Treating Al-Qaeda

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.