JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia announced its first Al Qaeda -related arrests since Sept. 11 and said Tuesday that it was holding 11 Saudis, an Iraqi and a Sudanese man who told authorities he had fired a surface-to-air missile at a U.S. military plane taking off from a Saudi air base.
The arrests were announced by the official Saudi Press Agency, which linked the suspects to Usama bin Laden's network and said they were planning to use explosives and missiles in other terrorist attacks in the kingdom.
The agency provided only sketchy details, and it was not clear when or where the suspects were arrested. But it was the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States -- carried out by 15 Saudis and four other Arabs -- that the Gulf state has announced arrests linked to bin Laden, the Saudi dissident whose first cause was the overthrow of this Muslim kingdom.
The Saudi agency said the alleged plotters were targeting a number of "vital" installations and were planning to use explosives and surface-to-air missiles.
Among those being held was a Sudanese man who apparently fled the kingdom with the help of five of the Saudis in custody and the Iraqi. The agency said the Sudanese man was directly connected with Al Qaeda and had fought with the group in Afghanistan.
In Washington, a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, identified the Sudanese man as Abu Huzifa, a suspected Al Qaeda cell leader who has acknowledged shooting a shoulder-fired SA-7 surface-to-air missile at an American plane taking off from the base.
The Saudi news report said the man was arrested several months ago.
The Sudanese government said Sunday that it had transferred the man to Saudi Arabia after he admitted firing a missile at a plane at Prince Sultan Air Base. In May, Saudi security guards found a missile launcher tube about two miles from a runway at the desert base, south of the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
The Saudi news report said the investigation into the 13 suspects was ongoing and findings would be made public.
"Then they will be transferred to the Islamic court and Islamic law will be implemented," it said.
About 4,500 U.S. troops and a number of American warplanes are stationed at the Saudi air base. It is being used in the war on terrorism as a command and control facility but Saudi Arabia has apparently barred the United States from basing fighter bombers on its territory. The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites, since the 1991 Gulf War is one of bin Laden's stated reasons for his holy war on America.