Al-Qaida Plots Assassination of Interior Minister in Mecca

The clashes widely reported to have erupted on June 15-16 in the holy Muslim city of Mecca focused, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive sources reveal, on a well-laid al Qaeda plot to assassinate Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdelaziz. Nobody in Riyadh is admitting the peril that lurked behind the running gunfights in Mecca’s Khalidiya quarter between Saudi security forces and terrorists, all of whom Prince Nayef declared in an angry statement Wednesday, June 18, were members of al Qaeda.

The Khalidiya quarter, an extensive neighborhood in central Mecca, is home to Saudi middle-class citizens as well as senior security officials, civil servants and senior religious clerics. It is located just 5 kilometers from Mecca’s Great Mosque and the sacred Kaaba .

Mecca was the scene of a major insurrection in 1979 when fundamentalists from the Wahhabi Oteiba tribe took over the Great Mosque to declare a revolt against the House of Saud. The rebellion was only put down after two weeks when a French anti-terror force made a sacrilegious incursion of the compound.

The Saudis never publish reliable information about the attempted insurrections breaking out every few days and the clashes stirred up between security forces and al-Qaida operatives in remote townships. It is therefore hard to tell at this stage if al Qaida cells were planning to murder the prince during his visit to Mecca, or use the town as springboard for attacks in other locales toured by Nayef last week, like Medina, Jeddah or Mena, to inspect the state of readiness of security forces.

The 70-year-old Naif, a scion of the power-wielding Sudeiri branch of the Saudi dynasty, headed by the ailing King Fahd, defense minister Sultan and Riyadh’s Prince Salman, supervises the war against al Qaida. He has been accused of chaotic management of the campaign – especially after Osama bin Laden’s men succeeded on May 12 in striking three elite housing compounds in Riyadh populated by American intelligence advisers and other Western VIPs. He was hauled over the coals by Crown Prince Abdullah, who found the command of the security forces too clumsy and slow-moving to catch up with the al Qaida operatives who were making free of the kingdom.

debkafile‘s intelligence and anti-terror sources report that in their latest attack in Mecca, al Qaida units repeated the modus operandi used in Riyadh:

The assailants split up into two groups of 15 to 20 terrorists each assigned a separate safe house as operations center and store for weapons and ammunition. One group was charged with carrying out the attack – in this case shooting up the Interior Minister’s motorcade; the second stood by for one of two eventualities – either to spring into action and finish the job should the first group fail in its mission, or cover its getaway after a successful strike.

This technique worked well in Riyadh. Four days prior to the May 12 attack, Saudi security personnel discovered the al-Qaida strike cell’s hideout and liquidated most of its members in a shootout. Unbeknownst to the Saudis, a second cell was in hiding in a separate location ready instead o carry out the triple attack on the gated compounds instead. Three days later, Al Qaeda’s dual track tactic went into operation in the attacks in Riyadh.

This week in Mecca, Saudi security forces, having drawn the painful lesson of Riyadh, activated their own dual track. One unit confronted the first al Qaeda group, while a second went hunting for its hidden mate. Although the Saudi searchers came up empty-handed – the safe houses were deserted and empty – their diligence in keeping up the pursuit thwarted the assassination of Nayef.

debkafile‘s counter-terror sources assign high military marks to al Qaeda’s planning even though the murder did not come off.

The assassins were positioned at three ambush positions several hundreds yards apart along the route of the interior minister’s motorcade. “Alpha group” was tasked with firing rocket-propelled grenades at the minister’s armored limousine; “Bravo group” with hurling powerful poison-spiked bombs at any vehicles surviving the first anti-tank salvo. “Charlie group,” was to rake the scene with machine gun fire throughout the attack to cut down any bodyguards trying to exit the vehicles and interdict any approaching Saudi security personnel.

All the above-mentioned weaponry – anti-tank rockets, bombs, machine guns and chemical toxins – was exposed at the safe house raided in the Khalidiya quarter of Mecca.

debkafile‘s military sources note that the Mecca gunfights showed up the rundown state of the Kingdom’s military forces. Al Qaeda, in contrast, is thriving. The arms and ammo dumps turned up in recent weeks in Riyadh, Jeddah, Medina, Hilal and Mecca, are clearly only the tip of the terror iceberg whose true dimensions Saudi security has yet to uncover.

The royal forces have decided that their only safe working hypothesis must be that no city, town, village or tribal area is without its heavily armed local al Qaeda unit. Security in the kingdom has accordingly been tightened drastically. Foreign visitors find large police and military units manning roadblocks along city thoroughfares and the entrances to neighborhoods; intercity travelers are frequently stopped at military checkpoints along the highways.

debkafile‘s intelligence sources report additionally that Saudi security forces are undergoing rigorous vetting in obedience to a directive from Crown Prince Abdullah. The princes and senior administrators sent to the outlying provinces after the May attack in Riyadh are busy screening local security units for their loyalty to the crown. Suspected al Qaeda sympathizers and religious zealots have been listed for weeding out. Our sources disclose the lists as containing thousands of names. Rather than carry out mass purges that might rock the throne, the government has put large numbers of suspects out to pasture. Some are given early retirement, others dumped in detention camps and charged with drug running or other felonies. Around a thousand such detentions are believed to have been made in the last week.

Yet al Qaida’s influence appears to be gaining in top Saudi circles while the grip of central government weakens.

Last week, Crown Prince Abdullah invited several hundred members of Riyadh’s social and financial elite to join him at the central royal library. He brought up the matter of the changes sweeping the capital – not to mention the monarchy – in the wake of the al-Qaida terror assault. Abdullah, who finds these close get-togethers useful for keeping tabs on the country’s power circles, also uses them to weigh which politician or businessman gets a cash allowance. None of the people invited normally dare to not show up at these meetings, fearing to incur Abdullah’s displeasure.

However, last week for the first time, debkafile sources report that about a half of the invitees took a pass, although they took care to call in with excuses on grounds of sudden illness or overseas travel.

This conduct – scandalous by Saudi standards – bears witness to the trends current in the kingdom. Members of court and government, heeding Osama bin-Laden’s threat to the royal house and its supporters, are becoming wary of showing the royal flag too publicly.

In any vent, the House of Saud has cause for worry.

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