AFP: Saudis bust Islamist ring planning attack during hajj: ministry

AFP: Saudis bust Islamist ring planning attack during hajj: ministry
Saudis bust Islamist ring planning attack during hajj: ministry

RIYADH (AFP) — Security forces in Saudi Arabia, the target of Islamist attacks since 2003, arrested an Al-Qaeda linked group planning a “terrorist act” during this week’s Muslim pilgrimage, the interior ministry said on Friday.

“The authorities have arrested a group which planned to carry out a terrorist act aimed at harming security and damaging the (hajj) pilgrimage,” General Mansur al-Turqi, a ministry spokesman, told AFP.

The spokesman said the attack planned by a “deviant group”, the Saudi term for militants linked to Al-Qaeda, did not however target Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca or the pilgrims.

Earlier, the Dubai-based television Al-Arabiya said Saudi authorities arrested an Al-Qaeda linked group planning to carry out attacks during the hajj, quoting Saudi security officials.

The Saudi sources said the arrests were made in several different cities of the oil-rich kingdom.

“The group aimed to trouble the security of the pilgrimage” which has this week attracted almost 2.5 million Muslim pilgrims from around the world to Islam’s holiest sites in western Saudi Arabia, the television report said.

Members of the group, whose number was unknown, were arrested “three days before the start of the hajj season”, or at the end of last week, the sources told Al-Arabiya.

The reports emerged as the hajj was winding down on Friday.

The authorities were on high alert this year because of the participation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first president from the Islamic republic to take part in the hajj.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz said in early December that his forces had foiled “more than 180 terrorist operations” since a wave of bombings and shootings by the Saudi branch of Al-Qaeda broke out four years ago.

The conservative Muslim kingdom also said it arrested 208 suspected Al-Qaeda militants over the past few months plotting assassinations and an attack on a logistical oil facility.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil producer and exporter, announced in February 2006 that it had foiled an attempt to blow up the world’s largest oil processing plant, in Abqaiq in the Eastern Province.

The militants, who are followers of Saudi-born Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, espouse the ideology of “takfeer” — branding other Muslims as infidels in order to legitimise violence against them.

The hajj, in which every Muslim is expected to take part at least once in a lifeterm if they have the means, has been hit by a series of disasters over the years, mostly caused by stampedes or fires.

There were no major incidents reported during this year’s hajj.

However, in December 1979, 151 people were killed and 560 wounded after Saudi security forces stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca to rescue pilgrims held hostage by Islamist militants for about two weeks.

And in July 1989, one person was killed and 16 wounded within the Grand Mosque sanctuary in a double attack blamed on 16 Kuwaiti Shiites who were executed later the same year.

Four hundred and two people were killed, including 275 Iranians, according to official Saudi figures, when security forces tried to break up an anti-US demonstration by Iranian pilgrims during the hajj in July 1987.

The last of this year’s pilgrims took part in the “stoning of Satan” ritual on Friday at Mina, east of Mecca. After throwing pebbles at pillars representing the Devil, they returned to the Grand Mosque before preparing to head home.

According to official Saudi figures, a total of 2,454,325 pilgrims from 181 nations, 1,707,814 of them from outside the Gulf state, performed this year’s pilgrimage.

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