A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Sunday, August 30, 2009

More on Muhammad bin Nayef: Questions about the Details

I don't normally post Sundays but the Muhammad bin Nayef story continues to be the center of Saudi attention, and as I've already discussed with a commenter on a previous post, there are some curious aspects to the story as told so far.

Official reports don't seem completely consistent so far; perhaps this is just the natural confusion of reporting on an unanticipated event (remember the wild reports on 9/11). As a commenter who knows the Gulf well noted in a previous post, reports have said that the suicide bomber detonated himself only a meter from the Prince, yet the Prince suffered only minor injuries to his left hand, and there were no other casualties except the bomber, supposedly blown to bits. The photo of the Prince meeting with the King in the hospital afterwards (above left) has only one visible sign of injury: the middle finger of his left hand is bandaged and there's a splint or something similar showing. A picture today, greeting Pakistan's Interior Minister, shows the same: just a big bandage on the middle finger of the left hand. (Second photo.)

Several reports in Arabic have said the bomb went off during taftish, "inspection," presumably a security checkpoint. Is security only a meter away from the Prince, or is the one-meter story attempting to make the attempt sound like it got closer than it did? What kind of explosion can tear the bomber's body apart (according to some reports) but only injure the middle finger of a man a meter away? Some reports have said that the bomb was triggered by a cell phone call; one suggested it might have even been hidden inside the bomber's body. Still, it's hard to picture the geography of all this. If it was a security checkpoint, why were no security men injured, or were they and this has been suppressed? (As far as I've seen, the only casualties are supposed to be the bomber and the Prince's middle finger.) Now, if the man was not armed with a suicide vest or triggered by a cell phone call but was, say, carrying a simple hand grenade, this might be more credible, if his clothing somehow provided containment for the blast (though in Jidda in August I doubt he was wearing a leather coat or anything similar that might impede the shrapnel). Another report says he was "seated to the left" of the Prince, which doesn't seem fully consistent with the other accounts.

The narrative is gradually filling out. Since many readers don't read Arabic this Saudi Gazette article today is a good summary. Note that Yemen is implicated; the bomber (still unnamed) and his brother are among the most wanted men in the Kingdom; he entered from Yemen (from Ma'rib in southern Yemen, an area until recently claimed by Saudi Arabia), and despite his coming in from southern Yemen the article manages to bring in the Houthi campaign in northern Yemen as well. I found this odd:
[The] attack raises concerns that Yemen’s instability could allow Al-Qaeda to carry out cross-border attacks. The Yemeni army is on a near three-week-long offensive on strongholds of Zaidi rebels, also known as Huthis, in lawless swathes around Saada city in the Mareb region.
Sa‘da and Ma'rib, assuming that's what "Mareb" refers to, aren't anywhere near each other.

So the story is still emerging. I'm not sure when we'll have a clear narrative (if we ever do), but it's quite clear that the Saudis are going to use this to further their campaign against terrorism and to evoke popular sympathy and outrage.


LJ Marczak said...

Western news media and even some Arabic sources are repeating a SITE Intelligence account of a AQAP press release naming the attacker as
Abdullah Hassan Taleh al-Asiri.

Another site posts what it purports to be the Arabic text of AQAP's press statement.
(Warning: This site appears to have pro-jihadi material).

In that site he is Asiri, not al-Asiri.

The AQAP statement implies that Asiri was ferried from Najran to Jeddah on the Prince's private aircraft.

LJ Marczak said...

In reading the purported AQAP press release more, several points caught my eye.

The first is in the last paragraph where AQAP warns the "Satans" that "your fortresses will not prevent us from coming to you" "we will scale their walls and come to you in the near term in ways you cannot calculate". With a final taunt to "take your security precautions if you are able, but we don't think you are".

There's been speculation that since Saudi efforts have been largely successful in rolling up a large number of AQAP foot soldiers in the Kingdom, the Group's operational capabilities are diminished.

That is the reason ascribed by some to the "merger" between the Yemeni and Saudi AQAPs into a single organization.

The attempt and the statement suggest that perhaps AQAP is changing its tactics to narrower field to match its diminished cadre- targeted assassinations of the Saudi leadership.

