Saudi police arrest six more al-Qaida members in alleged plot

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Police investigating a purported Islamic extremist plot to attack Mecca arrested six more suspected al-Qaida members who allegedly escaped a raid on a bomb-filled apartment, newspapers reported Monday.

The six suspects arrested Sunday join five others captured during the previous night's raid on the booby-trapped apartment, where police found six dozen bombs and other weapons. A shootout at the site killed five al-Qaida militants suspected in last month's suicide bombings in Riyadh and two security agents.

The newspaper Okaz reported that the six suspects arrested Sunday fled the raid in a car that broke down on the outskirts of Mecca. The men continued on foot.

Four were arrested at a mosque complex just outside the city. A fifth made it to nearby mountains, where authorities overpowered him after a three-hour standoff in which he threatened to detonate a bomb.

Other Saudi newspapers had similar reports. Saudi newspapers are privately owned but controlled by the government.

Angry reaction

Saudis reacted angrily to the threats against Mecca, where police continued their crackdown Monday, manning checkpoints in the city's main thoroughfares, checking identification papers, frisking drivers and searching cars. Mecca, 450 miles west of Riyadh, is the birthplace of Islam's seventh-century prophet and the heart of the annual pilgrimage every able-bodied Muslim is required to perform at least once.

The legitimacy of Saudi rulers rests partly on their custodianship of the holy city, which is off-limits to non-Muslims. A strike on Mecca could be seen as a strike on the regime.

Hundreds of people braved searing heat to attend funerals for the two police officers slain during the Mecca shootouts.

Khaled al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of the Arab News, said the strong turnout Sunday indicated that Saudis support the crackdown and are disgusted by the violence.

"Saudi Arabia used to have one of the lowest crime rates in the world. We're very disappointed and upset by all this violence," al-Maeena said.

Monday newspapers published pictures of the police officers, the children they left behind and some of the dead suspects covered in blood-splattered cloth.

"Mecca is our spiritual haven. We go there for peace of mind. It's the last place you expect violence," said Khlood Nazer, a 27-year-old marketing executive. "Knowing that these people were there with large quantities of explosives and bombs is very scary."

Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi analyst, said alleged plans to attack sites in the birthplace of Islam might hurt the extremist groups' recruiting efforts.

"The religious credibility of the extremists will be hurt by the purported Mecca attacks," Khashoggi said. "The idea of violence in holy Mecca is abhorrent to Muslims. It's a sin to commit violence in Mecca, and the religious credibility of anyone who plans attacks there is weakened."

Saudi security official believe the Mecca plot is linked to the May 12 suicide bombings on Western residential compounds in Riyadh that killed 35 people, including nine Americans and nine Saudi attackers.

The Riyadh bombings have been linked to al-Qaida, the militant Muslim group that has declared its enmity toward the Saudi royalty and its close ally, the United States. Al-Qaida, which is led by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, is suspected of carrying out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

The Interior Ministry said Sunday that the Mecca apartment raid foiled a "group of terrorists ... (who) were preparing an imminent terrorist act." The government did not provide details of the alleged plot.

The booby-trapped apartment contained 72 bombs of different sizes, semiautomatic rifles, knives, communication devices, bomb-making materials and masks, a ministry statement said.

The hideout was in a neighborhood just three miles from the Grand Mosque, which houses the Kaaba, the large, cubical stone structure covered with a black cloth that is Islam's most sacred site. Muslims around the world face the Kaaba during daily prayers.

Since the May 12 attacks, Saudi authorities have questioned 1,000 people and detained 300, an official said. The arrests have occurred in such major cities as Medina, Riyadh, Hael and Mecca.

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