PARIS (Reuters) - Al Qaeda’s Yemeni arm is losing its ability to export militancy overseas after sustained military pressure on its operations, and Islamic State and Shi’ite militants are instead Riyadh’s main internal concern, Saudi Arabian officials said on Wednesday.
The United States and Britain on Tuesday announced new restrictions on carry-on electronic devices on planes from certain airports in the Middle East and North Africa in response to unspecified security threats.
The Saudi interior ministry’s chief security spokesman Mansour al-Turki told reporters in Paris that he had no specific information on what prompted the new curbs - which also affect Saudi Arabian Airlines - but he suggested there may be a link to al Qaeda in Yemen.
“The U.S. has said they raided al Qaeda people in Yemen and they were able to gather some information, but I don’t know whether they found something linked to this,” he said.
Asked whether they believed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had the capacity to project operations overseas with innovative bomb designs, including embedding them inside computers, however, the officials said the group had been severely constrained by fighting on multiple fronts.
“They don’t have the power to export their activities,” said Abdullah Alshehri, a senior counter-terrorism official from the interior ministry.
“It is fighting Islamic State, which is trying to take its place. It is not getting new fighters and after the (Saudi-led) Desert Storm operation it is also fighting the legitimate government and the Houthi (rebels),” he said.
AQAP has in the past plotted to down U.S. airliners and claimed responsibility for the 2015 attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. It also has boasted of having one of the world’s most feared bomb makers, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. The U.S. estimates it has 2,000 to 3,000 fighters.
Turki said Riyadh considered the threat of an attack from Islamic State on its soil to be greater given that some 3,500 Saudis had travelled to join the group in Syria and Iraq. Of those, 1,500 remain in the conflict zone with the rest killed.
“Qaeda actually has not been involved in any real kind of terrorism-related incident in Saudi Arabia for three years,” he said. “Most of the incidents came from Islamic State or militant groups related to Shi’ites in the eastern province.”
Turki is leading a delegation of interior ministry and counter-terrorism officials in Paris to discuss wider cooperation between the two allies.
The talks have also focused on ways to prevent attacks including with a new digital system implemented in the kingdom to identify potential lone wolf militants radicalised on social media.
Editing by Hugh Lawson