BEIRUT, Lebanon — The security forces in Saudi Arabia have carried out a nationwide dragnet in recent months that resulted in the arrest of more than 400 people believed to be connected to the Islamic State jihadist group, the Saudi Interior Ministry said on Saturday.
The people who were arrested were linked to recent attacks inside the kingdom; they planned attacks or monitored potential targets, or used social media to spread extremist ideology and entice new recruits, the Interior Ministry said.
The high number of arrests highlights the profound fears inside the conservative, oil-rich kingdom that the jihadists who control territory in nearby Iraq and Syria will sow further trouble inside Saudi Arabia, as the militants’ leaders have vowed to do.
While Saudi Arabia’s strict version of Islam shares some aspects with the one espoused by the Islamic State, the kingdom’s leaders have denounced the group for its wanton violence and mobilized state clerics to condemn its acts. The Saudi Air Force has also joined an American-led coalition bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.
But the jihadists have also found some support in parts of Saudi society, and a few thousand Saudi citizens have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the group. The government also makes little effort to reign in hard-line Sunni clerics who brand Shiites as heretics, as does the Islamic State.
For its part, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has condemned the kingdom’s hereditary monarchy and called on its supporters to carry out attacks. This year, it has claimed a number of deadly bombings at Shiite mosques in eastern Saudi Arabia, as well as other smaller attacks. A suicide bomber who blew himself up inside a Shiite mosque in Kuwait last month, killing more than two dozen people, was a Saudi citizen.
On Thursday, the Islamic State claimed a car-bomb attack on a checkpoint near a high-security prison in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that killed the driver and wounded two security officers.
“Whoever is behind ISIS wants to create chaos in Saudi Arabia,” said Maj. Gen. Mansour Turki, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. “They want to create the same situation we are seeing in other Arab countries, like Libya, Syria and Iraq.”
In statements published by the Saudi state news agency and elaborated upon by General Turki, in a phone interview, the Interior Ministry described a scattered Islamic State infrastructure inside the kingdom with cells directed by the group’s leaders abroad but operating independently from one another.
“They are made up of cells,” General Turki said. “Each has something that they do, and they are not aware of the others.”
Of the 431 people arrested so far, a small number were detained after a deadly shooting at a Shiite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia in November. But most of the rest had been picked up in recent weeks, General Turki said.
While most of those arrested were Saudi citizens, the detainees included Yemenis, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Algerians, Nigerians and others, the Interior Ministry said. The cells carried out different activities, and members were involved with planning attacks, acquiring arms, building explosives, scouting targets and sheltering and transporting suicide bombers.
Of those arrested, 144 were involved in social media activism, the Interior Ministry said, which included spreading radical ideas and recruiting new members.
Thirty-seven security officers and civilians were killed in the crackdown, the ministry said, as well as six suspected militants.
The Interior Ministry said the arrests had foiled a number of plots, including plans to target diplomatic missions, assassinate Saudi security officers and bomb mosques in eastern Saudi Arabia.
It is unclear how many of those arrested have been formally charged with crimes or when they will be. Much of Saudi Arabia’s justice system is opaque; trials related to security issues are closed, and their results usually are not reported publicly.
Human rights groups say the system is often arbitrary, with few rights for the accused.
In April, Saudi Arabia reported that 93 people suspected of having ties to the Islamic State had been arrested. On Saturday, General Turki said he did not know how many of them had since been convicted of crimes or whether any had been released.
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(via NY Times)