Saudi Report: Terror Cell Had Syria Base

One of seven recently exposed Saudi terrorist cells used Syria as a base for coordinating with al-Qaida in Iraq and held training camps in the desert of neighboring Yemen, a newspaper owned by Saudi Arabia’s royal family said Tuesday.

The report in Al-Watan provided the first new details since Saudi authorities announced last month that security forces had broken up the biggest terror plot ever uncovered in the kingdom.

The government said a monthslong sweep had netted 172 alleged Islamic militants, some of whom trained abroad as pilots for using aircraft in attacks. The militants were said to have been organized into seven cells.

“One of the uncovered cells used Syria as a `safe house’ for meetings and coordination with active elements of al-Qaida in Iraq,” Al-Watan said. “The houses were used for recruiting and testing loyalties of new members, most of whom were youngsters.”

Al-Watan provided no source for its report. In Syria, officials were not immediately available for comment on the newspaper’s claim.

U.S. officials have accused Syrian authorities of allowing militants to cross into Iraq to join the insurgency. The Damascus regime has denied that, saying it tries to police the long border.

Al-Watan paper said the terror cell, described as the most dangerous of the seven, also had members train in camps in a mountainous area in Yemen close to the Saudi border.

“The extremist group exploited the absence of any Yemeni authorities’ control over this region and held permanent camps there. Selected members crossed the border in groups of three to four for training,” Al-Watan said.

Saudi authorities said in April that the sweep thwarted a militant plots to mount air attacks on the kingdom’s oil refineries, break extremists out of prison and send suicide attackers to kill government officials.

Saudi Arabia’s long alliance with the United States angers Saudi extremists, especially al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who was born here. Fifteen of the 19 airline hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. were from Saudi Arabia.

An austere strain of Islam known as Wahhabism is followed by the country’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population, and militant groups have attracted Saudi recruits with extremist leanings.

Militants have in the past attacked foreigners living in Saudi Arabia as well as the country’s oil industry, which has more than 260 billion barrels of proven oil reserves -- a quarter of the world’s total. Bin Laden has urged such attacks to hurt the flow of oil to the West.