New evil in the making?
An attempt on the life of the Saudi deputy interior minister failed this week, while attracting concern because of the status of the target, writes Sherine Bahaa
Full-page advertisements, congratulatory cables and visits by high officials have all been a feature of Saudi life in the first week of Ramadan, in order to congratulate the country on the safety of its Security Chief and Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohamed bin Nayef.
Prince Mohamed, a royal family member, was in Jeddah at a gathering for Ramadan where ordinary people are invited to express their grievances when a suicide bomber, posing as a member of the public, blew himself up close to the prince. He escaped with only minor injuries.
Apart from the bomber, who was killed, no other serious casualties were reported.
Prince Mohamed is the son of long-time Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz, who is technically third in line to the Saudi throne. Prince Mohamed, who was educated in the US, also acts as deputy to his father.
On Sunday, the terrorist group Al-Qaeda identified the suicide bomber as Abdullah Al-Asiri, a suspect who entered Saudi Arabia from Yemen, and gave details of how he managed to get so close to the prince.
A statement posted on jihadist forums by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said that Al-Asiri had passed through checkpoints at Najran airport near the Yemeni border and at Jeddah airport.
He then boarded Prince Mohamed's jet with his explosives, according to the statement, which said he finally blew himself up amongst the prince's guards.
As Saudi security chief, Prince Mohamed is one of the most powerful men in the country and is credited with the Saudi government's success in crushing Al-Qaeda violence, helped by Western training.
Saudi Arabia issued a list of 85 wanted suspects that included Al-Asiri in February, and analysts said many of them were in Yemen, including some who had been returned to Saudi Arabia from the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, and some who had been through a much-vaunted Saudi militant "correction programme".
"The security efforts and strategy that the country is following will not change" as a result of the attack, Prince Nayef told businessmen at a gathering in Jeddah, defending the correction programme and efforts to win over the militants. "This incident will not change a policy by which we open the door for those who repent," he said.
Analysts, however, have expressed their concerns. The attack happened in Ramadan after a long day of fasting, and the bombing was the first assassination attempt against a member of the Saudi royal family in decades and the first significant attack by Al-Qaeda in the country since 2006.
"The attack indicates that the threat is out there waiting to happen, sometimes at closer range than you might think," said one Western diplomat, who declined to be named.
In 2003, militants launched a 20-month wave of violence across Saudi Arabia that included the bombing of foreigners' residential compounds in Riyadh, the shootings of Western citizens and the beheading of an American, and gun battles in Riyadh, Mecca and Buraida. There were also suicide attacks on Saudi government buildings and oil facilities, and the storming of the US consulate in Jeddah.
The Saudi Interior Ministry responded at the time with a crackdown that is estimated to have resulted in thousands of arrests.
According to Jamal A. Khashoggi, editor of Saudi Arabia's Al-Watan newspaper, this week's attack could be a sign of a new tactic for Al-Qaeda. Prevented by security operations from carrying out complex bombing attacks, the militants may have shifted to strategic assassinations of leaders to destabilise the Saudi state, he said.
"What I am afraid of is that Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia will be transformed into an assassins' group," Khashoggi said.
However, the attack has also raised Prince Mohamed's profile. Saudi newspapers have been publishing articles about the prince and his performance, with full page advertisements of thanks featuring the portraits of the king, crown prince, and Prince Mohamed.
"This attack adds to the credit of the Interior Ministry. It confirms the fact that Prince Mohamed bin Nayef has become the foe to beat for Al-Qaeda," said Khaled Al-Dakhil, a Saudi professor of political science.
Prince Mohamed has had mixed success in persuading clerics to discourage radical ideology in the country, according to some commentators, though he has been more successful than many of his peers.
According to one senior Arab diplomat, "the level of trust between Prince Mohamed and the clerics is unmatched elsewhere. He has repeatedly criticised them for not toning down the rhetoric that breeds radicalism, yet they have always been like honey on butter to him."
Whether the attack on Prince Mohamed represents a comeback attempt by Al-Qaeda, or whether it marks the beginning of a new series of attacks, is unknown for the moment.
However, as one Western diplomat put it this week, the secrecy of Saudi Arabia's political system means that there could be more surprises.