x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Al Qa'eda changes tactics in kingdom

Attempted murder of counter-terrorism chief underscores new threat posted by group's merger with comrades in Yemen.

WASHINGTON // An al Qa'eda suicide bomber's attempt last week to kill Saudi Arabia's top counter-terrorism official underscores the terrorist group's continuing menace to the kingdom, as well as the growing dangers of its safe haven in neighbouring Yemen, US analysts and officials said. Several of those interviewed said they were taken aback by the brazenness of the assassination attempt against Prince Muhammed bin Naif, the deputy interior minister, who was only slightly injured despite being in the same room as the bomber. Had it succeeded, the observers added, al Qa'eda would have inflicted a major psychological blow against the Saudi ruling family. "It was a very close call and Prince Muhammed is very lucky," said one government official who declined to be identified so he could speak candidly. It demonstrated, he added, "that these guys are not only hanging out in Yemen but they're actually plotting against" the Saudi ruling family. "It's a wake-up call for the serious threat, which continues." To successfully assassinate "such a symbolic figure as the chief of the counter-terrorism operation", said Michael C Dunn, editor of The Middle East Journal, "the shock would have been obvious". Juan Zarate, the former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism in the Bush administration, and now a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, called the attack "shocking". "What's surprising is not that they would target Prince Muhammed bin Naif, but the brazen and frontal assault and going after him personally in an open, public session with Saudi citizens. It's a bit more aggressive and brazen than I expected." In a belated response to the August 27 incident, the White House said in a statement on Tuesday that it "strongly condemns the cowardly attack". It called the prince "a courageous leader of Saudi Arabia's fight" against al Qa'eda and said the incident underlined the need for counter-terrorism co-operation among allies. A branch of al Qa'eda based in Yemen quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, the first known attempt by the terrorist group to kill a member of the Saudi ruling family. Prince Muhammed is the son of the interior minister, Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, who is among the top contenders to some day become king. The incident highlights growing concerns in Riyadh and Washington about instability in Yemen, which shares a long, rugged border with Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh is already contending with an insurgency in the north, growing anti-government sentiment in another part of the country, as well as a poverty-ridden economy. In January, remnants of crushed al Qa'eda networks in Saudi Arabia surfaced in Yemen declaring that they had merged with al Qa'eda militants in the country to form al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula. A leading member of the new group, Mohammed al Awfi, later surrendered to Saudi authorities and said in a televised confession in March that al Qa'eda is using Yemen as a base to plan attacks in Saudi Arabia. "One of the mistakes of Abdul Aziz al Muqrin was that he concentrated our force in Riyadh," Mr al Awfi said. "The new strategy is to have Yemen-based brigades, which would hit Saudi targets and run back to Yemen." A key question now, said US observers, is whether the assassination attempt was a lucky break for the terrorist group or signals a new capability for a resilient al Qa'eda. "I don't see a sign that this is a major new capability ? it doesn't strike me as innovative in terms of technique," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But it does heighten the need for better intelligence." Mr Alterman added that an "irony" of the prince's attempted murder is that it "highlights the vulnerability of his personal approach. In order to cut down on terrorism, people are treated with respect and as individuals. But the people treating them are at personal risk." Thomas Hegghammer, moderator of jihadica.com, a blog that monitors jihadi internet activity, elaborated on the prince's personal approach in a recent posting. Prince Muhammed is "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." Saudi dissident Ali al Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, said the attack signals a change in al Qa'eda tactics. "There was a gentleman's agreement that they would not target the royal family. But they believe the royal family has humiliated them," Mr al Ahmed said. "Now they are using a new tactic, targeting members of the royal family." Mr Hegghammer added in his blog that the incident indicates an "ideological turn to a more revolutionary direction" by al Qa'eda's Saudi affiliate. "Their campaign started off in 2003 focusing exclusively on western targets, but has gradually shifted to include more and more regime targets." @Email:cmurphy@thenational.ae