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Saudi Security Forces Brace for Hajj; No Militant Threats Detected

Saudi security guards monitor screens at the National Center for Security Operations in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Aug. 29, 2017.

More than 100,000 members of the Saudi security forces will help protect the 2 million worshipers expected to participate in the annual Muslim hajj pilgrimage this week, but no specific militant plots have been detected, a senior spokesman said Tuesday.

The world's largest annual gathering of Muslims has in the past seen deadly stampedes, fires and riots, with authorities sometimes struggling to respond.

Saudi Arabia, which stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam's holiest sites and its organization of the hajj, has been hit by bombings by Islamic State in the past two years.

The Islamist militant group, which launched attacks around the world after seizing large swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014, is now on its back foot in those countries.

Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Turki said the security services had dismantled a number of militant cells in Mecca and Medina over the past few years.

'Members do not disappear'

"From our expertise and experience with al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations, we know that their members do not disappear just because the organization is defeated," he told Reuters in an interview. "So we do not overlook the reality of such potential threats, and we take all necessary preventative measures."

Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Aug. 29, 2017.
Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Aug. 29, 2017.

Turki said strict measures were in place at the entrances to Mecca, Medina and other holy sites as well as airports and seaports.

Asked whether the authorities had detected any specific plots against this year's hajj, he said: "Not at all. We have not detected anything, but that does not mean we are ignoring what the terrorist groups could try to do.

"We take each threat very seriously, even if we don't announce it."

Turki said the security forces had taken all necessary measures — though he gave no details — to prevent a stampede like the one that killed hundreds of pilgrims in 2015. But he also urged pilgrims to abide by their assigned schedule for performing the sacred rituals.

"Each group must abide by the specified paths assigned to each while throwing the jamarat," he said, referring to one of the critical stages of hajj, when pilgrims conduct the ritual stoning of the devil.