Police have arrested 172 militants who were plotting to attack Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, storm its prisons to free the inmates and use aircraft in their attacks, the Interior Ministry said Friday.
"They had reached an advance stage of readiness and what remained only was to set the zero hour for their attacks," Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Mansour al-Turki told the Associated Press. "They had the personnel, the money, the arms. Almost all the elements for terror attacks were complete except for setting the zero hour for the attacks."
The militants planned to carry out suicide attacks against “public figures, oil facilities, refineries ... and military zones,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement, adding that some of the military targets were outside the kingdom, but it did not elaborate.
Some of the militants were being trained to fly aircraft, the statement added, raising the specter of more attacks like Sept. 11, 2001, in which terrorists hijacked passenger planes and flew them into buildings in New York and Washington.
“Some had begun training on the use of weapons, and some were sent to other countries to study aviation in preparation to use them to carry out terrorist operations inside the kingdom,” the statement said.
It said the suspects, mostly Saudis, had been “influenced by the deviant ideology,” a reference frequently used by Saudi officials to refer to al-Qaida.
Plastic explosives found
The Saudi state TV channel Al-Ekhbariah broadcast footage of large weapons cache discovered buried in the desert. The arms included bricks of plastic explosives, ammunition cartridges, handguns and rifles wrapped in plastic sheeting.
Al-Turki told the privately owned Al-Arabiya TV channel that the militants included non-Saudis and that one cell planned to storm a prison and release the inmates.
The ministry said more than $5 million was seized in the operation, one of the largest sweeps against terror cells in the kingdoms. Earlier reports gave the amount as $32 million.
Al-Ekhbariah showed investigators breaking tiled floors with hammers to uncover pipes that contained weapons. In one scene, an official upends a plastic pipe and bullets and little packets of plastic explosives spill out.
U.S. intelligence sources told NBC News that the planned attacks were very serious but not imminent and part of a long-standing plan by al-Qaida to take down the Saudi monarchy.
"We and the Saudis are taking this very seriously," said one official. "This plot was being worked by the Saudis for a long time, but I would steer you away from suggesting that it was imminent. Saudis have been working this intently."
Last attacks in February
The al-Qaida terror group, whose leader Osama bin Laden is a Saudi, has called for attacks on the kingdom’s oil facilities as a means of crippling both the kingdom’s economy and the hurting the West, which he accuses of paying too little for Arab oil.
Militants in February killed four French expatriates working and living in Saudi Arabia in the latest attack on foreigners in the pro-Western kingdom.
Saudi Arabia warned foreign embassies last month that a group blamed for the killings could strike again.
Militant Islamists have said they want to drive “infidel” Westerners out of Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest sites.
Tough security measures and a powerful publicity campaign helped crush the violence but analysts and diplomats have said the underlying drives of radical Islamic ideology and anger at Western policy in the region remain strong.