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Saudi Arabia arrests 172 in alleged plot

Officials: Pilots trained for suicide attacks

BERLIN -- Saudi Arabia said yesterday that it had arrested 172 suspected terrorists over the past several months from a network that was planning suicide attacks -- including the use of airplanes -- on the kingdom's oil industry, military installations, and other targets.

Saudi officials said some of the suspects had trained next door in Iraq and had returned to the kingdom to plot the attacks. Also among the targets were high-ranking members of the royal family and the Saudi security forces, officials said.

A majority of those arrested were Saudi citizens, but a substantial number were immigrant workers from elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa who were recruited by the network after their arrival, Saudi officials said.

The Interior Ministry said it broke up seven cells belonging to the same Al Qaeda-affiliated network that killed scores of people in 2003 and 2004, rattling global oil markets and raising questions about the kingdom's stability. But Saudi officials said the recently disrupted cells posed less of a threat because of a relative lack of experience and sophistication.

"The threat is much less because the cadres are very different," said a Saudi intelligence official in Riyadh who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's pretty much the same group as before, but they just have less training and make more mistakes."

The security sweep resulted in the seizure of more than $5 million as well as several caches of weapons. Saudi television broadcast video of police officers digging up rifles and explosives in the desert, as well as under floorboards in urban hideouts. Those arrested were accused of plotting terrorist acts, officials said.

Lieutenant General Mansour al-Turki, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said some of the suspects had sought pilot training abroad so they could crash airplanes into targets in the kingdom. Neither he nor other Saudi officials identified specific targets, but Turki said some of the plots were disrupted shortly before they were to be carried out.

"They had reached an advance stage of readiness, and what remained only was to set the zero hour for their attacks," Turki said. "They had the personnel, the money, the arms. Almost all the elements for terror attacks were complete."

The arrests, carried out over a period of weeks, were the product of a US-Saudi operation with British assistance dating back at least nine months, according to American and Saudi officials.

"There's every indication that this is a very serious matter and that they were involved in operational training and planning on a wide scale. This is a serious threat," said a US intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Certainly any time the Saudis or anyone else takes action against those involved in terrorism it's a good thing," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey. "It's something that makes the world safer and makes America safer."

Violence in the kingdom has gradually subsided since a wave of suicide bombings and attacks on Westerners broke out four years ago, leading to a temporary exodus of foreign workers and fears that the royal family was losing control.

In May 2003, suicide bombers from a group calling itself Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia launched coordinated assaults on compounds housing foreign workers in Riyadh, the capital, killing at least 25 people.

After that, the network sponsored attacks on other compounds, two oil installations, and the Interior Ministry headquarters. Radicals also kidnapped several foreigners and beheaded an American expatriate, Paul M. Johnson Jr., an employee of Lockheed Martin Corp.

The attacks prompted an overhaul of Saudi Arabia's domestic security and intelligence agencies, which received assistance and training from the US government.

The majority of the men arrested were Saudis, but the suspects included immigrants from Yemen, Nigeria, Mauritania, Syria, and other countries, Saudi officials said.

The Interior Ministry said the bulk of the arrests came from two cells with about 60 members each. In both cases, operatives were sent outside the country for training.

Another cell consisted of nine immigrants who were plotting to storm a Saudi prison and free others who had been rounded up previously, the Interior Ministry reported.