JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi authorities said Muslim militants arrested or killed in recent police raids were trained by Al Qaeda (search) in Afghanistan and possibly Saudi Arabia itself, acknowledging for the first time the kingdom may have been infiltrated by Usama bin Laden's terror network.
The revelation that Al Qaeda may have Saudi training facilities contrasted with earlier attempts by Saudi officials to play down the extent of Al Qaeda's presence in the kingdom.
Interior Minister Prince Nayef (search) said most of the suspects "received their military training in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan," but acknowledged "a small number perhaps were trained on farms and the like inside the country." His comments were carried in an interview published Tuesday in the London-based pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.
More than 200 suspects have been reported arrested and more than a dozen killed in police shootouts in 13 raids throughout the kingdom since May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh. That attack, which killed 25 Saudis and Westerners and nine attackers, was blamed on Al Qaeda.
The raids followed repeated calls by the U.S. government for Saudi Arabia to do more to curb Islamic militancy after the Sept. 11 terror attacks (search).
U.S. officials said they were aware of some Al Qaeda training activity in Saudi Arabia but said it was small-scale and clandestine in nature. It does not approach the large camps bin Laden operated in Afghanistan, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In another interview published Tuesday in the London-based Al-Hayat, Nayef said Saudi Arabia will not extradite any Saudi terror suspects to America.
Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis. Bin Laden also was born in Saudi Arabia to a prominent family, although the kingdom revoked his citizenship in 1994.
Analysts said bin Laden's call to arms is easily heeded in Saudi Arabia.
"Al Qaeda has infiltrated Saudi Arabia more than we imagined because extremist ideas, like those of bin Laden, have roots here," said Qenan al-Ghamdi, a columnist and former editor-in-chief of al-Watan newspaper.
"When bin Laden calls for jihad or recruits, his ideas find many takers here, because these same extremist ideas have a base here and are widespread in the kingdom," he added. "We need to admit this. These are not unique cases."
Al-Ghamdi said he believes militants carry out weapons training in isolated places in Saudi Arabia, but that full-fledged training camps do not exist here.
Mishari al-Zaidi, who writes on Islamic affairs for Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, agreed.
"They choose farms and other far away places to be away from the eyes of the security forces. But these are not training camps like in Afghanistan where they take courses in how to use weapons. They are mainly somewhere to lie low, hide their weapons, and possibly do some light training," al-Zaidi said.
A U.S. Congress report released last week on the intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks also accused Saudi Arabia of not doing enough to counter terrorism.
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called suggestions of such links "an outrage to any sense of fairness" and said his country had been "wrongfully and morbidly accused of complicity in the attacks."
"Twenty-eight blank pages are now considered substantial evidence to proclaim the guilt of a country that has been a true friend and partner of the United States for over 60 years," said al-Faisal, in Washington for talks with Bush.
The Saudi government has complained it cannot respond to a report it cannot see and has sought declassification of part of the report. But Bush refused Tuesday, saying that "would help the enemy" by revealing intelligence sources and methods.
Later, Saud said his government has agreed to a U.S. request to question Omar Bayoumi, a Saudi official who befriended two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. He said earlier U.S. questioning of Bayoumi failed to find a link to the attacks.
In the newspaper comments, Nayef said some of those detained in raids were members of Al Qaeda.
"We have confirmed that they definitely belong to Al Qaeda and bin Laden and they will be tried on this basis when investigations are over," Nayef said.
Nayef visited the al-Qassim area, 220 miles northwest of Riyadh, where six suspected militants were killed and four arrested in a Saudi police raid of a farm on Monday.
Nayef said Saudi security had evidence the militants were "connected to the terrorists who were arrested in Mecca" last month.