The second was an indirect warning to the Yemeni authorities that AQAP had identified the network of spies and agents of Prince Nayef working in Yemen and would soon inform the Yemeni Govt. Perhaps a suggestion that Saudi anti-terrorism efforts in Yemen are causing some pain.

The last is the taunt that the Saudi authorities will never be able to determine the true nature of the explosive device used against the Prince or how it was detonated.

Clearly, press releases are an integral part of the terror campaign -- and much of what is threatened may be empty talk design to sow fear, divert resources and attention from other targets, and to rally the morale of the remaining troops.

LJ Marczak said...

Assuming that the attacker has been identified properly as Asiri, there is a picture of him in Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat


For those who don't read Arabic, he's in the third row third position from the left. To the right of the question mark. His brother Ibrahim is in the first row 7 positions from the left.

Another tidbit from this article is the statement that during the last two weeks (prior to the roll up by the Saudis of 44 jihadis) that General Ali Al-Anisi head of the Yemeni National Security Organization had paid two visits to Saudi meeting with Prince Muhammad. And this may relate to the threat in AQAP's press release about the network of Saudi spies in Yemen.

The article ends with some speculation about the involvement of other AQAP personnel in the attack from among the 23 Saudis in Yemen. Ahmad Qatim Muhammad Ad-Da'iy Al-Hathali (largest picture on the right) who would appear not to be one of the 23 is mentioned as a possible suspect.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Thanks, Larry, for all your comments while I was out enjoying my daughter's last day of summer vacation before fourth grade. As it happens, Gary Sick picked up this whole post and posted it to the Gulf 2000 newsgroup, so it will get a lot of attention in the Gulf. I hope that's good, not bad.

LJ Marczak said...

Thanks. Sounds like an excellent and the most appropriate way to spend the day.


Saudi Gazette has a bit of background on Asiri including an interview with his father.


BTW Today is the 31st anniversary of the disappearance of Imam Musa As-Sadr.

LJ Marczak said...

An article in today's Ar-Riyadh appears to answer the questions we had about the explosion's apparently limited effects.


Since not all your readers "have" Arabic, here's a hasty summary translation.

The attacker is said to have hidden the explosive device in a "sensitive part of his body" later identified in the article as his "fatiha ash-sharaj".

He was subjected to "taftish" - though described as "routine" - not sufficiently detailed to find the explosives.

After "taftish" he was ushered to a room adjacent to the Prince's office. The Prince went to the door to greet him and motioned for him to enter his office and to sit down on a couch. Then the Prince sat on a second couch to the right of Asiri. Some 1.5 to 2 meters away. At this point the Prince's phone rang, he started talking and the bomb went off. Whether the two events are directly connected is not stated.

The Prince suffered two minor wounds to his hand and below his eyes.

Eyewitnesses are said to describe the scene as Asiri's blood and body parts scattered over all of the room except for where the Prince was sitting.

It seems from this account that the Prince may have been in a private audience with Asiri, which would explain why no security personnel were reported injured. And why no other well wishers/visitors were injured.

As to the Prince's escape with minor injuries, it seems to me that if the explosive device were located as described on his body and Asiri were sitting on a couch (perhaps, an overstuffed majlis couch), both his body and the couch would have absorbed a great deal of the blast.

The Saudi explosive expert is quoted as saying that the Prince’s escape was a miracle. Clearly, such a statement has significant propaganda value as it undercuts AQAP's rationale. As justification, he noted the extreme nearness of the Prince to the explosion and the fact that the charge was apparently directional - described as 'amudy.

I think this term usually means vertical which is puzzling as it seems to fit my theory about Asiri's body and the couch absorbing a lot of the blast – though I’m no explosive expert.

Maybe you or one of your readers have some comments on this.

For those with an interest there is an extended exposition at the end of the article by two Egyptian security agency experts on the use of the sharaj for concealment, likely explosive materials and techniques used as well as physiological considerations.

Both experts state that if the initial conclusions about the explosive device are correct, AQAP has made a rather significant technical advance.

While perhaps not the final word, this report does offer plausible explanations for some of our questions.