PRINCETON – Although Al-Qaeda’s leadership, beliefs, and ideology are rooted in Saudi Arabia, the organization has been all but crushed in the Kingdom by a government policy that combines a big carrot and an even bigger stick. The attempted assassination in Jeddah last month of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the deputy interior minister for security affairs, demonstrates both elements of the Saudi strategy, and how a bold attempt by Al-Qaeda to revive its fortunes has failed.
The bomber was Abdullah Asiri, a Saudi citizen and Al-Qaeda member who had returned from Yemen, claiming to have renounced terrorism and wishing to surrender directly to Prince Muhammad in his palace. Earlier that day, the prince had the bomber flown in on his private jet from the Yemeni-Saudi border and reportedly ordered that he not be carefully searched. Yet, Asiri had indeed hidden a bomb inside his body, a one-pound explosive that he detonated near the prince. However, the bomb was not encased in metal and the terrorist was the only person killed.
To an outsider, the episode looks like a colossal security failure, as if the head of the FBI personally greeted one of Bin Laden’s lieutenants at a garden party. But it is just this highly personalized form of politics that the Saudi royals have adopted with defecting Al-Qaeda’s members. Indeed, this policy, even with its risks, partly explains Al-Qaeda’s defeat in Saudi Arabia. Highly personalized politics form part of what might be called Saudi Arabia’s theatre of state, which keeps the royals firmly in power.
Since 2003, Prince Muhammad has been in charge of a successful campaign against violent Islamism in the Kingdom. In terms of armed security action, he has developed a strong domestic intelligence and police service that is both efficient and brutal in its tactics. At the same time, the prince has cannily used deeply rooted cultural and religions norms to pressure Al-Qaeda’s recruits to give up violence.
For example, he offers significant financial inducements to individual jihadis, as well as their families, in return for political obedience. In effect, by not accepting Saudi largesse the militant will be keeping food off his own family’s table – a powerful restraint in a culture and religion in which parents are highly regarded and respected.
Prince Muhammad has also established a rehabilitation program that seeks to de-program the jihadis from their radical beliefs through a course of study that teaches that Islam requires obedience to a Muslim ruler. Repentant jihadis are taught that violence undertaken by individuals – not by the legitimate ruler – is sinful and will be punished by God. These lessons do not rule out all violence, focusing instead on Al-Qaeda’s justifications for its attacks and the forms that the violence takes. As such, both fighting without the ruler’s explicit permission and suicide bombing are unlawful.
Entry into the program often involves a personal audience with the Saudi prince, in a ceremony that emphasizes the paternalistic and personal nature of governance in the Kingdom, where all subjects are regarded as well-cared-for children of the royals.
Finally, Prince Muhammad has launched an Internet monitoring and disinformation campaign that keeps close tabs on jihadi Web sites and online forums. As a result, the Saudi security services have a feel for the pulse of jihadi debates, as well as for the radicals’ recruitment strategies.
Al-Qaeda has also damaged itself with the Saudi public, which has been repeatedly victimized by terrorist attacks. Suicide bombings of public buildings and attacks on oil and other government installations have alienated many Saudis. With at least 80% of the population dependent on government salaries or grants, the attacks have proved very unpopular.
In addition, ordinary Saudis see the chaos next door in Iraq and do not want the same turmoil at home. For most people, stability, even if imposed by authoritarian means, trumps disorder.
In the last two years, Al-Qaeda’s increasing failures in the Kingdom have forced the surviving members to regroup across the border in Yemen. The rugged mountain terrain, a religiously conservative population, and a weak government with a history of collaboration with Al-Qaeda have created a relatively sheltered haven. As a result, Al-Qaeda has had a respite to try to rebuild itself and to organize attacks in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. With two ongoing domestic rebellions, a large population, and the rapid disappearance of oil and water resources, Yemen is quickly emerging as a Western policymaker’s nightmare.
For now, however, the Saudi royals have a prince who is seen as a courageous hero for having survived an assassination attempt while offering the hand of generosity to an unrepentant zealot. Saudi King Abdullah chastised Prince Muhammad for recklessness, but the King must also be thankful that his family has produced a security chief who has broken the back of Al-Qaeda, at least inside the Kingdom.