Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz’s Secret Airlift

In the first in-depth article in our Saudi Arabia series, DEBKA-Net-Weekly (Issue 79) last week dealt exhaustively with the royal succession issue throwing the House of Saud into controversy. As an absolute monarchy, with no elections, free speech or elected legislature, the men on the throne in Riyadh have no need of a Western-type system of checks and balances. But they do have to keep the diverse elements of society in equilibrium, for the sake of regime stability.

In one way or another, the rise of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden as master of international Islamic terror bears strongly on – and may have been integral to – the kingdom’s power structure.

This week, we home in on the three power centers that dominate that structure and Saudi life and politics in general – either on behalf of or alongside the sovereign in Riyadh.

Those centers are: Internal Security (Mukhabarat), the religious hierarchy (Ulama) and the tribes.

One hitherto unpublished episode points up the interdependence of the three.

The participation of 15 Saudis in the 9/11 attacks is widely regarded in the United States as a turning point in US-Saudi relations. But the real breaking point occurred two months later.

The war in Afghanistan had been underway for two-and-a-half months and Northern Alliance forces, spearheaded by US, Russian and Uzbek special forces, had begun advancing rapidly on the Afghan capital of Kabul after capturing Mazar al-Sharif. In two of the most strongly fortified cities in Afghanistan, Konduz and Khanabad, Taliban-al Qaeda forces still held out. While two large armored columns executed a swift pincer movement, the attacking force laid siege to the two cities.

Intelligence information available to the United States at the time showed that almost all of al-Qaeda’s toughest fighters – some 3,000 to 5,000 from a variety of nationalities — were holed up in Konduz and Khanabad prepared to fight to the last man. The terrorists were armed with tanks, missiles and heavy artillery. They had large caches of ammunition tucked away in caves and tunnels in the mountains surrounding the cities.

From late November, US B-52s began to bomb those mountain positions nonstop. After 10 days of heavy bombings, it was widely believed that most of the al Qaeda men and their weapons had been hit and that they had abandoned Konduz and retreated to Khanabad to prepare for their last stand. Meanwhile, Taliban commanders fighting alongside al Qaeda in the besieged cities began dispatching emissaries to Afghan field commanders, in an effort to negotiate terms of surrender. Agreements were reached in most of the combat zones around the two cities, which began to be handed over without bloodshed to the assault force. But as the US special forces moved deeper inside Konduz and Khanabad and encountered almost no resistance at all, they sensed something was amiss.

Most of the cities’ streets were untouched by war. Instead of the thousands of al Qaeda fighters they expected to find with their hands up, no one came forward to surrender. At first, intelligence experts thought they might have fled along smugglers’ trails through the mountains under cover of night and headed for the western city of Jalalabad and the Tora Bora mountains. But heavy American night bombing made that unlikely.

Several Afghan farmers in the area told investigators what was first treated as a tall story. Large planes, they said, had come in to land in the dark and very long lines of armed al Qaeda fighters were seen waiting patiently before disappearing inside the giant aircraft. After the planes took off, the farmers said, the al Qaeda men were seen no more.

On November 22, 2000, DEBKAfile – and later on November 26, DEBKA-Net-Weekly – reported exclusively that legions of al Qaeda fighters had been whisked out of Konduz and Khanabad in a secret airlift organized and funded by the Saudi royal family.

Today, US political leaders and intelligence officials, along with the parties now battling al Qaeda terrorism, are aware that in middle and late November 2001, all of Saudi Arabia’s top leaders – crown prince Abdullah, defense minister Prince Sultan – held long palace conferences with Saudi intelligence chiefs to decide how to handle the crisis presented by the al Qaeda contingents besieged in the two Afghan cities.

The Saudi leadership knew that almost a third of the trapped al Qaeda fighters, some 1,000 men, were young Saudis from respectable city families and tribes or the ranks of the Saudi military and National Guard. The men received an annual government stipend to pay for their journey to Afghanistan and military training at Osama bin Laden’s camps. Saudi leaders feared this truth would come out if the men were captured, adding another thick layer to the frost overlaying Riyadh’s relations with Washington since September 11.

