Police thwart terrorist plot at Islam’s holiest site

The attack site. Picture: AFP/Getty
The attack site. Picture: AFP/Getty
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A suicide bomber blew himself up near the Grand Mosque at Mecca as police disrupted a plot to target the holiest site in Islam just as the fasting month of Ramadan ends, Saudi security forces said yesterday.

The interior ministry said it launched a raid around Jiddah, as well as two areas in Mecca itself, including the Ajyad Al-Masafi neighbourhood, located near the Grand Mosque.

There, police said they engaged in a shootout at a three-storey house with a suicide bomber, who blew himself up and caused the building’s collapse. He was killed while the blast wounded six foreigners and five members of security forces. Five people were arrested, including a woman.

Saudi state television aired footage after the raid on Friday near the Grand Mosque, showing police and rescue personnel running through the neighbourhood’s narrow streets. The blast demolished the building, its walls crushing a parked car as what appeared to be shrapnel and bullet holes peppered nearby structures.

The interior ministry “confirms that this terrorist network, whose terrorist plan was thwarted, violated, in what they would have perpetrated, all sanctities by targeting the security of the Grand Mosque, the holiest place on Earth.”

“They obeyed their evil and corrupt self-serving schemes managed from abroad whose aim is to destabilise the security and stability of this blessed country,” the statement said.

The ministry did not name the group involved in the attack. The ultra conservative Sunni kingdom battled an al-Qaeda insurgency for years and more recently has faced attacks from a local branch of so-called Islamic State. Neither group immediately claimed responsibility, although IS sympathisers online have urged more attacks as an offensive in Iraq slowly squeezes the extremists out of Mosul and their de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria is bombed daily by a US-led coalition.

The disrupted attack comes at a sensitive time in Saudi Arabia as King Salman earlier this week short-circuited the kingdom’s succession by making his son, defence minister Mohammed bin Salman, first in line to the throne. The newly appointed crown prince is the architect of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen against Shi’ite rebels.

As the interior ministry announced the raid, more than one million Muslims prayed at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina to mark the end of Ramadan.

In July 2016, a suicide bombing there killed four members of Saudi Arabia’s security forces. Millions from around the world visit the mosque, the burial site of the Prophet Muhammad, every year.