An alleged Al Qaeda member and three colleagues were arrested Tuesday by Saudi authorities, who hoped the capture could provide them with a much-needed break in the investigation into the May 12 attacks that have terrorized the wealthy Persian Gulf nation.
Ali Abdulrahman Said Alfagsy Ghamdi, a Saudi national, and the other men were arrested during late afternoon rush hour when their sport utility vehicle was stopped at one of many police checkpoints set up recently in the heart of the downtown commercial district, several sources said.
Ghamdi is one of 19 men intensely sought for their alleged role in the coordinated series of bombings at three residential compounds known to house Americans and other Westerners. No details on the other suspects were immediately available.
Because the arrest occurred just outside the massive Faisaliah Center, authorities were investigating whether the men were scouting the center’s hotel, shopping mall and high-rise luxury apartments as sites for future attacks. The modern complex is owned by the King Faisal Foundation, which was founded by sons of former King Faisal and is run by prominent members of the Saudi royal family.
“Of course it’s big news,” said one source with knowledge of the arrests. “It could be a breakthrough in the investigation.”
In recent days, Saudi authorities had warned of potential terrorist attacks at the Faisaliah tower and Riyadh’s handful of other skyscrapers, particularly after an audiotape released May 21 by No. 2 Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri urged attacks on allies of the U.S. “The crusaders and the Jews only understand the language of murder, bloodshed ... and of the burning towers,” the tape said in an apparent reference to the World Trade Center.
Saudi officials have blamed the Riyadh bombings, which killed 34 people, on Al Qaeda, saying Osama bin Laden and other high-ranking members of the terrorist network may have been directly involved. Eight Americans and nine of the suicide bombers died in the strikes, which also injured 200 people.
The terrorism warnings, which authorities said were based on intelligence intercepts, have turned Riyadh into a city under siege. Police checkpoints dot every roadway in addition to stepped-up military patrols. Many Western corporations and foreign embassies have sent all but their most critical personnel out of the country.
The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh and consulates in the western port city of Jidda and the eastern city of Dhahran reopened Sunday. They had been closed after intelligence gathered by Saudi and U.S. authorities indicated additional Al Qaeda attacks were imminent.
Even so, U.S. officials continued to warn Americans to be very cautious and to leave protected compounds only when necessary. A taped message on the U.S. Embassy hotline over the weekend urged Americans in the kingdom to continue to exercise “extreme caution and remain vigilant.” Britain, Germany and Italy, which also had closed their embassies, reopened them over the weekend.
In all, Saudi authorities have detained about 100 people in a sweeping crackdown following the attacks, including as many as eight suspects they believe might have known about the plot but did not participate in it.
Ghamdi’s arrest was considered significant because he was one of 19 men whom Saudi authorities had placed under surveillance for suspected terrorist activity in the weeks preceding the attacks. In addition to being linked to the triple bombings, at least some of the men were suspected of being involved in a suspicious March 18 explosion in an eastern section of Riyadh.
During weeks of surveillance, some of the men had been seen repeatedly visiting a house in the city’s Ashbiliya district, Saudi authorities said. On May 6, some of the suspects started shooting at Saudi authorities outside the house before fleeing in a car, hijacking another vehicle and disappearing into a crowded neighborhood.
Within hours, Saudi authorities raided the house and found a huge cache of explosives and weapons. The search of the safe house also yielded a large stash of currency, travel documents and identification cards, prompting top Saudi officials to speculate that other members of the bomb plot and additional local Al Qaeda cells were still at large and perhaps on the way to the United States or Europe.
After the raid, Saudi authorities appealed to the public to help find the men -- 17 Saudis, one Yemeni and one man with Canadian and Kuwaiti passports. More than 60 FBI agents flew to Riyadh after the May 12 bombings to join in the investigation, but U.S. officials said Monday that they were still trying to figure out who was behind the attacks and why the three compounds were targeted.
In recent days, U.S. officials have said top Al Qaeda leaders hiding out in Iran were involved in the attacks, including former Bin Laden security chief Saif Adel, and they criticized the government in Tehran for allegedly harboring them.
Iran said Monday that it had arrested and would interrogate several suspected members of Al Qaeda but that it did not believe any of them were significant operatives of the terrorist network. On Tuesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal told a news conference in Riyadh that he hoped Iran would hand over any Saudi nationals if they were among the alleged Al Qaeda members arrested in Iran.
Saud also said Saudi authorities believed that weapons were being smuggled into Saudi Arabia across the Iraqi border and that he would appeal to the U.S. to help stop the smuggling.