A suspected Islamist militant cell detained in the United Arab Emirates had links to al Qaeda, including its prominent Yemen-based wing, Dubai’s police chief said in an interview published on Wednesday.
Dahi Khalfan also said the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and Shi’ite Iran were among the main security threats to Gulf Arab states because they wanted to export revolution to the region.
The United Arab Emirates, a major oil producer that has supported Western counter-terrorism efforts in the region, announced the arrest of the UAE cell on Dec. 26 in a joint operation with Saudi Arabia.
« They are adherents of al Qaeda and its misguided doctrine, » Khalfan told the Saudi-owned Asharq Al Awsat newspaper. « Some of the (cell) members are affiliated with al Qaeda in Yemen, » he said, referring to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The group had planned bomb attacks on targets in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other states in the region, rather than setting out to assassinate individuals, Khalfan added.
The Dubai police chief said he was concerned that AQAP members were making their way to the Gulf, but said Saudi anti-terrorism efforts had reduced al Qaeda’s threat to the region.
The UAE has so far escaped attack by al Qaeda or other insurgent groups, but some of the seven emirates in the federation have seen a rise in Islamist sentiment in recent years. Security analysts say Dubai, a cosmopolitan business and tourism hub, could make an attractive target for militants.
BROTHERHOOD « MENACE »
AQAP, formed in 2009 by a merger of al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches, remains a threat, although its attempts to pull off a spectacular attack abroad have so far been thwarted.
In 2010, it claimed responsibility for two sophisticated parcel bombs sent to the United States. The bombs were intercepted in Britain and Dubai before they could explode.
In August, Saudi authorities arrested a group of suspected al Qaeda-linked militants, mostly Yemeni nationals, in the capital Riyadh, suggesting the group remained highly active.
A Yemeni official said AQAP had individual sponsors in the Gulf, adding that UAE authorities had not officially contacted Sanaa about possible links between the UAE cell and al Qaeda.
« We know that al Qaeda gets financial support from some individuals in the region and that members of al Qaeda come from some neighbouring countries to fight alongside the group in Yemen, » said the official, who asked not to be named.
Washington has backed a political transition in Yemen and stepped up drone strikes on suspected militants there to try to curb AQAP’s influence and prevent a spillover of violence into U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter.
Khalfan said al Qaeda was not the UAE’s only security threat, citing dangers from Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, swept to power in Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
He said the menace from Iran and the Brotherhood – which have significant ideological differences – was similar.
« They both want to export the revolution, » he said. « What the Muslim Brothers are aiming for at the moment is to shred and denigrate the reputation of the Gulf rulers. »
In July, Khalfan warned of an international plot to overthrow Gulf Arab governments, saying the region needed to be prepared to counter any threat from Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers as well as from Syria and Iran.
The UAE has escaped the upheaval that has shaken the Arab world but moved swiftly to stem any sign of political dissent by detaining more than 60 local Islamists last year over alleged threats to state security and links to a foreign group.
Public prosecutors are investigating women members of a « secret organisation » – a reference to a group UAE authorities say has been formed by Islamists affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, the state news agency WAM reported on Wednesday.
The Islamists have been accused of « founding and managing an organisation that aims at seizing power » in the UAE, it said.