They decided the young Saudis must be pulled out of Afghanistan and restored to their families in Saudi Arabia before they were caught.

As interior minister, Prince Naif (profile below) is responsible for domestic security and the welfare of Saudi citizens. But his close ties with the Saudi religious establishment, or Ulama (more below), were also a factor in the determination to put him in charge of an airlift to obliterate the Saudi presence in al Qaeda ranks in Afghanistan.

The royal family’s hurried decision to spare no expense for bringing the sons of the kingdom home post haste was not a token of support for al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. The House of Saud was simply out to save itself from diplomatic catastrophe.

According to our intelligence sources, in the space of a few hours, Prince Naif, helped by Saudi intelligence and Pakistan’s inter-service intelligence agency, chartered medium sized Antonov transports from Uzbekistan. Pakistani air force officers were assigned to pilot the aircraft lifting most of the Saudi fighters out of Konduz and Khanabad.

But there was a last-minute snag. Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf presented Naif with an ultimatum: He had the same duty to extricate Pakistani military intelligence officers fighting for al Qaeda and the Taliban as the Saudis had towards their men. The Saudi interior minister had no choice but to take the Pakistanis aboard too.

The next problem cropped up when the Saudis, seeing the planes touching down, refused to abandon their brothers-in-arms in the field. Against a ticking clock, Naif promised Saudi funding for a non-Saudi exodus from Afghanistan by a different route.

In the end, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that some 1,500 to 1,700 Pakistani fighters, 750 to 850 Saudis, 350 to 450 Yemenis and 200 to 300 Algerian members of the radical Muslim GIA were rescued from embattled Afghanistan aboard the Saudi airlift.

Upon their return home, the Saudi fighters were sent home, told to go to ground with their families and tribes. The Saudi security authorities decided against interrogating them on their relations with bin Laden and other al Qaeda commanders, or their military and religious activities in Afghanistan, for fear of encountering antagonism from the Ulama or tribal leaders. Such confrontations may have led to clashes between the Afghanistan veterans and government authorities.

The Saudi leaders have since grasped their mistake. Some 150 to 250 Saudi ex-Afghanistan veterans of al Qaeda have relocated to the semi-lawless Assir region of southern Saudi Arabia along the Yemen border. Assir is a bastion of the Kahtan and Jamid tribes, who are noted for their strict Islamic Wahabi observances, disapproval of the royal family and sympathy for bin Laden. These veterans have joined up with their Yemeni former comrades, now repatriated in north Yemen, to form a formidable fighting force.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources can report exclusively that US special forces are now in Assir in operations against this al Qaeda force on both sides of the Saudi-Yemen border, the first time American special forces have undertaken an undercover missions in the oil kingdom.

The Konduz confrontation sidestepped by a Saudi airlift has thus been transplanted to the mountains of Assir and Yemen and is now in progress between US special units and al Qaeda fighters.

Its outcome is still unclear. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources reveal that interior minister Prince Naif is in command of the Assir sector.



1. Internal Security Keeps the Throne Safe


Not surprisingly, the top dog of Saudi domestic security is a high-ranking prince of the blood. Since the assassination of King Faysal in 1975, Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud) has served as interior minister. With responsibility for the internal security service (Mukhabarat), this minister is senior caretaker of the throne’s survival, with eyes and ears in every nook and cranny of Saudi society. A sort of FBI or MI5, this service is distinct from military intelligence, which comes under the jurisdiction of his full brother, defense minister Sultan, and from the General Intelligence Service, the GIS (more like the CIA), the domain of a second full brother Prince Nawwaf bin Abdul Aziz. The royal house also runs a small, highly secretive, intelligence agency of its own, about which little is known.

Born in 1933, Naif is the fourth of the seven Sudayri sons brought forth by the founder of the royal kingdom of Saudi Arabia,King Abdul-Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud (Ibn Saud), and Hussa bint Ahmad al-Sudayri.

