WASHINGTON - After a shootout in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and the discovery of a major arms cache there, Saudi authorities are pursuing 19 Islamic militants with ties to al-Qaida who now appear to have been planning a substantial terrorist attack, Saudi and U.S. officials said yesterday.
In an indication of how seriously the threat is being taken in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government has been unusually open in discussing it, even making public the names and photographs of the wanted men in the country's newspapers and television broadcasts this week.
With the militants still at large three days after a raid in Riyadh, Saudi and U.S. officials said they could not or would not say what they thought the target of a planned attack might have been. But they said they regarded the group as having been planning a significant operation whose most likely objective would have been a U.S. target in the Saudi kingdom.
"Tremendous damage could have been done," a senior Saudi official said of the plot, which was uncovered beginning Tuesday night after a raid on a home in Riyadh. Among the weapons seized were 800 pounds of advanced explosives along with hand grenades, assault rifles, ammunition, disguises and tens of thousands of dollars in cash, the Saudi government has said.
The raid came after the State Department issued an extraordinarily specific warning May 1 about possible terrorist attacks in the kingdom, saying the United States had received intelligence reports indicating that militants "may be in the final phases of planning attacks" on U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia.
In a kingdom whose government has always been extraordinarily reticent, particularly in discussing matters related to the involvement of Saudi citizens in terrorism and domestic dissent, people interviewed by telephone from Saudi Arabia yesterday described their astonishment at the public nature of this week's disclosures.
"They are sending the clear signal that there's a clear threat, and they're taking it seriously," said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. A Saudi official said the signal was aimed at the United States, where critics have often accused the kingdom of trying to hide its problems, and at ordinary Saudis, some of whom have become impatient with the government's customary secrecy.
While investigators from both countries believe the most likely target was a U.S. installation, a senior Saudi official said, another possibility was an attack aimed at a senior member of the Saudi royal family, such as Prince Sultan Abdelaziz, the defense minister, or Prince Nayef bin Abdelaziz, the interior minister, two frequent targets of criticism by Saudi militants.
Among the 19 militants being sought, the Saudi government announced, 17 are Saudis, with known connections to al-Qaida, according to U.S. and Saudi officials. A senior Saudi official said that most if not all had served in Afghanistan or Chechnya, and had links to radical clerics.
Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the Saudi newspaper Al Watan and an expert on Islamic militants, said yesterday in a telephone interview from Jidda, "It is a big network, it is a serious network, and it is obvious that they were planning for a massive campaign of terrorism."
U.S. and Saudi officials would not or could not say whether the intelligence reports that had prompted the recent State Department warning were directly related to the group of militants being sought.