Saudi Arabia has arrested 149 people from 19 cells linked to al-Qaida over the past eight months and foiled attacks against government and security officials, the Interior Ministry said Friday.
The announcement comes as elderly Saudi King Abdullah is in the United States recovering from surgery to treat a blood clot complication from a slipped disc.
"In the past eight months 149 people linked to al-Qaida were arrested, among them were 124 Saudis and 25 were from other nationalities," Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Al-Turki told a news conference. One woman was also among them.
The non-Saudi suspects were Arabs, Africans and South Asians, he said, adding that the thwarted cells had links to al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.
"These cells have links with al-Qaida who are disturbing the security in Yemen, with Somalia and organizations in Afghanistan," Al-Turki said.
The ministry confiscated 2.24 million riyals ($597,000) from al-Qaida suspects, he said, and militants had tried to collect money and spread their ideology during the Muslim pilgrimages of Haj and Umra in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Turki said those arrested had been planning more than half a dozen attacks against Saudi government and military officials and establishments, as well as civilians and media figures. Some of the attacks were in advanced stages of preparations, he said.
He said the sweep was not connected to last month's failed mail bomb plot, which the Yemen-based al-Qaida offshoot has claimed it was behind.
Saudi Arabia provided the key intelligence information that led to the last-minute foiling of the plot, in which mail bombs addressed to the U.S. ended up on planes flying out of Yemen. The unexploded bombs were intercepted at airports in Dubai and England.
Oil installation attacks?
Al-Turki also said the attackers were also planning to target government facilities but did not say whether they included oil installations.
The television channel al Arabiya reported Friday that the kingdom had also foiled plans to attack Saudi oil installations.
A Saudi Arabian counter-terrorism drive halted a violent al-Qaida campaign in the Gulf Arab country from 2003 to 2006. Al-Qaida's Yemeni and Saudi wings merged in 2009 into a new group, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen.
"The organization is trying to recruit people inside the kingdom. There are cells that facilitate (the recruits) to travel outside (the kingdom) to train and then they return ... they exploit the Haj season for this purpose," Al-Turki told journalists at the press conference.
Those who had donated money were not aware they were giving to militant organizations, he said.
Saudi concerns about al-Qaida's presence in Yemen surged after the kingdom's top anti-terrorism official, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, was slightly hurt in a suicide attack in August last year by a Saudi posing as a repentant militant returning from Yemen.
The arrests announced on Friday follow one of the largest al-Qaida sweeps in years by Saudi Arabia earlier this year. In March, the kingdom arrested 113 al-Qaida militants including suicide bombers who had been planning attacks on energy facilities in the world's top oil exporter.
The March arrests netted 58 suspected Saudi militants and 52 from Yemen. The militants, who also came from Bangladesh, Eritrea and Somalia, were backed by the Yemen-based AQAP.
The arrested suspects will not be sent to a rehabilitation program, Al-Turki said, but will be put on trial. They could be sent to rehabilitation programmes after serving their sentences and showing repentance, he said.
There were still other suspects at large and the ministry asked that they turn themselves in, Al-Turki said.