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Clerics Among Latest Arrests in Saudi Suicide Bombings

Two religious leaders had been sought for urging their followers to hide terrorism suspects.

May 29, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi authorities have arrested 21 suspects in connection with the May 12 suicide bombings here, the kingdom's top counter-terrorism official said Wednesday, as the U.S. ambassador warned that an unknown number of Al Qaeda cells appear to be plotting new attacks.

Eleven of the suspects -- including four clerics -- were arrested in the last 24 hours in and around the holy city of Medina, said Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz, the Saudi interior minister. Two of the clerics had been wanted by Saudi authorities for issuing religious decrees urging followers to help hide Al Qaeda suspects wanted by the government.

The 11 are the first to be tied directly to the attacks, Saudi and U.S. officials said. Saudi authorities previously had arrested several people suspected of having advance knowledge of the bombings.

Nayif, speaking at a news conference in the city of Tabuk that was broadcast on state TV, provided few details of the latest arrests. But he did say that all of the suspects were taken alive and without incident, disputing claims on radical Islamic Web sites and in media reports that some of the clerics had been killed by Saudi authorities.

Nayif would not comment on whether one of the 11 men arrested Tuesday and early Wednesday was Ali Abdulrahman Said Alfagsy Ghamdi, one of 19 Al Qaeda suspects who have been the subject of an intense manhunt by Saudi authorities since they discovered a huge cache of explosives and weapons in a Riyadh safe house a week before the bombings.

But U.S. officials said that they believed Ghamdi was one of those detained by Saudi authorities and that other members of the group of 19 are among those arrested.

"They've made some significant arrests," said one U.S. official, adding that Saudi authorities were being extremely secretive to preserve the element of surprise.

"They don't want people who they are looking for to know who they have," the official said. "This is still really ongoing. They are still rounding up people and pursuing leads."

The arrest of the four clerics marks a key shift by the Saudi government, because the religious leaders are widely popular, according to another U.S. official.

Nayif identified two of the clerics as Ali Khudair and Ahmed bin Humud Khaldi. Saudi authorities accuse the two of calling on Muslims to fight against Western "crusaders" in an Internet statement issued just before the bombings in Riyadh.

In the statement, English translations in the Arab press said, the religious leaders urged Muslims to reject offers by Nayif to turn in suspected terrorists in exchange for rewards. The clerics also reportedly described the 19 fugitives as "not terrorists but moujahedeen," or holy warriors.

"It is absolutely forbidden to betray these moujaheeden," according to the statement. "To give information on them is to help the Americans."

Few other details about the 11 arrests in Medina were available. Medina is the second-holiest city in Islam, and non-Muslims are forbidden to enter.

Saudi authorities on Tuesday told The Times that Ghamdi had been arrested in Riyadh that day along with three other men near the city's most high-profile hotel and commercial complex. But a local paper, Al Watan, said Wednesday that Ghamdi was among at least three suspected Al Qaeda members arrested in an Internet cafe in Medina.

The three men had just performed noon prayers at the cafe and were arrested as they left, the paper said, adding that authorities seized computers the men had been using.

The arrests came as U.S. Ambassador Robert Jordan warned that Al Qaeda remains "a very real and persistent threat here in the kingdom."

"It is not simply located in one small geographic location or a mere handful of activists," Jordan said of the terrorist network, which he blamed for the May 12 attacks at three residential compounds that killed 34 people, including at least eight Americans and nine attackers. "We have concerns about further attacks. We are not convinced this threat is over or that it is in any way diminished by what we have seen.... We do not believe this was a one-time event."

Because of the continuing threat, Jordan said all "nonessential" U.S. Embassy employees would leave Saudi Arabia by Friday, and he urged other Americans not working in an emergency capacity to leave as soon as possible.

"If they do not really have to be here at this moment, they shouldn't be here and should go home," Jordan said. "Those who don't need to come here right now should defer their travel. That continues to be our advice."

Jordan's warnings, which came during a lengthy news briefing at the heavily barricaded U.S. Embassy here in the capital, appeared to be more dire than recent public assessments by Saudi authorities, who said that only a small number of Al Qaeda operatives remained in the country.

Top Saudi officials have said three Al Qaeda cells existed in the kingdom before the bombings. One has fled the country and another was decimated in the May 12 attacks, they said.

Although Jordan praised Saudi authorities' efforts to track down those responsible for the attacks, he said U.S. authorities believe a number of other co-conspirators in the bombings remain at large. And he said recently gleaned intelligence indicates that an unidentified number of other Al Qaeda cells are plotting attacks.

"There are very likely others out there planning parallel activities, perhaps not even in direct communication with each other," Jordan said.

In Washington, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said the administration is just beginning to analyze reports from Saudi Arabia about the arrests. She said it was too early to conclude whether those captured were important figures in the Riyadh bombings.

"I believe that we will, working with the Saudis ... be able to find these ringleaders and to bring them to justice," Rice said.

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Times staff writer Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.

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