- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2002

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Saudi Arabia is using digital eye scanners, fingerprinting machines and other high-tech security equipment to search for terror suspects as hundreds of thousands of Muslims arrive in the country for the hajj pilgrimage this month.

The kingdom expects close to 2.5 million people this year for the annual pilgrimage, which comes amid heightened tensions in the Muslim world after the September 11 attacks on the United States and the subsequent war in Afghanistan. There are 5,000 U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia.

A Saudi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the country's entry ports are under close watch and the number of intelligence officers has been significantly increased to keep an eye out on proceedings during the hajj.

The official said authorities at King Abdul Aziz International Airport in the Red Sea port city of Jiddah, which receives 80 percent of nonresident pilgrims, have installed digital eye-scanning and fingerprinting machines to collect data on the pilgrims.

"Those suspected of being involved in terrorism activities have their names listed at all entry ports and we've installed machines that will help us detect forged passports," said Lt. Col. Ibrahim bin Saleh al-Hamdan. The scanning equipment will be used at random or on suspect individuals.

"King Abdul Aziz airport receives more than 750,000 pilgrims and we're not going to scan every single one of them," he said.

The hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca birthplace of Islam's 7th-century prophet Muhammad and home of Islam's holiest shrine is one of the pillars of the religion. Muslims who are able-bodied and can afford the journey are obliged to do it at least once in their lifetime.

The Ministry of Pilgrimage estimates that 120,000 Pakistani pilgrims 10 percent more than last year will make the hajj. Pakistanis represent the largest number of pilgrims; 110,000 Indians and 92,000 Iranians also are expected to attend.

The Saudi government usually does not announce the number of security forces it deploys in Mecca during the hajj, but it is believed to be in the tens of thousands.

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