- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — The Interior Ministry said yesterday that 16 terrorism suspects had been arrested as they were about to attack “key installations” throughout the kingdom.

A massive cache of arms and explosives also was discovered, and a number of suspects who escaped are being hunted down by the security forces, the ministry added.

The arrests were seen as a clear sign that Islamic cells inspired by terror network al Qaeda continue to plan spectacular attacks on Saudi Arabia, despite a government crackdown that has led to the arrests of more than 100 Islamists and the interrogation of thousands.

The arrests were made during a sweep of farms, rest stops and private homes in the capital, Riyadh, the nearby region of Qassim and unspecified locations in the Eastern Province, home to almost all of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves.

A Western diplomatic source in Riyadh told The Washington Times last night that the arrests were made during the past three days, and that the Saudi security forces were able to pinpoint the suspects because of more sophisticated use of satellite surveillance equipment since suicide bombings killed 34 persons in Riyadh on May 12.

The source added that information received from al Qaeda suspects now in custody almost certainly facilitated the arrests.

The Qassim region is known as the “Koran Belt” of Saudi Arabia, and includes the city of Buraidah — the spiritual heartland of Wahhabism, the kingdom’s austere brand of Islam.

However, this is the first time since the May 12 attacks that terrorist activity has been reported in the oil-rich eastern part of the kingdom, suggesting that oil facilities may have been among the key installations vaguely identified as targets by the government.

Despite an edict issued in the 1990s by al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden that the oil fields should not be targeted for attacks, they remain vulnerable.

Authorities last year foiled an attempt to bomb Ras Tanura, the world’s largest oil-terminal complex. But Western diplomats say there was clear intention of destroying these oil fields, and that it still exists.

Saudi TV footage yesterday of the raided hide-outs showed automatic rifles, weapons, binoculars, mobile phones, surveillance cameras, bullet-proof vests, passports for several nationalities, forged identity cards, cars, motorcycles, audiotapes, computers and cash boxes used to collect donations from the public.

“A number of bags filled with more than 20 tons of chemical substances to make explosives were found hidden underground,” Saudi TV added.

The arrests follow a crackdown by Saudi Arabia — birthplace of bin Laden — after the Riyadh bombings that the United States and the kingdom blame on al Qaeda.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef has said that authorities foiled several terror plots against foreigners, some bigger than those in Riyadh.

Terrorists and members of the security forces have been killed in shootouts in Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, and in the northern city of Al-Jouf. Ten from a list of 19 al Qaeda suspects released by the government shortly before the May 12 bombings either have been arrested or killed.

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