Major Arrests Highlight Security Situation in Saudi Arabia

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 12

On April 27, the Saudi Ministry of Interior announced that it had disrupted a large-scale and wide-ranging terrorist plot made up of seven cells, with plans to target oil facilities and military bases with hijacked airliners, stage assassinations and mount a prison break. Of the 172 suspected militants arrested, approximately 40 were foreign nationals, including Yemenis and Nigerians. Authorities also seized large amounts of weapons, explosives and more than $5 million in cash (al-Ekhbaria, April 27; al-Hayat, April 28).

Early reports indicate that some of the money was being raised in the kingdom to finance the Iraqi insurgency, and that some of the Saudis arrested had traveled to Iraq for military training. Most of those arrested, however, are not believed to have had any prior military experience or paramilitary training. Moreover, many of the weapons displayed by the Saudi media are suspected to have been hidden or buried for some time. Analysis in the Western media noted that the arrests occurred during the past nine months, and that many of the detained had been known to authorities and had been under surveillance for extended periods. This may suggest that the recent sweep was not primarily an urgent security operation aimed at disrupting a pending operation. The arrests, however, highlight the Saudis’ increased preventative capabilities.

The arrests are the latest incidents to highlight the ongoing intention to target the kingdom’s well protected energy infrastructure (for instance, consult the latest issue of Sawt al-Jihad in which such targets are discussed) (Terrorism Focus, February 20). The possibility of suicide hijackers targeting Saudi oil facilities has been considered a danger for some time. While Saudi authorities are extremely reluctant to discuss security specifics publicly, oil facilities are understood to be protected by a series of anti-aircraft positions, surface-to-air missile batteries and continuous Royal Saudi Air Force combat patrols.

Several recent high-profile terrorism incidents in Saudi Arabia have again raised questions about the security situation in the kingdom. The shooting of four French nationals in late February and the murder and decapitation of a high-ranking security officer in mid-April have both garnered wide attention. These incidents demonstrate that there continues to be a worrisome ongoing security problem in the country; these incidents, however, do not represent a return to the early days of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s terror campaign that began in 2003. Similar ad-hoc assaults and attacks on targets of opportunity will continue in the kingdom, but recent counter-terrorism efforts have significantly degraded the ability of militants to organize and successfully undertake major operations, as evidenced by the recent arrest announcement.

The February 26 shootings of four French nationals, as they were stopped alongside the Medina-Tabuk highway, were the first attacks to target foreigners in the kingdom since a British national was wounded in a knife attack in Jubail some three months earlier (Saudi TV1, February 27; Ain al-Yaqeen, March 9). On April 6, Saudi security forces killed the alleged mastermind of the murders as they stormed the building in Medina in which he was hiding (Asharq al-Awsat, April 6). Waleed al-Mutlaq al-Radani was a wanted terrorist, and was number 12 on a 15-person most wanted list released in 2005. Forensic examinations of the weapon discovered with al-Radani and evidence collected from the scene of the murders determined that his was the weapon used to fire the majority of bullets in the shooting (Saudi Press Agency, April 18). Eight other suspects have since been arrested in connection with the murders, and at least two other identified individuals are still being sought.

The second incident to raise concern was the murder and decapitation of Col. Nasser bin Muhammed al-Othman, a senior police officer in al-Qassim (Terrorism Focus, April 24). The attack bears striking similarities to another attack on a senior security officer from the General Investigation Department in June 2005, in which Lt. Col. Mubarak al-Sawat was killed as he left his home in Jeddah. Security officials stated at the time that they believed the attackers’ plans were to abduct and then record al-Sawat’s execution for use in a propaganda video. Al-Sawat was shot during a struggle with his attackers, and police discovered an axe, knives, tape, rope and a running video recorder next to his body. He was reported to have been one of the most accomplished interrogators in the kingdom, and his name had appeared on a terrorist-produced 10 most wanted security officers list (Arab News, June 19, 2005; Arab News, June 21, 2005; Asharq al-Awsat, June 24, 2005; Arab News, June 30, 2005). According to reports, an intensive search is currently underway to find al-Othman’s murders, although the investigation has thus far turned up few leads.

Police officers and security personnel have repeatedly been targeted by militants during the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula campaign that began in May 2003. The security crackdown that followed the November 2003 al-Muhaya compound bombing in Riyadh has featured recurring retaliatory drive-by shootings on uniformed officers and attacks on checkpoints. The most recent steps to protect the kingdom’s security personnel were taken when the Public Security Administration announced plans to “shield its members from extremist ideas” (Asharq al-Awsat, April 23). This plan to prevent extremist recruitment from among the security forces, however, has yet to be detailed.