Saudi internal security forces arrested 172 suspected Al-Qa'idah terrorists belonging to at least seven operational cells. The cells were believed to be plotting attacks on a variety of targets in the kingdom, including oil facilities. At least two of those arrested were pilots and may have been planning to use aircraft in the attacks.
An obvious success for the Ministry of the Interior, the arrests highlight the capabilities of the Saudi internal security apparatus and intelligence services. I have worked with the Saudi military and civilian intelligence services in the past. Their focus has never been on producing what we consider "foreign intelligence," but rather developing information on threats to the royal family and that entity which supports the monarchy - the oil infrastructure.
In my dealings with the Saudis, I was not impressed with their methodology when conducting intelligence operations - running collection operations, analyzing raw information and producing finished intelligence. This was frustrating during the Gulf War when we were trying to develop all the intelligence we could on Iraqi military capabilities and intentions, the Saudis were worried about non-existent threats to the royal palaces in Jiddah and Riyadh.
On the other hand, the Saudis were always excellent at providing internal security. Of course, this is a kingdom - a real kingdom - not like the constitutional monarchies of Europe. Here the king (actually, his title in Arabic translates to "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques") is the absolute ruler. There are heavily-armed police and security officers everywhere, and justice is swift, often to our chagrin. After the Saudis arrested those they believed responsible for the 1996 bombing of the American housing area at Khobar Towers, the suspects were interrogated, tried and executed before American intelligence and security officers could have access to them.
The number of suspects arrested in this operation is high, and shows increased sophistication in the Saudis methodology. The Saudi officers followed and monitored the suspects for up to six months, rather than arresting suspects immediately.
So what prompted the arrests? The Saudis may have believed that they had identified all the members of the cells, or may have had an indication that their efforts against the group was (or about to be) discovered and were forced to move before the suspects fled. In any case, rolling up 172 suspected Al-Qa'idah terrorists is a major accomplishment. Hopefully, the interrogations will yield a wealth of information on who, what , where, when - all the things we want to know. Obviously, we are going to want to work with the Saudis to determine if any of these suspects have information about cells in the United States, or other information about Al-Qa'idah training facilities in the region.
According to the Saudis, the two pilots were not trained in Saudi Arabia. It will be interesting to hear where all of the suspects were trained - I suspect we are going to hear about Pakistan.
The pilot angle is a bit puzzling. Although the Saudis claim there were plans to crash aircraft into oil facilities, the preferred method of attack in Saudi Arabia has been the vehicle-borne improved explosive device (VBIED). Use of an aircraft would be a new tactic here. The problem is the very tight security at all civil aviation facilities and the lack of a robust general aviation sector.
Mabruk, ya asdiqa'i.