A Saudi court has sentenced 13 suspected members of an al Qaeda cell – 11 Saudis, a Qatari and an Afghan citizen – to up to 30 years in prison for plotting to attack U.S. soldiers in Qatar and Kuwait, the state news agency SPA reported.
Separately, two Saudi citizens were sentenced to death on Monday after being convicted of attacking a police station with Molotov cocktails in Awamiya in the country’s predominantly Shi’ite Muslim east, defence lawyers and Saudi media said.
Sectarian tensions have plunged several neighbours of Riyadh into complex multi-sided wars. U.S. forces based in conservative Sunni Muslim Gulf states are waging air strikes on radical Sunni Islamist insurgents who have seized large areas of Shi’ite-led Iraq and of Syria, whose government is backed by Shi’ite Iran.
The official Saudi news agency SPA said the court ruled on Tuesday that the 13 men had exploited Saudi territory “to form a terrorist cell seeking to carry out a terrorist operation in the state of Qatar against American forces, supplying the cell with arms and money for that operation, recruiting people for that cell”.
The men were also convicted of “preparing to participate in a terrorist operation in the state of Kuwait targeting American forces there,” the agency added.
The accused leader of the group, a Qatari man, was sentenced to 30 years in jail, after which he would be expelled from Saudi Arabia, while the other 12 were jailed for between 18 months and 18 years, SPA said.
They were among a group of 41 people rounded up in 2011 on suspicion of forming a cell linked to the Sunni militant al Qaeda that planned to hit U.S. forces in Qatar and Kuwait.
Western-allied Saudi Arabia worries that its citizens may be drawn to fight in Iraq and Syria, and has issued a flurry of sentences against suspected militants in the past few weeks as top Saudi clerics and leaders have decried Islamic State.
But the kingdom has also cracked down hard on unrest in its Eastern province, which sits atop the kingdom’s vast oil reserves and is home to the Saudi Shi’ite minority.
On Monday, a court sentenced to death two men convicted of the police station assault, and gave a third defendant 12 years in prison, SPA reported.
Defence lawyers said they intended to appeal against the sentences, arguing that the defendants had complained at the hearing that confessions were taken under duress.
The decision followed a death sentence on Oct. 15 for prominent Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who had called for greater rights for the kingdom’s Shi’ites and whose arrest in 2011 prompted deadly protests.