A brazen attempt to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s top counterterrorism official shows that al Qaeda has not been eliminated in its birthplace and is redirecting its efforts to target members of the Saudi royal family, analysts and U.S. counterterrorism officials say.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the deputy to and son of Interior Minister Prince Nayef, was injured Thursday night at his office in Jeddah by a suicide bomber who infiltrated the receiving line at an iftar - the meal that breaks the fast at the end of the day during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
U.S. officials are closely watching developments in Saudi Arabia and take “seriously” the attempt on Prince Mohammed’s life, a U.S. counterterrorism official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the nature of the subject.
“This is the closest al Qaeda has gotten to a member of the Saudi [royal] family,” the official said. “Terrorism in Saudi Arabia is always a concern. The Saudis have had a really strong counterterrorism campaign in the last several years, and we’re seeing al Qaeda react to it.”
Saudi authorities said Prince Mohammed suffered minor injuries. Saudi television showed him Friday with a bandage around two of his fingers.
Visited by King Abdullah, Prince Mohammad vowed that the attack would only increase his determination to fight terrorism, the Associated Press reported.
The attempt on his life - the first major attack in Saudi Arabia since 2006 and the first targeting of a royal in decades - followed reports of an al Qaeda resurgence in the country, said Gregory Gause, a Saudi specialist at the University of Vermont.
“There have been some indications in the last couple of months that there is a new strategy among extremist elements to kill members of the ruling family,” Mr. Gause said. “Opposition Web sites have spoken of attempts on the royals. Al Qaeda has not been eliminated.”
“They’re back,” agreed Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran and former senior official on the White House National Security Council dealing with the Middle East and South Asia.
Mr. Riedel said the bombing “raises very disturbing questions” about Saudi claims of success in defeating al Qaeda through military action and sweeping arrests of nearly 1,000 people over the past few years.
On Aug. 19, the interior ministry said it arrested 44 militant suspects; in July, 330 al Qaeda members were convicted in a mass trial.
Saudi officials have expressed concern that militants have regrouped across the border in Yemen, where al Qaeda has long had a sanctuary.
“After three years of intense battles, the Saudis got the upper hand in 2007,” Mr. Riedel said. “Since then, al Qaeda has been rebuilding its Saudi infrastructure in Yemen, where operations are easier to prepare.” It remains unclear how a suicide bomber infiltrated the iftar.
Mr. Riedel compared the assassination attempt to a scenario that would have terrorists trying to kill CIA Director Leon E. Panetta.
Prince Mohammed “runs Saudi Arabia’s counterterror war,” Mr. Riedel said. “He is America’s most important liaison in the kingdom in the fight against al Qaeda.” The prince’s father is third in line in succession to King Abdullah, added Mr. Gause.
The attack coincided with the appearance of a new tape by al Qaeda second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri focusing on Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mr. Riedel said.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took responsibility for the attack on Prince Mohammed. The group, a merger between Saudi and Yemeni militants, is led by Naser Abdel-Karim al-Wahishi, a Yemeni who was once a close aide to al Qaeda founder and leader Osama bin Laden.