MANAMA, 16 February 2003 — Bahrain said yesterday it had arrested five Bahrainis allegedly planning “terrorist” attacks in the country, which is the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the official Bahrain News Agency (BNA) reported.
“Bahraini security forces broke up a cell that had been plotting terrorist acts ... targeting the kingdom’s national interests and endangering the lives of innocent citizens,” said an official spokesman, quoted by BNA.
Security forces “seized arms and ammunition” which members of the cell “planned to use to carry out terrorist acts against the security of the country and its citizens,” the spokesman said.
The agency gave no specific information on what might have been the target of any attack. But a senior Gulf official said the target was Americans in Bahrain and that two of those arrested were from the Bahraini military.
The US Navy headquarters in Bahrain said security was boosted earlier this week after warnings from Bahraini authorities. “We had a higher state of security from Thursday to Friday before they confirmed that these guys were arrested. It (security) went back down today,” Captain Roxie Meritt, public affairs officer for the US Navy, said.
The five suspects, aged between 30 and 41, are all “Sunni Islamist” Bahrainis and were arrested three days ago, a senior Bahraini official said, requesting anonymity.
Pistols, machineguns and ammunition were found in their possession, he said.
Investigations were under way to “establish if the cell is linked to groups inside or outside Bahrain, or if they were working alone,” the official added, in a reference to the Al-Qaeda organization of Osama Bin Laden.
He said the suspects would be handed over to the courts for trial.
The official spokesman identified the suspects as Mohieddin Mahmud Mohieddin Khan, born in Lebanon in 1961; Bassam Abdul Razak Abdullah Bukhawa, born in 1970; Bassam Yousif Abdul Kareem Ali, 1956; Issa Abdullah Abdul Rahman Al-Baloochi, 1972; and Jamal Hilal Mohammed Al-Baloochi, 1965.
It was the first time that Bahrain has announced the arrest of Bahraini “terrorists” on its soil since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.
The daily Al-Wassat said one of the suspects had two stints in Afghanistan, the last in 1986.
News of the arrests follows an announcement by the United States that it was cutting down its diplomatic presence in Bahrain, where more than 5,000 Americans, mostly military, reside.
On Wednesday, the United States said it was allowing non-essential US Embassy personnel to leave Bahrain, as well as neighboring Qatar, at government expense. This comes amid fears of possible terror attacks as Washington steps up a massive military buildup in the Gulf in preparation for an anticipated invasion of Iraq.
The arrests came amid heightened anti-American sentiment in the Gulf region ahead of a possible US-led attack on Iraq. Washington is pouring troops and arms into the region and Bahrain is likely to be a launch pad for any attack on Iraq.
There has been a clampdown in many Arab countries on members of Al-Qaeda, blamed by Washington for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Last September, a US citizen of Yemeni descent suspected of having links with Al-Qaeda was arrested in Bahrain together with his two sons for questioning.
Officials later said Mukhtar Al-Bakri surrendered to US authorities in the country and was transferred to the United States.
Six Bahrainis are held at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where prisoners from the Afghan war are detained.
They include Salman ibn Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini ruling family. His father, Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Mohammad Al-Khalifa, told Asharq Al-Awsat in November that Salman was accused of “sympathizing” with Al-Qaeda. (Agencies)