Saudi Arabia spotlights haj security
LONDON - Saudi Arabia deployed a massive security presence and warned against unrest during what has been one of the most difficult haj pilgrimages in recent years after a crane collapse in Mecca’s Grand Mosque resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.
Riyadh installed 100,000 security personnel to oversee the annual haj pilgrimage, the Interior Ministry said amid fears of terrorist attacks targeting pilgrims.
From a security standpoint the run-up to the pilgrimage was more tense than most, with Islamic State (ISIS) franchises in Saudi Arabia recently carrying out attacks, including suicide bombings targeting mosques.
“We always concentrate on haj considering that a threat might exist. We’ve been targeted by terrorism for years now and we know that we are a target for terrorist groups,” Interior Ministry spokesman Major- General Mansour al-Turki told the Associated Press on September 19th.
Turki acknowledged that 2015 had seen the most terrorist acts since 2003, when al-Qaeda launched a wave of bombings, including the Riyadh compound attacks. He stressed, however, that security authorities were on high alert, ready to deal with any attempt to disrupt the haj.
“We’re active, we’re awake,” Turki said, referring to elite counterterrorism units, traffic police, emergency civil defence personnel and additional army and national guard troops deployed to Mecca to assist with crowd control and safety.
In addition to security manpower, Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry is using modern surveillance technology to monitor pilgrims, including approximately 5,000 CCTV cameras installed throughout pilgrim sites.
Close to 3 million people from across the world descended on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to perform the haj — the fifth pillar of Islam.
Saudi officials said they foiled a number of terrorist attacks in the run-up to the pilgrimage, including an attack on a major oil processing facility in Abqaiq on September 4th.
Authorities also raided two terror cells on September 16th, one in eastern Riyadh and another in Dhurma in Riyadh governorate. They seized an explosive belt and bomb-making equipment in Dhurma and arrested two people after a shoot-out with police. Two other suspects escaped.
This was the latest incident in a major crackdown on ISIS, resulting in the arrest of more than 400 alleged members of the group in July.
“We feel proud of our security agencies for carrying out successful pre-emptive operations against terrorists in eastern Riyadh and Dhurma. In the war against terrorism, the people are supporting the government’s efforts by providing information about suspicion activities, even of their own relatives. This partnership should be considered a success,” Saudi writer Abdulaziz al- Jarallah said.
It is not just terrorists that Saudi authorities are worried about, with Interior Minister Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz warning pilgrims against politicising the haj.
“The security forces are ready to confront any irresponsible behaviour that might pollute the purity of haj or endanger the lives of the guests of Allah,” Mohammed said before the start of haj.
At a time of sectarian infighting in a number of Middle Eastern countries and major unease between Tehran and Riyadh over Iran’s nuclear deal, there had been fears that political unrest could boil over during the haj.
But for pilgrims, haj is a time of unity, not division, with Muslims of different nationalities, backgrounds and sects coming together to stand, shoulder to shoulder, and pray together.
“During haj, Muslims from all over the world gather at one site and perform the same rituals without any discrimination on the basis of race, gender, nationality or social status… People get closer, setting aside their ethnic, radical and economic differences,” said Saudi writer Abdullah Munawar Al-Jumaili in an op-ed published in Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Madinah.