Saudi Arabia said Tuesday it has dismantled an emerging Al-Qaeda-linked group tied to extremist organisations in Yemen and Syria, arresting scores of alleged militants in a renewed crackdown on jihadists.
Authorities have arrested 62 suspected members, including a Palestinian, a Yemeni, and a Pakistani, the interior ministry said, adding that authorities are still searching for 44 others whose names have been submitted to Interpol.
The ministry statement said the group was "plotting criminal operations targeting government installations, foreign interests, assassinations against security personnel, religious figures, and government officials."
Saudi authorities launched a massive crackdown on Al-Qaeda following a spate of deadly attacks in the kingdom from 2003-2006, prompting many militants to flee to neighbouring Yemen, where they established Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, now considered one of the global network's most formidable affiliates.
Security services found "elements of the deviant organisation in Yemen (AQAP) to have contacted their counterparts from deviant groups in Syria and coordinated with deviant elements in the kingdom, where they chose an emir," or leader, General Mansur al-Turki, a ministry spokesman, told reporters in Riyadh.
When asked to specify the group in Syria he was referring to, Turki said it was the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a rogue jihadist group fighting in Syria and Iraq.
A partnership between AQAP and ISIL would be surprising, as the latter is currently battling Al-Nusra Front, the official Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, and has rebuffed repeated demands by Al-Qaeda's overall leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to confine its activities to Iraq.
But Turki also said the kingdom does not distinguish between the two groups fighting in Syria, saying they follow the "same deviant ideology."
Turki said the emir of the new group was among those arrested, without naming him, and said the arrests were made over a period of two months. He also said several women were detained.
Turki said "suspicious activities on social networks" had facilitated the arrests, adding that $240,000 (170,000 euros) were seized, with most of the money having been raised online.
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He said the new group was smuggling arms via the porous border with Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is building a three-metre (10-foot) high fence along its southern frontier.
The ministry said those arrested include 35 Saudis who had previously been detained on security-related allegations and released.
Saudi has released scores of militants after passing them through a controversial rehabilitation programme set up seven years ago that is intended to persuade jihadists that their actions violate the teachings of Islam.
But many graduates of the programme have returned to militancy, including Saeed al-Shehri, who went on to become deputy leader of AQAP before being killed in a US drone strike last year.
- Renewed crackdown -
The arrests come amid increasing concern in Saudi Arabia over powerful jihadist groups operating in neighbouring countries, which has led the government to ban several outfits, including both ISIL and Al-Nusra Front, in recent months.
Yemen's army has meanwhile been carrying out a major offensive against AQAP in the country's rugged southern and central provinces, where a wave of US drone strikes killed scores of alleged militants last month.
Riyadh has said it will prosecute anyone who backs blacklisted extremist 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."
Saudi authorities set up specialised terrorism courts in 2011 to try dozens of Saudis and foreigners accused of belonging to Al-Qaeda or of involvement in the wave of unrest unleashed in 2003.