On Monday, July 23, a blast ravaged Saudi General Intelligence premises in Riyadh, killing Mashaal al-Qarni, deputy of Bandar bin Sultan, the newly-appointed intelligence chief.
(See an item in this issue on this key appointment.)
An official blackout was instantly drawn on the attack, so opaque that it was impossible to discover the victim’s name, which was only released three days later, or by what means the assassins reached him.
For eight years, Saudi Arabia has been free of murderous attacks on its high officials ever since on Dec. 29, 2004, al Qaeda detonated two suicide car bombs in Riyadh, one outside the Interior Ministry Compound and the other outside the Special Emergency Force training center. Their target was the Deputy Interior Minister at the time, Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, who survived and this year stepped into the shoes of the late interior minister Prince Nayef.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources report that this time, the Al Qods Brigades, the terrorist arm of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), used an elite terrorist cell to execute revenge for the bombing attack in Damascus Wednesday, July 18, which liquidated four of the eight commanders running Bashar Assad’s war against the opposition: His brother-in-law Assif Shawqat, Defense Minister Daoud Abdullah Rajiha, former chief of staff Gen. Hassan Turkmani and intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Hisham Bakhtiar.
Enemies of Assad are enemies of Tehran
With this attack, Tehran notified Riyadh that the Damascus bombing had produced the effect of elevating Iran’s role in the Syrian war to a proactive and involved participant. No longer content with rendering friendly assistance and military advice, Iran would henceforth take part in Assad’s military and intelligence operations against the Syrian opposition and also stand shoulder to shoulder with his regime against external foes.
Tuesday, July 24, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, the IRGC’s Deputy Chief of Staff, spelled this message out in a warning to the Arab countries funding or arming Syrian revolutionaries. “Syria’s allies,” he said, “will not allow Bashar Assad’s regime to be toppled and will deal fatal blows to the enemies of Damascus.”
Why was Saudi Arabia singled out for revenge?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report that Tehran claims the acquisition of intelligence identifying the hand behind the Damascus assassinations as belonging to Prince Bandar, head of the Saudi National Security Council and, as of last week, chief of General Intelligence.
The Iranians were demonstrating that their avenging arm is long enough to reach into the most heavily guarded centers of power in Riyadh just as Saudi intelligence, they believe, penetrated Syria’s most secret command centers in Damascus.
Bandar’s two suspected accomplices: CIA and a Hariri son
It wouldn’t be the first time, though not of late. In 2003 and 2004, Iran initiated a wave of Al Qaeda bombing attacks inside the Saudi kingdom, supplying the terrorist squads with intelligence, explosives and money. Al Qaeda master terrorists ran the operations. One of them Saif al-Adal, is now based in Pakistan and running Al Qaeda hits from there.
If indeed the Saudis were complicit in the Damascus attack, did they act alone?
Iranian intelligence finds clues suggesting that Prince Bandar had at least two accomplices, the American CIA and the Saudi-Lebanese billionaire Saad-eddine Rafiq Al-Hariri, prime minister of Lebanon in 2009-2011.
Saad-eddine is the second son of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, in whose assassination in Beirut in 2005 the Assad regime was implicated.
Moscow, Tehran and Damascus all point the finger at those three suspects, maintaining that each had a motive for collaborating in targeted liquidations inside Assad’s inner circle.
Russian intelligence finds elements of revenge in the method of operation.
The CIA, they believe, finally evened a very long score for the bombing attack in Beirut on April 18, 1983 which wiped out their top Middle East echelon – eight agents, including the agency’s senior Middle East analyst and Near East director, Robert C. Ames, Station Chief Kenneth Haas and most of the CIA’s Beirut staff.
The victims also included William R. McIntyre, deputy director of the United States Agency for International Development, two of his aides, and several Marine Security Guards.
In all, 63 American operatives, embassy staff and servicemen died in that attack.
Lavrov’s outburst reflected Moscow’s suspicion of the CIA
The Russians detect symbolic similarity in the two methods of operation: The same explosive – C4 – was used in Beirut 29 years ago and in Damascus on July 18, 2012, and both bombs were detonated at the start of a high-powered meeting of key figures in a running conflict.
They deduce that if Washington did take part in planning the attack it was not just for revenge but also as a crude warning to Assad.
This suspicion prompted Russian foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov’s furious outburst in Moscow Wednesday, July 25 to a roomful of correspondents: The US State Department announced that terror actions in Syria are not surprising in light of the Assad’s regimes actions,” he said, and went on to accuse Washington of “direct endorsement of terrorism.”
The Saudis make no bones about their loathing for Bashar Assad and his Alawite sect. King Abdullah in particular is believed to have ordered Prince Bandar on the day of his appointment as intelligence chief Thursday, July 19, to put the Syrian ruler’s elimination at the top of his to-do list.
The Hariri clan has been spoiling for revenge for seven years since their father’s assassination.
Their prime target was Assad’s brother-in-law Assif Shawqat whom they accused of planning the murder as the much feared head of Syrian military intelligence and who paid the price in Damascus on July 18.
A disappointing outcome
The conspirators who planned the Damascus bombing, whoever they were, must have felt badly let down by its outcome if they had hoped to alter the course of Syria’s 17-month old bloodbath.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence analysts find that the operation fell flat on three key objectives: Assad did not panic; his military command structure did not fall apart – or even crack despite the many desertions of officers and men; and there was no muting or scaling down of his brutal offensive against his people.
Just the reverse: In the past week, the death toll continued its relentless climb past the 100-a-day mark and rebel forces were forced back under the cruel weight of the army’s superior weapons and numbers, forced to abandon their overly ambitious offensives for footholds in Syria’s main cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
The situation is now so fraught that Damascus’s threat to use chemical and biological weapons against “external aggressors” hangs over Syria and a wider region, as foreign forces, Western and Arab, stand ready to step into the Syrian war.