RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) – They rent cars and houses using stolen IDs. They disguise themselves as women or as hip young men. The money they raise for Iraqi prisoners in U.S. jails funds terror operations.

This, Saudi officials say, is the kind of information being gleaned from scores of Saudi militants arrested in an aggressive government campaign.

Two suspects have appeared on television to talk about life underground, telling of injured comrades who die from lack of medical care, supposedly devout Muslims who don’t bother praying the mandatory five prayers, and uneducated youths who consider Saudis in uniform to be infidels.

Such information has enabled the kingdom to strike at the root of al-Qaida’s Saudi infrastructure, kill or capture several of its leaders, and publicly portray it in a humiliating light.

But no one is willing to declare the network dead or paralyzed, and foreigners know the successes do not mean they should let their guard down.

The U.S. Embassy continues to warn Americans that they face a “serious threat to their safety while in Saudi Arabia” and that credible information indicates terrorists “continue to target residential compounds” in the kingdom.

The warnings came after a particularly violent period in which a compound and two oil companies were attacked in the Eastern Province, several Westerners were killed in Riyadh and an American hostage, Paul Johnson, was beheaded.

“It’s not in our security interest to assume they cannot carry out a large operation,” said Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, the Interior Ministry spokesman. “If we assume they can’t, it would have an adverse effect on our alertness and level of preparedness to confront them.”

He said the picture of operations in the kingdom is clearer than in May 2003, when terrorists struck inside Saudi Arabia for the first time after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In that assault, which took the government completely by surprise, militants shot their way into three housing compounds in synchronized strikes in Riyadh and then set off multiple suicide car bombs, killing 34 people including seven Americans and nine attackers.

Until then the Saudi government had been in denial about the possibility Saudi-born Osama bin Laden would strike inside the kingdom and risk inflicting Saudi or Muslim casualties.

“We had never expected that a Muslim who grew up on Islam in this country would carry out such acts,” said al-Turki. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of the Muslim faith.

He said authorities have since foiled several terror attempts, including the capture of two cars rigged with explosives, as a result of heightened vigilance.

Some of the precautions are evident: Troops with machine guns guard hotels, concrete blocks surround ministries and more than 25,000 soldiers protect oil installations.

Al-Turki said the authorities are more familiar with the operatives’ modus operandi.

After a confrontation with police, militants usually reach safe houses by stealing a string of cars. They disguise themselves as women or strive for a modern look by shaving their beards, wearing funky hairstyles and dressing in jogging suits instead of the traditional white robes.

In confessions on the government’s Channel 1 television, suspects Khaled al-Farraj and Abdul Rahman al-Rashoud said most of the operatives in Saudi Arabia are ignorant, especially in religious matters. They said they raise funds by telling donors the money will go toward helping the religious poor and Iraqis in U.S. detention.

Al-Farraj was arrested in January after a raid on his Riyadh house that left six security agents dead. Al-Rashoud is believed related to Abdullah Mohammed Rashid al-Rashoud, no. 24 on the Saudi wanted list. It isn’t clear when he was arrested.

“Young ones were recruited because they do not have sufficient knowledge of the religion or a wise mind that can tell right from wrong,” al-Rashoud said on the program. Al-Farraj said cell leaders intimidated the recruits by telling them there was no way out of the group.

Authorities have also noticed a decline in the quality and quantity of operations, said al-Turki.

He said instead of explosives, they use fertilizers, and drive-by shootings apparently have replaced large-scale operations such as the compound attacks.

Western diplomats say the lull could mean the militants are changing tactics, waiting for the right opportunity or going after smaller operations, such as shootings, which are safer for them while still panicking the expatriate community.

Nawaf Obaid, head of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project, a nongovernment research institute, said the quality of recruits is down.

While the first tier mostly trained in camps in Afghanistan and could have met bin Laden in person, the new ones don’t have the know-how to structure a cell, find a safe house or rig a car with explosives, Obaid, who is close to the government, said.

The authorities have “put them on the run,” said Obaid. “Their last leaders are still out there but they’re spending all their time trying to avoid capture, trying to determine what safe houses have been compromised and which militants have turned against them instead of planning for an attack.”

AP-ES-10-09-04 1405EDT

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