The big idea The attack on a Saudi prince has its roots in Yemen, Gregory D Johnsen writes, where al Qa'eda fighters have found safe haven among the chaos.
The attack on a Saudi prince has its roots in Yemen, Gregory D Johnsen writes, where al Qa'eda fighters have found safe haven among the chaos. The group that now calls itself al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, which failed in its attempt to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Naif in Jeddah last week, was trying to achieve two goals at once - first, to eliminate a particularly aggressive adversary, and second, to demonstrate by doing so that they can strike at will across the region. Mohammed, Saudi Arabia's Deputy Interior Minister, is widely considered the man most responsible for the successful counter-terrorism campaign inside the Kingdom that began around 2003, which effectively destroyed much of al Qa'eda's infrastructure within the country.
But absolute victory has proven elusive. Just as Mohammed was making the switch from a mostly armed and active campaign against al Qa'eda to a largely preventative one, a handful of escaped prisoners in Yemen were laying the foundation for the organisation that would ultimately launch the attack on his life. The failed attack nevertheless indicates that al Qa'eda forces, using Yemen as a base, have regrouped and once again pose a security threat across the Arabian Peninsula.
The attackers took advantage of one of Prince Mohammed's recent successes as they plotted the assassination. Not long after the Saudi and Yemeni al Qa'eda affiliates had joined into a single, unified organisation in January, Mohammed was able to convince one of the new group's leaders to turn himself into Saudi authorities. So last week, al Qa'eda dispatched Abdullah Asiri, a 23-year-old on the Saudi most-wanted list, who said he wanted to abandon jihad and turn himself in to the prince. Asiri crossed the border from Yemen to Najran, where he boarded the prince's private plane to Jeddah. When he arrived, he was taken to a private meeting with Mohammed, apparently concealing the bomb in his rectum. (Accounts of the attack have varied widely.) Early in his conversation the bomb was detonated, reportedly by a cell phone, narrowly missing the prince, who suffered only minor injuries.
The seeds of this audacious attack on Mohammed bin Naif were sown in Yemen more than three years ago, when 23 al Qa'eda suspects escaped from a prison in Sanaa in February 2006. Among the escapees were Nasir al Wahayshi and Qasim al Raymi, both of whom graduated from religious institutes in Yemen before travelling to Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Al Wahayshi worked his way up al Qa'eda's ranks, eventually becoming a personal assistant to Osama bin Laden. He was with bin Laden on September 11 and fought at Tora Bora before escaping over the border into Iran, where he was later arrested and extradited to Yemen.
The two men worked hard to resurrect and reorganise al Qa'eda in Yemen, which had fallen into disarray. Immediately after September 11, the Yemeni government had partnered with the US against al Qa'eda, and by November 2003 the domestic terrorist threat had largely been eliminated. The CIA assassinated the head of al Qa'eda in Yemen, Abu Ali al Harithi, in November 2002 with one of the very first drone strikes; one year later government forces arrested his replacement on the streets of Sana'a.
By the time al Wahayshi and al Raymi tunnelled out of prison in 2006, al Qa'eda as an organisation had ceased to exist in Yemen. Lapsed vigilance by both the United States and Yemen allowed them to rebuild. The country was occupied and distracted by a civil war in the north as well as threats of secession from the south, while the United States focused its attention on democratic reforms and anti-corruption as part of the Bush administration's desire to mould a new Middle East in its own image. Both countries treated the prison break more like an aberration than the opening volley of a new war.
But within months of the escape, al Qa'eda was able to attempt simultaneous suicide attacks on oil and gas facilities in Marib and Hadramawt. This early and haphazard attempt was soon eclipsed by more professional operations. In March 2007, the chief criminal investigator was assassinated in Marib. The attack, which was later claimed by al Qa'eda, was an early indication that the organisation was eager to settle old scores. The investigator, al Qa'eda claimed, was complicit in the 2002 assassination of their leader, al Harithi. Later assassinations, also justified on the same grounds, illustrate that despite the passing of years and the turnover of individuals, al Qa'eda in Yemen had a lengthy institutional memory. The attack on Mohammed bin Naif is an extension of the same policy: as the group has begun to fashion itself a regional organisation, so too has it expanded its rationale of revenge to keep pace with its growing ambitions.
In June 2007, following the Marib assassination, al Qa'eda officially announced its re-emergence in Yemen in two separate statements put out by Qasim al Raymi. The first was directed at the old guard of al Qa'eda: it warned them that negotiating with the Yemeni government was tantamount to a treasonous alliance with tyrants. The second was an ultimatum directed at the government of Yemen: it made four demands and threatened to target the state unless they were met.
This sort of rhetorical overreach has become a hallmark of both al Qa'eda in Yemen and, since its formation this January, of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula. But on several occasions, the group has announced apparently outsized ambitions, and then backed up their rhetoric with equally deadly action. In June 2007, for example, days after issuing a threat to the Yemeni government, the group followed through with a suicide attack on a convoy of Spanish tourists. Since then the organisation has only grown stronger; both al Wahayshi and al Raymi seem to have learnt a great deal from the organisation's early failures in Yemen and they have been quite successful at avoiding the mistakes of their predecessors.
Following the attack on the Spanish tourists, al Qa'eda in Yemen fell silent for much of the rest of 2007 - but were hardly inactive during that time. In retrospect, it appears clear that after its rather spectacular re-emergence the group was working to establish a solid foundation and base for future attacks in the country. In January 2008 it released the first issue of its bimonthly journal, Sada al Malahim - "The Echo of Battles" - which it again followed with an attack, this time on a convoy of Belgian tourists, killing two. It was merely the opening salvo of a series of strikes that took place throughout the spring and summer of 2008, culminating in an assault on the US Embassy in September 2008.
Since then the organisation has largely been quiet - but behind the scenes much has evidently taken place: the jihadists have been reorgansing and planning. The continuing deterioration of the security situation in Yemen has been a boon to al Qa'eda: by the summer of 2008, it was clear that the Saudi crackdown was forcing would-be jihadis out of the Kingdom and into Yemen - more Saudi bylines and more sophisticated scholarship began to appear in the al Qa'eda in Yemen journal, Sada al Malahim - but they found a safe haven once they crossed the border.
This process was consecrated by the formal "merger" announced in January between the Saudi and Yemeni groups. In a video released at the time, al Wahayshi and al Raymi appeared on screen with two Saudis who had been released from Guantanamo, indicating the formation of a new regional franchise - headquarted in Yemen but eager to strike in Saudi and beyond. The attack on Mohammed bin Naif is only the latest indication that the newly merged group is quite serious about exerting force across the region, just as they have promised.
Now that al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula has demonstrated the capacity to plan, develop and launch attacks from its base in Yemen, there is every reason to believe that the organisation will continue to pick its targets across the region. And as long as the Yemeni government remains preoccupied with other crises that it deems more pressing - and fails to exert sustained pressure on al Qa'eda - the group will continue to plan, and execute, attacks across the region.
Gregory D Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is currently a PhD candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, and one of the authors of Waq al Waq, a blog devoted to Yemen.