The dividing line between terrorist attacks and the succession struggle raging in the Saudi royal house is becoming increasingly hard to distinguish. The May Day attack that killed five Westerners and a Saudi officer at an oil contractor’s office in the Red Sea industrial town of Yanbu is a case in point.
King Fahd‘s long incapacitation by illness leaves Crown Prince Abdullah in charge without the solid authority of a reigning monarch for carrying out innovative reforms or effectively fighting the terror bane bedeviling the kingdom. By common consent, the Saudi king remains in office as long as he lives. Up in the air with Abdullah’s powers is the order of succession, an invitation to interminable infighting among the royal factions.
The opposition to Abdullah is led by the King’s own Sudairi clan, which includes defense minister Sultan, interior minister Nayef, Riyadh governor Salman, a deputy minister each in the defense and interior ministries and their sons, the youngest of whom is Abdelaziz.
Abdullah has been trying to position foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, son of the assassinated King Faisal, as crown prince. But the prince generally expected to succeed Abdullah is Sultan, who is pushing 80. He has lost his enthusiasm for the job and has passed the Sudairi succession torch to Nayef who is ten years younger.
This is where the crunch comes. Nayef, as interior minister, is responsible for the campaign to halt terrorism, waged chiefly by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden‘s al Qaeda. But Nayef is clearly pulling his punches in this war in order not to lose the support of influential Islamic extremist elements for his bid for the first-in-line position to the throne.
Nayef is naturally intent on reducing Saud al-Faisal’s power base. In 2001, he sacked Saud’s brother Turki al-Faisal from the post of head of General Intelligence and banished him to London as ambassador.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources now report that the latest information streaming into Washington shows that the war on terror has become a burning issue in the succession feud in Riyadh. The Crown Prince genuinely declared all-out war on al Qaeda and its adherents after last year’s lethal suicide attacks. Interior minister Nayef on the other hand is playing a double game. While half-heartedly fighting the terrorists, he engages their tribal and religious supporters in dialogue.
The May 1 attack at Yanbu made Abdullah furious enough to turn against the brother who let it happen. Using the most vicious language in their lexicon, Abdullah and Saud accused “Zionist enemies” of orchestrating the wave of terror afflicting the kingdom. They both know perfectly well who was responsible, but they used language that would be understood by their countrymen as a backhanded insult to Nayef. They were saying that as counter-terrorist chief he was no better than a Zionist collaborator.
In the next round of insults, Nayef’s interior ministry issued a statement on May 4, naming Mustafa Abdel-Qader Abed al-Ansari as the ringleader of the Yanbu attack and reporting he was killed with his brother and two cousins in a shootout later. Stress was placed on the fact that Ansari left the kingdom in 1994 and joined the London-based Committee for the Defense of the Legitimate Rights (CDLR), a group of Saudi dissidents who advocate the monarchy’s overthrow. Ansari, the statement said, “re-entered the country in an illegitimate way and infiltrated the borders to carry out despicable plans”.
This was Nayef’s way of forcing Abdullah to shoulder part of the blame for what was really his own failure to crack down on terrorism. It was Abdullah’s secret 1996 ceasefire deal with Islamic opposition leaders in the kingdom that persuaded the CDLR Islamist opposition-in-exile to call off its campaign against the throne.
What was hinted in Nayef’s statement was that the Crown Prince’s failure to rein in the Islamist opposition was the real source of the evil for which Saudi Arabia was now paying the price.
However, one of the CDLR founders, Saad al-Faqih, quickly dismissed this aspersion. He told reporters that even if Ansari had returned home illegally, he had been a member of the group only briefly and was incapable of staging the Yanbu attack on his own.
Three key points emerge here:
Saudi authorities have very effectively shrouded the actual sequence of events at Yanbu. They also withheld the identities of the perpetrators until the Interior Ministry published its rejoinder to Abdullah’s insult. However, the complexity and ruthlessness of the attack were well beyond the powers of Ansari and his kinsmen.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources, seven targets, including the governors’ offices in Yanbu and Jubail, were hit by squads comprised of eight to 12 men. Several Middle East intelligence sources report that Ansari and his kinsmen were not among the dead.
If indeed Ansari and kin were indeed the attackers in Yanbu, it would be the first time a terrorist strike was committed by a Saudi opposition group which was not affiliated to al Qaeda.
All in all, no matter who was responsible – a Saudi opposition group or al Qaeda – the chances of stamping out terrorism in Saudi Arabia diminish the longer the power struggle rages within the royal family. The primary duelers now are Abdullah and Nayef. By the time they come to an accommodation, if they ever do, it may be too late for House of Saud.