But the Saudi Counter-Terror Machine Is Fatally Penetrated. So Who's Next?
Insiders in Riyadh are no longer asking which of the Saudi royals will be the next target of a suicide bomber thrown up by the Yemen war, but only when will al Qaeda strike again.
The full-blown Yemen conflict raging next door since last month, though attracting little interest in the West, has been transformed by Tehran into an immediate military threat to the oil kingdom from its southern border. Al Qaeda is also making free of the Red Sea nation as a bastion from which to break down the Saudi counter-terror system and break into the royal palaces of Riyadh.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism sources report from the Persian Gulf that security for King Abdullah and high-ranking princes has been heavily revamped since Thursday, Aug. 27, when Yemen-based Saudi suicide bomber Abdullah Hassan Tali' al-Asiri (nom de jihad, Abu al-Khair) walked into the Jeddah office of the kingdom's anti-terror chief and deputy interior minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and blew himself up right beside him.
According to Saudi officials, the prince, son of the powerful interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, was only slightly hurt and no one but the assassin killed.
This claim is graphically refuted by Tariq al-Homayed, editor-in-chief of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, who visited the site three days later:
Accompanied by others, I visited the room where the attempted assassination on the Assistant Minister of the Interior took place. It was a frightening sight, with blood splattered in almost every corner, and holes in the roof caused by the terrorist's flying body-parts. There was an image that I will never forget, for despite the fact that the terrorist was on the left of Prince Mohammed, the area where Prince Mohammed was standing was not stained with any blood. Glory to the protection of God!
In that place, with the horrifying scene, and the smell of blood and treachery in the air, I wished that the Saudi public could see what I saw with my own eyes.
The holes in the ceiling attested to the power of the blast and the “blood splattered in almost every corner” demonstrated the extent of the casualties.
The “miracle” of Prince Muhammad sustaining only light wounds is hardly convincing. Indeed, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terrorism sources, eight to twelve people, most of them the prince's bodyguards and senior aides, most probably died in the blast, while Prince Muhammad is still in hospital and his condition a state secret.
“l only talk to the boss”
The big question is: How did the suicide bomber gain access to the office of Saudi Arabia's counter-terror czar, a feat comparable to an al Qaeda invasion of the office of the US Homeland Security secretary in Washington DC? His success was brutal evidence of a dysfunctional security machine – mainly because major successes since the agency declared war on jihadi terror in Feb. 2006 had gone to the heads of security chiefs and Prince Muhammad should not have been additionally burdened with managing the kingdom's role in the Yemen war.
Al Qaeda used this dual role as a stepping stone to its objectives.
Some time in August, 23 year-old Abdullah al-Asiri contacted Saudi security services from Yemen and offered his services.
He was no stranger to them. His name was on the list of 23 al-Qaeda members who escaped Malaz prison in Riyadh in July 2006, and managed to cross the border to Yemen. It was one of al Qaeda's most daring prison breaks, very much like their jailbreak from Bagram prison near Kabul in December 2005. Both left their respective authorities baffled about their methods of escape.
Al-Asiri confided to the Saudi officers whom he reached by phone that life in Yemen was unbearable; he was constantly hounded by Yemeni agents and would be happy to cooperate with Saudi security forces in return for safe passage for himself and family to the Saudi capital in the framework of the rehabilitation program for repentant terrorists initiated by Prince Muhammad.
An underhand scheme gift-wrapped in credible intelligence
In each conversation, al-Asiri raised the level of authority he insisted on addressing before divulging his inside information on the al Qaeda operation in Yemen. This demand should have – but did not – raise warning flags. By mid-August, he had sweet-talked his way to obtaining the secret phone numbers of Prince Muhammad's Riyadh and Jeddah offices. After that, he refused to talk to any underling, only the prince in person.
In those conversations, he described how Yemen-based al Qaeda operatives were in close touch with fellow members in Saudi Arabia and they were jointly planning attacks.
But later, he starting talking about a group of Saudi operatives who had decided to abandon terror and return home if the rehabilitation program guaranteed their safety and that of their families.
On Aug. 22, al Asiri notified Prince Muhammad that a large group of scores of Yemen-based, al Qaeda fugitive leaders were now ready to jump ship. But to be certain they were not walking into a trap, they wanted the Saudi prince in person to receive al-Asiri and three or four of their representatives in his office to work on their final conditions for defecting. Only then, would they give the agreed signal for the rest of the group to cross the border.
