- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2003

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — An e-mail purportedly from terror network al Qaeda threatens the Saudi royal family with revenge attacks over reports that police killed two clerics during a roundup of militants connected with the May 12 suicide attacks on Western targets.

“Sheik Osama [bin Laden] and the leaders of al Qaeda in Afghanistan are closely following reports of the deaths of Sheik Ali al-Khodeir and Ahmed al-Khaledi,” said the message reported by the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

“If it was especially confirmed that Sheik Ali al-Khodeir was martyred, then our response against the al-Saud family … will be as great as the sheik is to us,” the e-mail said.

The Saudis say Sheiks al-Khodeir and al-Khaledi and another cleric, Nasser al-Fahd, were arrested during a roundup of militants in the holy city of Medina.

The three had urged Saudis to help foil a manhunt for 19 militants who had escaped after a May 6 shootout with police.

Less than a week later, several of the escapees blew up three Western apartment blocks in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, killing 25 persons, including eight Americans, in addition to nine suicide bombers.

A London-based Saudi opposition group, the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, said al-Khodeir and al-Khaledi were killed in a shootout with police.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz denied the report, saying that all three were in custody.

“I want to clarify none of them have been killed. They are all alive,” Prince Nayef told the Arab News daily.

Young Saudis generally distrust official statements from government-controlled newspapers such as Arab News, preferring to get their information from Islamist Web sites.

If reports that the two clerics died continue to surface and the Saudi government provides no evidence to the contrary, analysts here worry that the clerics’ diehard supporters will begin attacking Saudi princes and princesses.

Until recently, al Qaeda terrorists inside Saudi Arabia had heeded a decree issued by bin Laden in the mid-1990s stating that attacks on Saudi soil should be avoided for fear of undermining an oil industry needed to sustain an Islamic state after a revolution.

However, the bombings earlier this month increasingly appear to have marked round one in a looming confrontation between al Qaeda and the House of Saud.

The Saudi government has denied for years that extremists, let alone al Qaeda cells, existed in Saudi Arabia, even as radical Muslim clerics preached war against the West in mosques throughout the kingdom.

Since the May attacks, more than 100 al Qaeda suspects and their sympathizers have been arrested in a nationwide crackdown.

Earlier this week, 21 Saudis were apprehended in and around Medina, including 11 said to have had direct knowledge of or involvement in the Riyadh blasts. The three clerics were believed to have been among those involved in the Medina raids.

Four other Saudis who had been arrested in Riyadh also were directly involved, according to officials.

Prince Nayef told reporters on Wednesday that the 21 persons arrested in Medina this week had surrendered without a fight.

But locals said they heard gunfights throughout Tuesday night, as helicopters with searchlights circled overhead.

The group arrested in Medina included the purported mastermind, Ali Abdul Rahman Al-Ghamdi, from whose tribe came six of the 15 Saudi hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks.

In a letter Al-Ghamdi purportedly posted on an Islamist Web site while he was on the run, he denied knowledge of the May attacks but said he sympathized with those who had carried them out and called for a general uprising against the Saudi government.

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