The Mukhabarat was in charge of investigating the 1995 bombing attack on American military dormitories in the Eastern Saudi town of al Khobar. Its bosses, including Prince Naif, know it was a joint Iran-al-Qaeda operation, the first time they had joined forces for a terrorist strike. However, that is one of the many secrets he can never give up because he is bound by an understanding reached by crown prince Abdullah and Iranian leaders to keep the knowledge from the Americans at all costs. In return, the Saudi ruler was promised an Iranian hands-off from the Shiite minority inhabiting the Saudi oil region and no more disturbances during the pilgrimage season or subversion against the kingdom. The Americans have therefore been frustrated in every attempt to attain access to the probe for their investigators.

The security service also runs surveillance and probes against opposition elements to the crown, including Islamic extremist groups, like al Qaeda, watches social intersections and senior functionaries – such as the chiefs of major clans, university heads and senior lecturers, the religious colleges and imams.

In his 27 years as interior minister, Naif has built up an army of informers and contacts that make him one of the most powerful figures in the kingdom. His security service keeps the five to six million foreigners working and living in Saudi Arabia under scrutiny, and carries out certain undercover responsibilities overseas.

The interior minister additionally packs a punch in the farthest reaches of the kingdom as appointer of provincial and city governments as well as the members of the regional councils. The thick files the Mukhabarat maintains on all incumbents and would-be office-holders no doubt influence his decisions.

Prince Naif for many years kept his light under a bushel, ceding pride of place in the media to other members of the royal family. Since crown prince Abdullah took over the royal scepter as de facto ruler seven years ago, Naif began making his presence felt in public and the media. He currently serves as chairman of the Saudi Committee for the Support of al-Kuds Intifada and as a member of the Supreme Commission for Tourism. His public remarks are however kept within the confines laid down by the majority of senior princes, so as to appeal to the dominant conservatives and not put up any religious backs. This cautious strategy is designed to enhance the 69-year old prince’s assets as a player in the ongoing power struggle in the royal house around the order of succession to the throne. Newly ambitious, Naif appears to be maneuvering himself into position to leap into the highest office, possibly in place of the ageing Prince Sultan, the natural candidate for crown prince and next in line to the throne after Abdullah becomes king. The next in line in terms of seniority, would be deputy defense minister Prince Abd al-Rahman, but he is rated both unfit for the task and short on ambition.

Naif may not be the Sudayri clans’ first choice for the top slot, but his 27-year stint as interior minister may give him something of an edge over his younger brother, Salman, the popular

governor of Riyadh.



2. Ulama (Religious Scholars) – a Pampered Authority


The Ulama, or the kingdom’s religious leadership, is an integral part of Saudi government.

In the mid-18th century, the founder of the House of Saud signed a pact with the puritanical Muslim reformer, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab for the creation of an Islamic state whose constitution would be the doctrines of Islam.

Saud’s descendant, King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud (Ibn Saud), who founded the modern-day Saudi kingdom, endorsed this pact with the descendants of al-Wahab.

The Wahabis, as religious rulers, would preach their brand of Islam – the strictest in the Muslim world – be responsible for the kingdom’s judiciary and educational systems and serve as watchdogs for its religious and moral values. The Sauds would administer the kingdom’s secular affairs of state.

The royal house is dependent on the Ulama for its legitimacy in the Arabian Peninsula and the Muslim world at large – not only as rulers of the Saudi kingdom, but also in their highly cherished role as Guardians of the Holy Places of Islam in Mecca and Medina. They therefore lavish largesse on the religious establishment, which is free to impose its teachings on all ranks of Saudi society and allowed to eliminate the different schools of Islam once prevalent in different regions of the country. Every new petrodollar pouring into the kingdom’s coffers also enriches the religious authorities, providing them with the wherewithal for wielding unimaginable spiritual power.

Under the leadership of Sheikh Muhammad bin Ibrahim al-Sheikh, Grand Mufti until his death in 1969, the religious authority rose to some of the challenges of a modern state. It was during his tenure that the Supreme Council of Ulama was established. Comprising around 20 members, whom the king appoints from a slate presented by the council’s chairman – the Supreme Council, together with the Supreme Judicial Council, has authority to issue religious edicts (fatwas) in the name of the kingdom, award funds to various organizations, set school curricula and administer the courts.