On Aug. 26, al-Asiri called the prince to confirm the operation was on and that as agreed he must send his private jet to Najran airfield near the Saudi-Yemeni border to pick up the al Qaeda “defectors” for their trip to Jeddah.
Muhammad nodded his consent. By then, he was enthusiastic about the scheme, which he intended presenting as the biggest personal coup in his campaign on terror.
The backup explosive vest
DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terror sources report that the next day, Thursday August 27, Prince Muhammad's private jet flew in from Jeddah, touched down in Najran and collected four senior al-Qaeda members from the Saada province in northern Yemen. Al-Asiri was among them.
So as not to risk thwarting the operation by insulting their passengers, the security personnel aboard the plane were instructed not to ask for their IDs or search them. The inspectors at Jeddah airport, where screening is very strict, were told to show the same sensitivity. The al Qaeda delegation thus sailed past security at the airport and the entrance to Prince Muhammad's heavily fortified palace and straight into his presence.
He had been maneuvered by the wily al-Asiri into opening up his most closely-guarded quarters to admit an assassination squad.
Thursday night, the Saudi counter-terror director, Prince Muhammad and his bodyguards stood facing a group of senior al Qaeda operatives just arrived from Yemen. At least one was armed with a bomb vest as backup in case al-Asiri's device failed to detonate. According to our sources, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Muhammad's office, not just the one.
The sanitized official version
The Saudi interior ministry released this statement three days later:
The prince, who is the kingdom's assistant interior minister, agreed to see Asiri at his home in the western seaport of Jeddah late Thursday during a gathering to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
During the meeting, Asiri, who was on the country's most wanted list, told Muhammad that other Saudi militants who had fled to Yemen following the kingdom's fierce anti-terror campaign wanted to surrender too but were seeking safe passage from the prince.
“They wanted to hear this by phone from the prince himself,” said the statement.
The statement said contact was made with one of the men in Yemen while Asiri was in the same room as the prince. “The explosion occurred during the phone call,” said the statement. “It led to the death of the wanted man,” the statement ended by saying.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources say this version of events was highly sanitized to explain away how Prince Muhammad came to be gulled by his would-be killer to the point that he followed his instructions as though he was equal in rank.
It is now clear beyond doubt that al-Asiri had no plans for organizing al-Qaeda defections in Yemen but used the idea for a classical double agent's sting tactic against the senior Saudi counter-terror chief. First, to win his trust, he offered the prince solid data on the enemy, al Qaeda in Yemen and Saudi Arabia; he then lured him further by concocting a scheme for a large group of apparently repentant terrorists to join Muhammad's pet rehabilitation program. In this way, he got close enough to the Prince Muhammad to make an attempt on his life.
A colossal shambles in the security forces
Saudi Arabia is still in shock over al Qaeda's near-success. Not only was it the first major setback since the kingdom launched its counter-terror campaign when al Qaeda failed to blow up the Abqaiq oil complex in February 2006, but the suicide bomber was the scion of a sell-established Saudi family, members of the national security establishment.
His father, Hassan Tali Asiri, who lives in Riyadh, is a retired Saudi defense ministry employee with high security clearance. He told an interviewer that his world was shattered by his son's attempt to assassinate the Saudi prince. But his mother admitted that Abdullah Hassan Asiri was not the only one of their sons who joined al-Qaeda. Ibrahim, a chemistry student at King Saud University in Riyadh, recruited Abdullah Hassan five years ago when he was only 18.
This was in early 2004, when the first fatwas were circulated by wahhabi extremist clerics in universities, high schools and medressas, calling on young Saudis to abandon their studies and embark on jihad against the US invaders of Iraq.
According to the mother, Abdullah-Hassan disappeared then and only renewed contact with his family three years later in late 2007. But he never moved back to the family home and lived at an unknown address in the Saudi capital.
Many Saudis view the Jeddah attack as betokening a colossal shambles in their intelligence and security forces. They question those agencies' competence after their failure to protect the kingdom's leading campaigner against terror and wonder if their underlying strategy is at fault.
Saudi columnist Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed wrote on Monday, August 31:
“The argument is not over the crime itself, because danger is the fate of those working in this vital sector at the time of war on terrorism. The argument is over the cure and the direction in which we ought to proceed. It is an argument over whether it is better to be tolerant toward intellectual extremism that does not contain explosives, bullets, bloodshed, or even fist-fighting, in order to absorb it, or it is better to confront it as a necessity for protection in these extraordinary times.”