DUBAI - Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday it had uncovered an Al-Qaeda militant group with links to ‘extremist elements’ in Syria and Yemen that had been plotting to assassinate officials and attack government and foreign targets.
The cell comprised 62 members, including 59 Saudi militants, a Yemeni, a Pakistani and a Palestinian, Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour al-Turki said.
Speaking in a live televised briefing, Turki said the cell had links to the ultra-hardline Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is both a powerful Islamist force in Syria's war and an anti-government combatant across the border in turbulent Iraq. He said some members of the cell were still at large.
"They ... started constructing components of the organisation, means of support and planning for terrorist operations targeting government installations, foreign interests and assassinating security personalities," he said. The conservative Islamic kingdom, the world's largest oil exporter, has grown increasingly concerned about radicalisation this year because the war in Syria has spurred what they see as a surge in online militancy.
Officials are worried about a new Al-Qaeda armed campaign: Saudi Arabia faced an Al-Qaeda insurgency from 2003 to 2006 in which militants targeted residential compounds for foreigners and Saudi government facilities, killing dozens of people.
The kingdom responded by arresting thousands of suspected militants and launching a media campaign to discredit their ideology with the backing of influential clerics and tribal leaders. The courts have sentenced thousands of Saudi citizens to prison terms for similar offences over the past decade.
Turki said an investigation into social media postings "led security forces after months of hard work to pinpoint suspicious activities that unveiled a terrorist organisation through which the elements of Al-Qaeda in Yemen were communicating with their counterpart elements in Syria in coordination with a number of misguided (people) at home in various provinces of the kingdom."
Authorities had found a laboratory to make explosives and seized funds intended for the militant cell close to one million Saudi riyals ($266,600). Some of those in the cell had previously gone through rehabilitation, Turki said, referring to educational courses for detained Islamist militants intended to wean them off violence.
Turki said security forces were monitoring "suspicious actions on social networking" "especially after becoming a spacious arena for all extremist groups"
An interior ministry statement said "suspicious activities on social networks" had facilitated the arrests, without providing further details.
The ministry in March published a list of "terror" groups, including Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Nusra Front, which is Al-Qaeda's official Syrian affiliate, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, another jihadist group fighting in Syria and Iraq. It also includes the little-known Saudi Hezbollah Shia militant group, as well as Shia Huthi rebels fighting in neighbouring Yemen.
The ministry has said it will prosecute anyone who back such groups "financially or morally", or who seeks to promote them in the media and on social networks.
It also forbids "participation in, calling for, or incitement to fighting in conflict zones in other countries" as well as calling for demonstrations or taking part in them.
After a wave of deadly Al-Qaeda attacks in the kingdom between 2003 and 2006, Saudi authorities cracked down on the local branch of the group founded by the late Osama bin Laden, himself Saudi-born.
Members of that group went on to merge with Yemeni militants to form Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen and seen as one of the network's most formidable affiliates.