Saudis arrest al-Qa'ida suspects 'planning attacks'

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The Independent Online

Authorities in Saudi Arabia say they are holding seven suspected members of al-Qa'ida and have disrupted plans to launch a series of attacks on targets inside the kingdom.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia say they are holding seven suspected members of al-Qa'ida and have disrupted plans to launch a series of attacks on targets inside the kingdom.

An Interior Ministry official said yesterday investigators were questioning six Saudis and one Sudanese national who had been handed over by Khartoum after he allegedly admitted trying to launch an attack on the Prince Sultan air base. The official said the men were planning "terrorist attacks aimed at vital installations" using explosives and surface-to-air missiles.

Though most of the hijackers on 11 Septemberwere Saudi citizens, these arrests are the first of suspected al-Qa'ida members in Saudi Arabia since the attacks in America.

Saudi officials said they had earlier arrested another group of five Saudis and one Iraqi citizen who had allegedly sheltered the Sudanese man after the attack on the air base. They were not immediately described as al-Qa'ida suspects.

The 13 arrests come amid complaints from some quarters in Washington that Saudi Arabia has not been doing enough to fight "terrorism".

The attempted attack on the base was revealed by US Central Command, which said the burnt-out launcher of a Soviet-made anti-aircraft missile was found early in May just outside the base.

This prompted the FBI to issue an intelligence alert that terrorists might try to shoot down an American commercial aircraft with shoulder-fired missiles.

Investigators said yesterday that efforts to track the money used by al-Qa'ida to fund terrorist attacks was being severely hampered because most of its wealth was held in commodities such as gold and diamonds, which were difficult to trace.

In the first five months after 11 September, international organisations managed to freeze about $100m of assets belonging to 210 groups that the Bush administration linked to al-Qa'ida. But since then the total has only been added to by $10m. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Sweden have accused America of arrogance for asking them to freeze assets without being willing to share its evidence against the groups it has cited.

The US Deputy Treasury Secretary, Kenneth Dam, said: "Frankly there has been a little falling off in the alacrity with which some countries have adhered to the list."

He told The Washington Post: "These terrorists are intelligent, adaptable people and they realise that putting money in bank accounts, particularly in the US or Western Europe, is not a very good way to make sure it's available when you want it."

To deter the investigators, al-Qa'ida has been shifting its resources into commodities such as gold and diamonds. These are hard to find, can be easily stored and transported and hold their value over time. They can also be released on to markets slowly without attracting attention. One European analyst said: "It was a paradigm shift in the financial organisation that we missed. Everyone was trying to find bank accounts in Geneva when al-Qa'ida was greatly reducing its exposure in the formal financial sector. Now we are finding tentacles into all kinds of precious stones and metals."

Though all 189 members of the United Nations were asked to submit reports on their compliance with a Security Council resolution on terrorist assets, only 43 of those countries have done so.