide pilots outside the country. The ministry said that the leader of the group, who was not identified, received baya, or allegiance as an Islamic authority, from its members in a secret ceremony at the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam's holiest site.

The last time that happened was in 1979, when as many as 1,500 Muslim militants led by Juhayman al-Otaibi seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in a bid to overthrow the Saudi monarchy. Security forces crushed Juhayman's revolt. Nearly three decades later, however, the fire Juhayman started has not yet been extinguished.