Al-Qaeda Attempt on Saudi Royal’s Life Signals Tactical and Strategic Changes

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 28

King Abdullah (L) with Prince Muhammad bin Nayif (above) and would-be suicide bomber Abdullah Hassan Tali Asiri (below)

Al-Qaeda’s recent attempt on the life of a Saudi royal suggests a change in tactics for an organization which has suffered substantial losses in the past few years. 23-year-old Abdullah Hassan Tali Asiri, a would-be suicide bomber listed on Saudi security’s list of most-wanted jihadis, called his target, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, beforehand to say he wanted to return from Yemen to surrender (Saudi Press Agency, August 31). Bin Nayif is the Deputy Minister of the Interior for Security Affairs and has been in charge of the Saudi counterterrorism campaign since clashes between authorities and Saudi jihadis began in 2003.

Asiri called the prince to say that he and some of his colleagues wanted to turn themselves in, as the prince is well-known for his support of efforts to rehabilitate former jihadis. Bin Nayif has previously coordinated with influential Saudi shaykhs, such as Safar al-Hawali, who helped arrange the surrender of a number of wanted Saudi jihadis.

Asiri is believed to have been recruited to al-Qaeda by his brother Ibrahim, who is known by the alias "Abu Saleh" and also appears on the most wanted list (Saudi Gazette, August 31). In the evening of August 27, Asiri detonated his explosives moments after he reached the prince’s residence, where the prince was receiving guests at the end of the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (a Saudi custom). Asiri was killed by the bomb but bin Nayef, sitting just a meter away, suffered only superficial injury. Al-Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack (al-Fajr Media Center, August 29). Saudi and other Arab media questioned how the assassin, who was supposedly searched four times before the detonation, managed to carry out the attack. Bin Nayif, who is known to have welcomed penitent militants into his home before, reportedly said afterwards that he had ordered his men not to search his would-be assassin in the belief that humaneness and magnanimity were key in reforming ex-terrorists (Al-Quds al-Arabi, September 2; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 31).

Asiri’s attack was significant for three reasons:

• It is the first known assassination attempt against a member of the royal family by Salafi-Jihadis

• It indicates the reactivation of al-Qaeda after two or three years of retreat since Saudi security cracked down on them.

• It indicates the increasing role of Yemen as a launch pad for attacks by jihadis against Saudi Arabia.

The attack suggested al-Qaeda may have re-examined the tactical work of Faris Ahmad Jamaan al-Shuwayl al-Zahrani (a.k.a. Abu Jandal al-Azdi), a Salafi-Jihadi ideologist who is currently imprisoned. Before his arrest in August 2004, al-Zahrani wrote a book entitled Tahrid al-Mujahideen al-Abtal A’al Ihiya’a Sunnat al-Ightyal (Inciting the Heroic Mujahideen to Revive the Practice of Assassination). [1] In his book al-Zahrani presents the jihadist understanding of the importance of assassination as a tactic, giving its definition, providing various means and methods, with the whole illustrated by accounts of the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, the 2001 assassination of Afghan mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Masud and many others. More significantly, al-Zahrani provides a discussion of the legitimacy and feasibility of using such tactics. Al-Zahrani lists those who should be targeted by the tactic; in addition to diplomats, military officers and security agents of foreign enemy countries, he urged jihadis to target the security and military apparatus of those Muslim countries where the government was regarded by Salafi-Jihadis as “tyrants” or “apostates.”

The incident, in light of the existence of such a theoretical rooting in al-Qaeda’s literature, demonstrates the continuity of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia despite its decline over the past few years. However, resorting to such a tactic also demonstrates the inability of al-Qaeda to implement attacks that require major logistical support, such as targeting residential compounds or oil facilities, as the movement has done in the past. Instead, it seems al-Qaeda will rely on its human resources to commit attacks which will reap major media coverage and work to destabilize the regime.

Besides the change at the tactical level, the assassination attempt is also linked to a shift in al-Qaeda’s regional strategy. "Expel the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula" was one of the founding slogans of al-Qaeda, and Saudi Arabia has made it an area of high importance ever since. With the decline in al-Qaeda’s ability to operate in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Saudi jihadis, like those from other countries, have started to search for new “safe havens.” Yemen appears to have been the destination of many Saudi jihadis.

From al-Qaeda’s perspective, Yemen’s proximity to Saudi Arabia has always made it an area of geopolitical importance and a base for mounting attacks against the Kingdom and other Gulf states. Since clashes between jihadis and Saudi authorities began in 2003, the latter have seized shipments of smuggled weapons to Saudi territory from Yemen several times and have signed agreements with Yemen to control the border. Recently, the potential for Yemen to serve as a base for jihadis is increasing due to the growing crisis in the Yemeni state, as marked by clashes with the Houthi rebels in the north, the revival of the separatist movement in the South, increased jihadi activity and existing socio-economic problems.

By using bases in Yemen, al-Qaeda might be able to mount high profile, low-cost assassinations to destabilize the regime and demonstrate that it is still a strong organization in Saudi Arabia, an essential part of invigorating its recruitment efforts.

1. Al-Zahrani’s book is available at: His other major work advocated the killing of members of the Saudi security forces; An Inquiry into the Ruling of Death upon Soldiers and Officers of the Security Forces.

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