CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – An al-Qaida-linked cleric who boasted of his ability to evade capture has been arrested in Saudi Arabia without a shot being fired, Saudi officials said Friday.

Faris Ahmed Jamaan al-Showeel al-Zahrani, who was No. 12 on a list of Saudi Arabia’s 26 most wanted terror suspects, was captured late Thursday with an unidentified militant, an Interior Ministry officials told the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

“Due to the swift and efficient actions by security forces, the suspects were apprehended before they were able to use weapons that they were carrying,” a statement issued by Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington said.

Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV said police caught them in Abha, a town 500 miles southwest of the capital, Riyadh.

With the arrest, only 11 of those on the wanted list are believed to remain at large, including Saleh Mohammed al-Aoofi, a former prison guard regarded by many as the new leader of al-Qaida’s network in Saudi Arabia. The previous chief, Abdulaziz al-Moqrin, was killed by Saudi officers in June after masterminding the kidnapping and beheading of American engineer Paul M. Johnson.

Al-Zahrani, who the government says used speeches to incite bomb attacks in the kingdom and urge militants to kill Saudi security officers, rose to prominence as police detained or killed more than half the suspects on the terrorism list.

The government launched its crackdown after a series of bombings in Riyadh that killed 26 people on May 12, 2003.

Saudi militants, who oppose the kingdom’s government because of its close ties to the United States, are waging a campaign of violence aimed at destabilizing the oil-rich state, which is home to Islam’s two holiest shrines.

The Interior Ministry official, who was not identified, described al-Zahrani as “one of the heads of strife, a preacher of denouncing people as infidels.”

Islamic militants often label enemies as infidels before attacking them.

The official said al-Zahrani and his accomplice were detained “swiftly and efficiently” and were unable to use weapons they were carrying.

Four weeks ago, al-Zahrani boasted of his ability to evade the police dragnet in a long article on an Internet periodical linked to al-Qaida’s operation in Saudi Arabia, called the Voice of Jihad (holy war).

“I would like to reassure the people who love me (that) I am careful in my movements and contacts, and I take all necessary precautions,” he wrote.

In the article, al-Zahrani rejected a limited amnesty offered in June by Saudi King Fahd, who urged wanted militants to surrender within four weeks and be spared the death penalty.

The liberal Arabic-language Web site described al-Zahrani as “one of the most prominent theorists for terrorist cells in Saudi Arabia.” It said he is 30 years old and has a master’s degree in Islamic law from a Saudi Arabian university.

In an indication of al-Zahrani’s importance, sympathetic messages began appearing on Islamic Web sites expressing regret at his capture.

“God strengthen Faris al-Zahrani’s heart. Make him calm and support him,” said one contributor, writing under the name “Ishraqet Amal,” or Dawn of Hope.

AP-ES-08-06-04 1748EDT

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