Saudi Arabia arrested dozens of Islamic militants as the instability in Syria and Yemen raises concerns that the conflicts there may blow back on the world’s largest oil producer.
More than 60 people, almost all Saudi nationals, were arrested, Major General Mansour Al Turki, a senior Interior Ministry official, told reporters in Riyadh yesterday. He said the group was planning to assassinate security officials, attack religious clerics, and had built a bomb-making facility.
Saudi Arabia has cracked down on al-Qaeda since 2004, when militants returning from Afghanistan and Iraq tried to destabilize the Arab world’s biggest economy and U.S. ally by attacking foreign nationals and an oil installation. Saudi Arabia escaped the turmoil of the Arab Spring, which led to the ouster of a number of neighboring government in 2011. It remains vulnerable to attack by militants, say analysts.
“We have been concerned that radical groups on both sides of the kingdom would plan to attack targets in Saudi Arabia,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said by phone.
The cell uncovered by Saudi authorities is linked to al-Qaeda groups in Yemen and militants fighting in Syria, and had smuggled weapons across the Yemeni border, Al Turki said. Saudi security discovered the group by monitoring their activity on social networking websites, the ministry said in a statement on the Saudi Press Agency.
The conflict in Syria has pulled fighters from all over the Arab world to battle against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Al-Qaeda’s affiliates, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are increasingly taking the initiative as al-Qaeda’s core leadership has been weakened, the U.S. State Department said on April 30.
“Syria is a new theater now that is providing al-Qaeda with supporters,” Khalid al-Dakhil, a political sociologist in Riyadh, said by phone. “It is a genuine concern and a source of instability in the region, but it isn’t a direct threat to the kingdom.”
Critics of the kingdom say it has been partly responsible for the rise of militant groups in the region because it has financed some of them, including groups involved in the Syrian civil war.
Saudi Arabia, with a Sunni Muslim majority, has taken steps to prevent its citizens from going to fight in the civil war in Syria. The conflict pits mainly Sunni rebels against President Assad, whose government has roots in a version of Shiite Islam.
Saudi Arabia said in February it will jail any of its citizens caught fighting abroad for between three to 20 years.
Yemen-based militants, who have hit Saudi Arabia in the past and attacked Yemeni government institutions, are battling armed forces in the south of the country. Earlier this month, Yemen’s military killed 37 suspected al-Qaeda militants, according to the country’s official SABA news agency.
“Yemen is a failed state,” said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington. “It is getting worse by the day. The Saudis should get increasingly worried about what might come out of Yemen.”
The instability raises concerns that Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor could disintegrate like Somalia or be plunged into civil war. Yemen is a haven for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which includes Saudi militants who fled the government crackdown starting in 2004. It’s been used as a base to plan attacks against the U.S., including an attempt to parcel-bomb American synagogues.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, now the Saudi interior minister, was wounded in August 2009 when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the prince’s office in Jeddah, an attack that al-Qaeda said was planned in Yemen.
Islamists returned to Saudi Arabia from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with skills they later turned against the Al Saud family and its control of the world’s second-largest crude reserves. Militants tried in 2006 to penetrate the southern gate of Abqaiq, the world’s largest oil facility, with twin car bombs.