Saudi Arabia’s arrests of 113 al Qaeda-linked militants, including two suicide bomb teams, shows that the jihad threat to the world’s top oil exporter has not disappeared. It has just migrated to neighbouring Yemen.
But the arrests last week of mainly Saudi and Yemeni nationals also highlight that more work needs to be done to combat home-grown militancy from disenchanted Saudi youth who may find comfort in radical Islam.
“These arrests highlight the trans-national nature of the terrorist threat in the kingdom and underpin the perception that Yemen’s problems represent a growing challenge to Saudi Arabia,” said Ginny Hill, Yemen expert at Chatham House.
Saudi Arabia, which seized weapons and explosive belts in the sweeps, has said the militants had been planning attacks on energy and security facilities in the kingdom’s oil-producing Eastern province.
Riyadh said the militants were backed by al Qaeda in Yemen, which jumped to the forefront of Western security concerns after a Yemen-based regional wing claimed responsibility for a failed attack on a US-bound jet in December.
“This shows that al Qaeda is not having trouble recruiting Saudis and is having success recruiting Yemenis. If you can double your force then why don’t you?” said Geoff Porter, Middle East and Africa Director at Eurasia Group.
Yemen, already struggling to stabilise a fractious country, has come under international pressure to end domestic unrest and focus on fighting al Qaeda, which may prefer attacks on higher profile targets than those in Yemen itself.
Saudi concerns about Yemen were amplified after its top anti-terrorism official, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, was slightly hurt in a suicide attack in his house in September by a Saudi posing as a repentant militant returning from Yemen.
“Al Qaeda aims at sensational targets: An attack in Sanaa does not have the same impact as an attack in Saudi Arabia,” Eurasia’s Porter said.
Militants waged massive attacks against Western targets, government symbols and oil facilities between 2003 and 2006. The attacks included suicide bombs at Western housing compounds, the interior ministry’s headquarters in Riyadh and oil and petrochemical companies, plus an attempt to storm the world’s biggest oil processing plant at Abqaiq in 2006.
The sweep adds to the credit of the Saudi security services in staying ahead of plots to destabilise the absolute monarchy.
“The link between the Yemeni army campaign against al Qaeda and these arrests is clear. It shows there was some coordination (between Saudis and Yemeni authorities),” said Ismail al-Saydi, head of political science at Iman University in Yemen.
Riyadh did not say when the arrests occurred. They were announced ahead of an anti-terror conference sponsored by Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who has had mixed success in persuading clerics to discourage radical ideology.
The arrests are widely thought to have followed months of work after the October arrest of a militant following a clash at a checkpoint in the southern Jazan province in which two other militants and a Saudi policeman were killed.
The ministry said 11 Saudis and a Yemeni had formed two six-man cells and were in early stages of planning suicide attacks. The remainder raised funds and had sheltered other militants brought into the kingdom.
“They (remaining 101) aimed to create a Saudi base for al Qaeda to attack security officers,” General Mansour al-Turki, security affairs spokesperson, said.
A retired Saudi security officer said access to sensitive targets such as oil installations or prominent personalities was easier for Saudis than it is for Yemenis or other foreigners. “You mainly find Saudis, Westerners and Philipinos working at oil plants.”
Foreigners among those arrested had entered the kingdom either for work, pilgrimage or had sneaked in illegally, the ministry said.
Non-Saudis comprise about 30 % of Saudi’s population. Many Saudis feel squeezed out of jobs and blame authorities for not making them more competitive than imported workers, while deeming many jobs held by foreigners as too lowly.
The kingdom’s Grand Mufti complained some foreigners were using their presence in Saudi to hurt the kingdom. But General Turki said the kingdom’s security services had no intentions to zero in on expatriates in the country.
“The fact that these arrests included so many foreigners does not mean that we are underestimating threats that may come from Saudi nationals,” he said.