RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Some of the militants arrested in a terror sweep in Saudi Arabia trained to use civilian aircraft in homicide missions, an official said Saturday, detailing a plot mirroring the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said the group of 172 Islamic extremists "are carriers of Al Qaeda ideology, working on achieving Al Qaeda goals, which is to take over the society."
Saudi Arabia announced Friday that one of the largest terror sweeps to date in the kingdom had stopped plans to mount air attacks on the kingdom's oil refineries, break militants out of prison and send homicide attackers to kill government officials. Al-Turki said that some of those arrested had trained abroad as pilots.
"They were trained on civilian aircraft, to use the aircraft as a tool to carry out suicide operations," al-Turki told The Associated Press.
His comments marked a rare mention of Al Qaeda by Saudi officials, who customarily refer to the organization as a "deviant group." It was also the first confirmation that those arrested planned suicide missions similar to those in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Al-Turki said the militants had trained in a "troubled" country that, "could be Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, there are so many troubled regions in the world. I can't specify."
U.S. officials have warned that Iraq could become a regional base for extremists planning attacks elsewhere in the Middle East.
A top cleric and religious adviser to the Interior Ministry, Sheik Majed al-Marsal, told al-Watan, an independent Saudi newspaper, that Iraq had become a base for terrorist groups. He did not refer specifically to the newly unveiled plot.
"Those groups exploited the deteriorating situation in Iraq to receive those young men, to equip them and train them and then send them back to work inside (other countries), just like what happened in Afghanistan before," the cleric was quoted as saying.
Interior Minister Prince Naif Bin Abdulaziz said in a statement published Saturday in the Al-Riyadh newspaper "efforts are under way to purify the country from the deviant groups" and that more details of the sweep would emerge soon.
"God willing, the members of the deviant group will never realize their evil goals," he said.
Saudi leaders began cracking down on religious extremists four years ago after militants attacked foreigners and others involved in the country's oil industry, seeking to topple the monarchy for its alliance with the U.S.
Al-Turki told the AP that the militants planned to use the planes "like car bombs ... to use the aircraft as a tool to carry out suicide operations." He said the targets also included Saudi military bases, which he said the militants had no other way of reaching but "through these means" of blowing up an aircraft.
The militants were organized into seven cells and planned to stage suicide attacks on "public figures, oil facilities, refineries ... and military zones," including some outside the kingdom, the interior ministry has said. It did not identify any of the targets.
"Documents and confessions from the detained uncovered that they were targeting public figures, including officials, ministers, policemen, directors of vital sectors," al-Turki said Saturday.
He said Al Qaeda's target is, "the ruling system, whenever they are."
Saudi Arabia's long alliance with the United States has angered Saudi extremists such as Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden — a Saudi exile — who object to Western ways.
An austere strain of Islam known as Wahhabism is followed by the country's predominantly Sunni Muslim population, and militant groups have attracted recruits from Saudis with extremist leanings. Fifteen of the 19 airline hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were from here.
The Saudi ruling family has pursued an aggressive campaign against militants over the past four years, and its security forces have managed to kill or capture most of those on its list of most-wanted al-Qaida loyalists in the country.