Yesterday there was an assassination attempt on the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Muhammad Bin Nayif. An unidentified wanted militant, pretending to surrender to authorities, blew himself up as he was being searched. The blast occurred in Bin Nayif’s private office in Jidda, close enough to the Prince himself for the latter to be lightly wounded (although no wounds were visible his subsequent TV appearance).
The attack is obviously noteworthy, not least because it is the first confirmed jihadi assassination attempt on a senior prince in Saudi history. There have been rumours of such attempts in the past, but none have ever been confirmed. This shows that al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula (QAP) is definitely after the royal family, and the incident underlines the QAP’s ideological turn to a more revolutionary direction. Their campaign started off in 2003 focusing exclusively on Western targets, but has gradually shifted to include more and more regime targets.
It is also worrying that there are still militants with access to explosives and bomb-making expertise. It remains to be seen whether the attacker had many local helpers and whether he had links to the QAP headquarters in Yemen. If he did, it would be more serious.
Having said all this, I don’t think the incident itself tells us very much at all about QAP’s operational capability or Saudi regime stability. This was essentially a stupid security slip-up, whereby the bomber was allowed to get deep into the building without any security inspection. I would be very surprised if this happened again.
To understand how this could occur, one needs to understand Muhammad Bin Nayif’s role in the Saudi counterterrorism apparatus. In addition to being the top CT official, he is also the main contact point between the state and the radical Islamist community. He is the one that militants go to see when they want to surrender. He has been doing personal behind-the-scenes liaison work with the jihadi community since at least the late 1990s. He has made a point of always being personally accessible to militants wanting to talk. And he has a reputation in the Islamist community (outside of al-Qaida) for discretion, kindness and financial generosity.
Bin Nayif has received hundreds of jihadis in his office in this way, and by all accounts there have never been any security problems. I suspect that over time, this made the Prince and his staff overconfident about their security. In this particular case, the fact that it was 11.30 at night during a popular Ramadan reception probably made security even more lax. The bottom line is that it didn’t take operational genius or a high-ranking mole get close to the Prince.
By the way, media are referring to an al-Qaida claim of responsibility reported by SITE, but neither I nor Greg over at Waq al-Waq have been able to find it on the forums this morning.
PS Apologies for my long absence from jihadica. Family vacations, house moves and paper deadlines have made blogging difficult. I am now back at work, but I will be contributing infrequently this fall for reasons I will explain later.