In Failed Strike on Saudi Prince, A New Fear of Al-Qaeda's Tactics

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- The bomb was hidden inside the al-Qaeda assassin's body, and he arrived on his target's personal plane.

The target was Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a senior member of Saudi Arabia's ruling family and head of the kingdom's counterterrorism operations. The bomber, who had crossed the border from Yemen, passed at least two security checks, then detonated himself less than a yard away from the prince. Somehow, the prince survived.

But the attack, on Aug. 27 during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, has sent tremors through Saudi Arabian and Western intelligence circles. The attack, the first serious assassination attempt against a member of the Saudi ruling family in decades, raised new concerns about al-Qaeda's tactics, strength, and its use of neighboring Yemen as a haven and training ground.

It also raised doubts about Saudi Arabia's program for combating terrorism, which focuses on rehabilitating militants and getting them to renounce al-Qaeda.

"It's an unbelievable stroke of luck that Prince Mohammed was little injured as he was," said a Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic's sensitive nature. "The whole Saudi approach to counter terrorism would have been challenged had he died."

Local reports described the attack unfolding during a traditional Ramadan gathering at the prince's palace in the coastal city of Jiddah. In interviews in the capital in recent days, Saudi Interior Ministry officials and Western diplomats provided information about the attack and the circumstances leading up to the prince's encounter with the al-Qaeda militant. Some details were reported by National Public Radio on Tuesday.

The assailant was Abdullah Hassan Tali Assiri, and he was No. 40 on a list of 85 terrorists that the Saudi government considered most dangerous. He was a Saudi but was based in Yemen, where al-Qaeda has been gaining strength. Saudi and Western officials said the attack was planned and launched from Yemen.

Al-Qaeda preyed on Mohammed's "soft approach" to combating terrorism. The prince is widely known to give personal assurances to militants and treat them with dignity if they renounce al-Qaeda. Those who enter an extremist rehabilitation program are given cars, houses and jobs upon graduation. When Saudi security forces kill terrorism suspects in raids, Prince Mohammed has been known to call the families to console them, according to Western diplomats and Saudi officials.

So it was no surprise that when Assiri contacted the prince, he was receptive.

Assiri informed the prince that he needed to meet him urgently, according to Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Turki al Mansour. There were others who also wanted to renounce al-Qaeda and turn themselves in, Assiri told the prince.

The prince, said Mansour, brought up the case of Mohammed al-Awfi, a Saudi jihadist and former inmate at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who fled to Yemen after returning to the kingdom. But this year, Awfi gave himself up to Saudi authorities, and he now lives comfortably with his family in Riyadh. The prince told Assiri that he and any others who renounce militancy would be treated just as Awfi was, Mansour said.

But Assiri insisted on seeing the prince.

On the evening of Aug. 27, the prince sent his plane to the southern Saudi border city of Najran, where Assiri, who had crossed from Yemen, was waiting. He was taken by the prince's personal bodyguards to his house. Some officials said Assiri was never subjected to a security check.

At some point in the evening, Assiri handed his cellphone to the prince. Some of his comrades, he told the prince, wanted to hear his assurances that they would be treated well. That was the signal that the prince was standing close to Assiri. The bomb, which according to Western diplomats and local news reports was probably hidden inside Assiri's rectum, was triggered by the cellphone. Assiri was ripped apart -- pictures of his body were published in local newspapers and on Web sites.

The prince suffered minor injuries. Saudi television later showed King Abdullah, who is the prince's uncle, visiting him in the hospital and asking how the bomber could have gotten so close. "It was a mistake," Prince Mohammed replied, according to the broadcast.

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