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Homeland Security

Mecca Terror Plot Foiled, Saudi Authorities Say

By Edward Yeranian June 24, 2017

Saudi forces disrupted a terrorist plot to attack worshippers Friday in the vicinity of Mecca's Grand Mosque, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said Saturday.

Attempts by security forces to storm a terrorist lair on a narrow side street near the mosque, however, prompted a man holed up inside an upper-story flat to blow himself up, causing part of a building to collapse and wounding a number of people.

The ministry spokesman, General Mansour Ben Turki, told Arab media that the suspects had ties to the Islamic State terrorist group. A ministry statement said the plotters' "evil and corrupt ... schemes were directed from abroad," but did not say by whom.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attempt. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed Saudi Arabia for two recent terror attacks in Tehran, one at the Iranian parliament and the second at the tomb of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Saudi news channel al-Ekhbariya showed several vehicles damaged by falling rubble and a structure with collapsed upper stories after Friday's explosion. Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV reported that nearly a dozen people were wounded. Five terrorists, including a woman, were reportedly captured in raids prior to the explosion. Three terrorist cells were allegedly uncovered, two in Mecca and one in Jeddah.

Recent arrival

A resident living in the narrow maze of side streets surrounding the building that collapsed said that the terrorist who blew himself up "had arrived just recently, renting a flat for the month of Ramadan." He added that no one in the area "really knew who the man was or where he was from."

Saudi media compared Friday's attack to a series of suicide bombings in the holy city of Medina last year, during the final hours of Ramadan. At that time, a man, cornered by security forces in a parking lot near the Prophet's Mosque, blew himself up, killing and wounding a number of policemen.

Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, told VOA that it was unclear whether the man who blew himself up was actually plotting a terrorist act near Islam's holy shrine, or whether he was "just part of a terrorist sleeper cell and preferred to blow himself up rather than be captured by police."

The alleged plot was uncovered just days after a dynastic shake-up in which former Saudi Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef was replaced by his younger cousin Mohammed bin Salman. Khashan pointed out that bin Nayef had a solid record of fighting terrorism, "defeating al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia" following a wave of terrorist attacks starting over a decade ago.

"It will take time," Khashan said, "to determine if the shake-up [replacing bin Nayef as interior minister] will have an effect on terrorism."

Credit to bin Nayef

Middle East analyst Theodore Karasik insisted that "credit should be given" to bin Nayef "for the the capabilities of the Saudi Interior Ministry." He added that some commentators were comparing this failed attack to the storming of the Grand Mosque in 1979 by pro-Iranian militants, but he thought the "comparison is mistaken," since the foiled plot was on a much smaller scale, "meant to inflame, rather than [physically] hold ground."

Hundreds of people were killed after that 1979 terror attack, in which militants claiming allegiance to the then-recent Iranian Revolution stormed the Grand Mosque compound and held it for several weeks, demanding an end to the Saudi monarchy.

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