updated 8/6/2004 7:46:51 AM ET 2004-08-06T11:46:51

Saudi police arrested a top Saudi terror suspect, officials said Friday, weeks after the cleric linked to al-Qaida reassured followers he was “taking all necessary precautions” to evade a government sweep.

Faris Ahmed Jamaan al-Showeel al-Zahrani was No. 12 on the kingdom’s list of 26 most-wanted terror suspects. More than half the others on the list have been either killed or captured in a crackdown that followed a series of bombings in Riyadh in May, 2003.

Police captured al-Zahrani and a second suspect on Thursday night, an unidentified Interior Ministry official told the Saudi Press Agency. The second suspect’s name was not released.

The official described al-Zahrani as “a preacher of denouncing people as infidels.” Islamic militants often label their enemies as infidels before they attack them. Al-Zahrani and the second suspect were detained “swiftly and efficiently,” and were not able to use the weapons they were carrying, the official said.

“The Interior Ministry wishes to emphasize to all people that the security forces are determined to pursue the terrorists, get them out of their holes, and apply God’s law to them,” the official added.

He had rejected amnesty
Four weeks ago, al-Zahrani wrote an article in which he said he was evading the Saudi crackdown.

“I would like to reassure the people who love me,” he told the online al-Qaida publication Voice of Jihad. “I am careful in my movements and contacts, and I take all necessary precautions.”

In the same statement, al-Zahrani rejected a limited amnesty that King Fahd offered militants in June. Under the amnesty, which ended in late July, suspected terrorists who surrendered were spared the death penalty. It netted no major suspects.

Other prominent suspects still on the list include Saleh Mohammed al-Aoofi, a former prison guard who is said to be al-Qaida’s leader in Saudi Arabia.

The liberal Arabic-language Web site www.elaph.com described al-Zahrani as “one of the most prominent theorists for terrorist cells in Saudi Arabia.” It said he is 30 years old and has a master’s degree in Islamic Law from a Saudi Arabian university.

Support messages appear
In an indication of al-Zahrani’s importance, sympathetic messages began appearing on Islamic Web sites expressing regret and asking God to give him strength.

“God strengthen Faris al-Zahrani’s heart. Make him calm and support him,” said a site contributor writing under the name “Ishraqet Amal” or Dawn of Hope. “As he championed righteousness and waged holy war for your sake, God, support him and don’t let the infidels get to him (psychologically).”

A contributor who used the name Abu Asli said of the arrest: “I pray to God that this news is false.”

The pan-Arab TV channel Al-Arabiya had reported late Thursday that al-Zahrani was detained in Abha, a town 500 miles southwest of Riyadh.

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