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Robertson: Saudis change tactics

Story Highlights

• Saudis say they have arrested 172 al Qaeda suspects over nine months
• Operation marks move to intelligence-driven tactics
• Earlier raids resulted in deadly shoot-outs
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(CNN) -- Saudi security forces have arrested 172 al Qaeda suspects who were planning attacks inside and outside the kingdom, officials said Friday.

CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson discussed what led up to the anti-terror sweep and what might follow with anchor Betty Nguyen on "CNN Newsroom."

NGUYEN: The big question is what were these guys up to?

ROBERTSON: They're part of the al Qaeda that's been in Saudi Arabia for some time. What's really interesting about these arrests -- they've been taking place over the last nine months. Last year al Qaeda changed its tactics in Saudi Arabia and instead of capturing and kidnapping Westerners and cutting off their heads they started targeting Saudi's oil infrastructure.

The Saudis foiled the attack, a month later they arrested some of the people involved and it's from those arrests they developed all the information and intelligence to round up these 172 people, 20 million Saudi riyals, about $6 million, all the weapons we've seen. This has been a long, slow process for the Saudis but it takes a big chunk of al Qaeda off the streets of the country right now.

NGUYEN: One hundred seventy-two people, that's a lot of folks, there is a lot of money and a lot of weapons here. But we hear about these arrests periodically. How significant is this one?

ROBERTSON: Saudis typically when they've arrested al Qaeda, they find a cell, we've seen shootouts at gas stations, but they'll find a cell, there will be a big shootout. When we've been in Riyadh we've been to some of these -- you rush up there, the police have just finished the shootout, people are dead. That's the end of the story.

What the Saudis are doing now seems to be a much more intelligence game, if you will -- following these people, tracking them, finding these weapons. A lot of these weapons have been out there, have been buried in the desert. We've seen pictures of the weapons being dug up, they're carefully wrapped, they've been dug up by the Saudis in the desert. (Watch Saudis show off the cache of guns they found Video)

So they've carefully followed and tracked 172 people. It is a very, very big operation. But it indicates how big the problem is in Saudi Arabia.

One of the concerns about these potential attackers [is] not only attacking Saudi oil infrastructure but attacking security installations. We've seen them before attack police stations -- this time talking about attacking Saudi officials. That's very serious for the Saudis. Al Qaeda there wants to overthrow the monarchy, and now also talking about attacking facilities outside of Saudi Arabia. We're trying to find out what some of those locations might be but that's a threat.

NGUYEN: This could be key, with so many people rounded up, perhaps it will lead to more arrests?

ROBERTSON: That's been the trajectory so far. I think what the Saudis have done here -- the intelligence officials that I'm speaking to haven't said this per se, but clearly they followed this group of people. I think they feel they kind of -- of all these people talking together, of all the terrorists talking together they've waited and tried to net the maximum number. So the next step might be a harder step.

We've seen that they will take these people in, investigate them and generate information to lead to these other arrests. Some of these guys have been reading flight manuals to perpetrate these attacks. We're told they weren't really flight-ready. A lot of the guys, we're told, are young. A lot of them, we're told, are non-Saudi Arabs. Some of them were from Africa -- African Muslims gone to Saudi Arabia to join this fight. This is very, very personal for the Saudis. Al Qaeda there wants to overthrow the monarchy.

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CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson has seen the aftermath of previous terror sweeps in Saudi Arabia.

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