Saudi authorities announced Wednesday the arrest of 113 terrorism suspects, accusing them of plotting to attack key oil and security targets in the Kingdom. News accounts have tied the arrests to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. The arrests need to be put into broader perspective, however. They are part of an ongoing, broadly successful counter-terrorism campaign, rather than a dramatic new development. The alleged Yemeni connections, while troubling, raise as many questions as they answer.
Who were the reported 113 suspected terrorists arrested this week? An Interior Ministry spokesman said the suspects represented three independent cells, one consisting of 101 people and two with six members each. The larger cell was reportedly rounded up through the investigation that followed last October's shootout near Jizan, in which two militants were killed trying to enter the Kingdom from Yemen. This larger cell was allegedly plotting attacks against "economic facilities and security officers" in unspecified locations. The two small cells were allegedly in email contact with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leaders in Yemen, and were "in the primary stages of preparing attacks on oil and security installations in the Eastern Province."
In the absence of more details, it is obviously hard to properly assess the situation. But there are several reasons to not be overly alarmed. First, the large number of arrests reflects a peculiar but well known Saudi communication strategy. In 2007, for unclear reasons, Saudi authorities stopped reporting arrests as they happened, and started grouping reports into a couple of announcements a year. The latest batch represents the "harvest" from a period of five months. Compared to previous batches, one of which exceeded 700 people, this latest one is not particularly large.
Second, the threat to oil targets is not new. Since 2006, al Qaeda has declared, and acted on, a strategy of targeting oil facilities. With the exception of the February 2006 Abqaiq attack, Saudi authorities have successfully broken up all such plots to date, despite al-Qaeda's concerted attention, and are unlikely to be taken by surprise in that key sector. This is not reason for complacency: if hundreds of militants are plotting attacks in the Kingdom each year, how long will it take before one of them slips through? Saudi security services have become very competent, but even the best agencies make mistakes.
The extent of the Yemeni connection raises troubling questions. It certainly appears that the Yemen based AQAP currently represents the greatest threat to Saudi security. With all three cells linked to Yemen and over half the detainees Yemenis, this batch has more links to Yemen than did previous roundups.
This represents a change, but hardly a surprising one. Al Qaeda's weakening in Saudi Arabia and strengthening in Yemen has been ongoing since 2006 and widely reported since the Detroit plane incident last Christmas. But does the large Yemeni component reflect the nature of the threat or a bias in the threat assessment? It is possible that we are seeing arrests linked to Yemen because that is where the services are looking. As I have argued before, al Qaeda can infiltrate from other places, not least Pakistan. And while the threat from homegrown Saudi cells is still small, it will increase if left unchecked. It is never a good sign when a country sees all threats to its security as instigated from abroad. Having said this, it is reassuring that the Saudis are taking the threat from al Qaeda in Yemen seriously. They have every reason to do so.
Thomas Hegghammer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) in Oslo, and an Associate at the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs, Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University.