The present Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Ibn Abdullah Al-Sheikh (a descendant of the Wahab clan), issued a fatwa after the al Qaeda attacks in America on September 11, 2001, forbidding the murder of non-Muslims in Islamic lands.

The Saudi religious authority is staffed by tens of thousands of sages, judges, preachers, imams and teachers at religious institutions of education, including three universities. It has branched out to various Moslem countries, especially in Africa, Asia and the Moslem republics of the former Soviet Union. Its main aim: to spread Wahabism through such bodies as the Moslem World League, the Islamic Congress, the World Supreme Council for Mosques and the Islamic Bank.

Within that framework, money is transferred abroad to refurbish mosques, support activists, distribute Korans and recruit converts to Wahabism. (The Wahabis’ overseas activities will be expanded on in the next issue of DEBKA-Net-Weekly)

Though powerful, the Saudi Ulama has to contend with opposition from two extremes – liberal-secular elements and religious radicals.

The liberals’ agenda is clear; they oppose the Islamic chokehold over the kingdom and its schools and courts. The religious radical agenda is murkier. Extreme fundamentalists have accused the religious mainstream of deviating from the values of Wahabism and becoming puppets of the throne. Most of the dissident religious factions have rallied round the concept of “Islamic Opposition”. Their dispute with the religious authorities has theological overtones but is also highly politicized. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda supports the Islamic Opposition. Another prominent faction is the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, established by Mohammad al-Masaari after he fled Saudi Arabia for London.

The Islamic Opposition halted its public protests after Abdullah took over the reins of government from the ailing king Fahd in 1995. Bin Laden’s group is still very much alive and kicking. Even before the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Saudi-born terror chief issued religious edicts and rulings to his followers that contradicted those of the kingdom’s religious authorities. Bin Laden also calls for the overthrow of the House of Saud – which goes beyond the lines drawn by other opposition spokesmen


3. The Tribes – Backbone of Society


The Saudi Arabia of the tribal nomad is no more than a mirage these days. The development boom kicked off in the early 1960s has transformed the face of the kingdom and domesticated its Bedouin tribes. Even the estimated five to eight percent of the population that continue to follow a nomadic lifestyle are not strictly nomads at all. Most of their men head into the cities every day seeking work – although rising unemployment is biting hard – while others are “tourist Bedouin” hired by the royal court to host foreign guests and leaders in desert hospitality tents.

The domestication of the Bedouin took places in stages. First, the tribes moved closer to the cities. Then their chiefs bought homes there, to be followed by the rest of the tribe who migrated to the cities and their outlying villages, usually in proximity to their old tribal lands.

The main Bedouin tribes are:

Northern Saudi Arabia – Shammar, Anizah.

Central Saudi Arabia – Utaibah, Mutair.

Eastern Saudi Arabia – Ujman, Bani Khaled, Awazim.

Southeast Saudi Arabia – Al-Murra (One of the last of the tribes to settle down, its members are reputed for their wild ways and superb skills as trackers).

Southwest Saudi Arabia – Qahtan, Duwasir, Bani Yam, Ghamid.

Hijaz – Harb, Billi, Bani Atiyah, Howaitat.

The House of Saud has preserved the Bedouin tribes’ loyalty mostly by handing out cash and perks to their chiefs and social welfare benefits to the tribesmen. One of their benefits is conscription to the National Guard, a military force controlled since 1963 by crown prince Abdullah and dedicated to protecting the regime. The National Guard is comprised of reservists and career soldiers hailing mainly from the tribes of the Hijaz and eastern Saudi Arabia. But there have been cases of Bedouin tribesmen rebelling against the throne and the Ulama.

One such episode was the revolt led by Juhaiman of the Utaibi tribe, who led a band of fanatics that took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. His main accomplice was a member of the Qahtan tribe. More recently, members of the Ghamid tribe, located near the southern city of Zahran, were involved in al Qaeda terrorist activities.

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