Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday it had apprehended the first terrorist cell affiliated to the outlawed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, arresting a total of 62 suspects, including 35 Saudi nationals previously detained on terrorist-related charges. Riyadh designated ISIS, an Al-Qaeda splinter group, as a terrorist organization in early March.
Saudi Interior Ministry security spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki said the ISIS cell was in contact with Al-Qaeda cells in both Yemen and Syria. He told reporters: “The competent [security] services managed to detect suspicious activities that led to the discovery of a terrorist organization through which members of the deviant group [Al-Qaeda] in Yemen communicate and coordinate with members of other deviant groups in Syria and other misguided elements in a number of regions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
ISIS has most recently been fighting against Al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the Al-Nusra Front, prompting Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri to call for a truce, which has subsequently broken down. Saudi Arabia has successfully cracked down on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) over the past decade, forcing the group to relocate to Yemen, with many analysts viewing ISIS–AQAP coordination as a significant threat.
Turki confirmed that Saudi authorities arrested the “emir,” or leader, of the ISIS cell in Saudi Arabia, adding that three foreign nationals were among those held, including a Palestinian, a Yemeni and a Pakistani national. Forty-four others are believed to be on the run.
In exclusive comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, the Interior Ministry spokesman said that the ISIS terror cell’s emir was a Saudi national in his forties who had previously been arrested and prosecuted on Al-Qaeda-related charges, adding that he was released after serving his sentence.
However, a Saudi security source, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, claimed that the Palestinian national arrested in Tuesday’s operation is the real emir of the terror cell. The source said the unnamed Palestinian national is capable of bomb-making and had been a member of an Al-Qaeda franchise outside of Saudi Arabia and also fought in conflicts abroad. The source described the Saudi emir of the ISIS-affiliated terror cell as a “front” to secure greater credibility and financial assistance both from within the group and its external supporters.
The Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman described the wider terrorist network that this cell is affiliated with as “wide-ranging,” adding that the cell was involved in smuggling Saudi women—family of Al-Qaeda members abroad—outside of Saudi Arabia, including Arwa Baghdadi and Rima Al-Jarish.
Saudi authorities also dismantled a factory the group was using to manufacture explosives and electronic detonators, in addition to seizing close to nearly 1 million Saudi riyals in cash.