Saudi Arabia announced Friday that an anti-terrorism sweep netted 172 Islamic extremists over the past several months and stopped plans...
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia announced Friday that an anti-terrorism sweep netted 172 Islamic extremists over the past several months and stopped plans to mount air attacks on the kingdom’s oil refineries, break militants out of jail and send suicide attackers to kill government officials.
An official said the plotters had completed preparations for their attacks, and all that remained to put the plot in motion “was to set the zero hour.”
It was one of the biggest roundups since Saudi leaders began cracking down on religious extremists four years ago after militants attacked foreigners and others involved in the country’s oil industry, seeking to topple the monarchy for its alliance with the U.S.
But while the months-long police operation provided a high-profile victory for the royal family, the large number of people arrested highlighted the extremism threat in the world’s leading oil exporter.
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The Interior Ministry said the plotters were organized into seven cells and planned to stage suicide attacks on “public figures, oil facilities, refineries … and military zones,” including some outside the kingdom. It did not identify any of the targets.
The militants also planned to storm Saudi prisons to free jailed militants, the ministry’s statement said.
“They had the personnel, the money, the arms,” said the ministry’s spokesman, Brig. Mansour al-Turki. “Almost all the elements for terror attacks were complete except for setting the zero hour for the attacks.”
The Saudi statement said some of the detainees had been “sent to other countries to study flying in preparation for using them to carry out terrorist attacks inside the kingdom.”
Al-Turki said he didn’t know whether the militants who trained as pilots planned to fly suicide missions like those in the Sept. 11 attack on the United States or whether they intended to strike oil targets in some other way with the aircraft.
The militants were detained in successive waves, with one group confessing and leading security officials to another group as well as caches of weapons, al-Turki said. He said some of those arrested were not Saudis.
The Interior Ministry said police seized large quantities of weapons and explosives and more than $5.3 million in currency during the sweep. State TV showed video of one cache dug up in the desert that included explosives, assault rifles, handguns and ammunition wrapped in plastic.
Saudi Arabia’s long alliance with the United States angers Saudi extremists who object to Western ways, such as al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
An austere strain of Islam known as Wahhabism is followed by the country’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population, and militant groups have attracted recruits from Saudis with extremist leanings. Fifteen of the 19 airline hijackers in the Sept. 11 attack were from here.
Militants have struck at foreigners living in Saudi Arabia and the country’s oil industry, which has more than 260 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, a quarter of the world’s total. Bin Laden also has urged such attacks to hurt the flow of oil to the West.
During the most recent attack, in February 2006, two explosives-laden vehicles tried to enter the Abqaiq oil complex, the world’s largest oil processing facility, in eastern Saudi Arabia. But guards opened fire and the vehicles exploded without damaging the facility.
The ruling family has pursued an aggressive campaign against militants the past four years, and its security forces have managed to kill or capture most of those on its list of most-wanted al-Qaida loyalists in the country.