RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia foiled a 2003 terror plot by militants who planned to hijack a plane and blow it up over a densely populated American city, a Saudi official said Sunday.
The official said the plan, first reported Sunday in government-guided Al-Watan newspaper, was for the attackers to transit through the U.S. to another destination so they could avoid applying for hard-to-get American visas required for Saudis. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the militants were preparing to execute the alleged plot when it was halted.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudis.
The Saudi official said the alleged hijacking plan was one of 160 terror plots the kingdom announced last month that it had foiled. At the time, authorities provided no details about any of the alleged plots and it was unclear why Saudi authorities never publicly revealed the 2003 plan previously.
The official would not provide more details about the alleged plot, such as what city was targeted and whether any arrests were made.
Last month, Interior Minister Prince Nayef announced that authorities had indicted 991 suspected militants on charges they participated in terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia over the last five years. Nayef said they have been responsible for more than 30 attacks in the kingdom since May 2003 that killed 164 people, including 74 security officials, and wounded hundreds.
Another 160 attacks were foiled, the ministry said at the time. The official said the countries that would have been targeted in any of the 160 attacks were notified through official channels at the time the plots were uncovered.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, has pursued an aggressive campaign against militants since May 2003, when they first began their strikes in the kingdom. Subsequent attacks targeted oil installations, government buildings and other compounds.
There have been no major attacks since February 2006, when suicide bombers tried but failed to attack an oil facility at the Abqaiq oil complex, the world's largest oil processing facility, in eastern Saudi Arabia.