Wednesday, June 23, Crown Prince Abdullah went on Saudi TV to lay down an ultimatum. Islamic extremists were given one month to surrender and receive God’s Law or face death. “If they are wise and accept it, then they are saved,” he said, speaking also in the name of the ailing King Fahd. “And if they reject it, God isn’t going to stop us from smiting them with all our force, which we get from our reliance on God.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources find this extreme action especially significant in that it marks the end of the period in which factions of the royal house were in continuous negotiation with al Qaeda leaders. This period can be divided into two parts:
The first, beginning November 2001, when the first Saudi fugitives began arriving home from Afghanistan after the country was conquered by American-led forces. It lasted until late April 2003. During those months, members of the royal house were in touch with al Qaeda returnees via moderate religious and tribal figures of authority, treated them as ordinary citizens and offered them posts in government as well as in religious and tribal institutions. The funds for bankrolling al Qaeda operations were left untouched.
The second, beginning April 2003 and lasting around 14 months, was marked by factions of the royal house entering into direct dialogue with al Qaeda leaders to stave off terrorist attacks inside the kingdom. This pro-appeasement faction was led by Interior Minister Prince Nayef who is in charge of the war on terror and King Fahd’s youngest son, Abdulaziz bin Fahd.
(In previous issues, DEBKA-Net-Weekly has frequently outlined the use made of their indirect links with al Qaeda to further their claims in the succession struggle.)
This period was brought to an end brutally on Friday, June 18, when Saudi forces killed 31-year old Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin, believed to have been commander of al Qaeda’s Saudi cell, hours after his men beheaded their American hostage, Paul Johnson.
Our counter-terror sources stress that the slaying of al-Muqrin was far from being a deed of derring-do by the valiant Saudi security forces. The dead man was one of the royal princes’ most important and constant partners in dialogue. This connection was instrumental in the agreed termination of the hostage-taking, shooting spree in the eastern Saudi oil city of Khobar on May 29 in a way that enabled the hostage-takers to cut the throats of nine foreign oil workers and make good their escape.
The Saudis also attempted to use the al-Muqrin connection to halt al Qaeda’s campaign of assassinations against American expatriates in Riyadh, which culminated in the abduction of Paul Johnson.
While much of the Johnson episode remains shrouded in mystery, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that al-Muqrin in person did not kidnap the murdered American; nor did he take part in his murder by beheading. He attempted to mediate between Saudi authorities and the abductors and was promised freedom of movement as long as negotiations went on. After learning of the hostage’s death, he and two aides drove out of his safe house to the center of Riyadh to meet his Saudi contacts and find out what went wrong in the effort to save Johnson’s life and work out how to recover his body. However, some unknown figure in the royal house – most probably a subordinate of Crown Prince Abdullah – decided to put an end to the double game once and for all. A roadblock was set up to ambush the al Qaeda cell leader and he was liquidated.
In the five days intervening between that moment and Abdullah’s June 23 television speech, the warring factions of the Saudi royal house turned in on themselves and conducted an exhaustive debate. None questioned any longer that the peril was beating on the gates of their own palaces. It had finally been borne in on all the princely groupings, according to our Persian Gulf sources, by the murder of Western oil workers in Yanbu, the outrage at Khobar and the slaying of four Americans in Riyadh, that al Qaeda was after royal blood and the House of Saud was in dire peril.
A quarter of a century ago, the Saudi throne faced an equally dangerous extremist Wahhabi revolt led by an Uteiba tribesman called Jamiyan, who captured the Great Mosque of Mecca with support from sympathetic Saudi security forces, before the uprising was crushed. Only then, the shoe was on the other foot. Fahd, who was then crown prince to King Khaled, urged direct action to subdue the rebellion, while plain Prince Abdullah, like Prince Nayef today, advocated dialogue with Jamiyan through the mediation of the head of the Shura council.
During the crucial five days of debating in the palaces of Riyadh, Abdullah addressed a demand to Fahd for an order to his Sudairi brothers to line up behind a concerted showdown with al Qaeda. Since the king is believed too far gone to issue orders, the crown prince is said to have approached the next senior Sudairis, defense minister Sultan and the governor of Riyadh, Salman.
It is too soon to tell how the deal was cut and what Abdullah promised the Sudairis for their cooperation in an all-out campaign to eradicate the al Qaeda menace. However, a third period appears to be at hand in relations between the Saudi royal house and al Qaeda. Three stages are motion:
The end of dialogue, as revealed above.
A one-month grace period for al Qaeda members to turn themselves in and be “treated according to God’s Law.” Abdullah does not promise them a reprieve from punishment. They can expect heavy prison sentences instead of execution.
Once that month elapses, the fundamentalist activists who fail to surrender can expect no mercy. They will be hunted to death or captured and executed.
The Saudi princes’ resolve to set their quarrels aside and stand together until al Qaeda is removed as a threat to the kingdom faces three tests.
Will Saudi security forces cease cooperating with al Qaeda? Or will uniformed sympathizers continue to extend to the terrorists logistical aid, intelligence, arms, uniforms and cars? That will depend on their receiving fresh orders from above.
How will al Qaeda rank and file respond to the crown prince’s ultimatum? How many will surrender?
Will the terrorist organization continue its attacks? Will Abdullah’s public offer be answered in the form of more kidnappings and murders of Western citizens?