Attack on Saudi royal highlights terror risks

Saudi Arabia tries to play down the attempted assassination of Prince Mohammed bin Naif.

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JEDDAH // Saudi Arabia tried yesterday to play down the attempted assassination of a key figure in the country's war on terror, saying there was no lapse of security, but warned there was still concern in the kingdom about a sleeper cell of militants. The attack on Prince Mohammed bin Naif on Thursday night, in which a suicide bomber blew himself up next to the security chief, was the first assassination attempt against a member of the royal family in decades and was also the first significant attack by militants in the kingdom since 2006.

But Major Gen Mansour al Turki, the spokesman for the interior ministry, said the bomber did not breach the security around Prince Mohammed, who is also the son of the man thought likely to be the next crown prince. "It was the prince who allowed the militant to enter his palace and gave orders not to search him," Major Gen al Turki said. Prince Mohammed, the deputy interior minister, was only slightly injured in the attack that took place at his palace in Jeddah by a militant who had told the prince he wanted to turn himself in as he was on the list of most wanted men in the country.

"The situation is dangerous; however, it is under control. The militants have been targeting key people in the country including top officials and leading scholars, but we stopped many of their plots," Major Gen al Turki said. The official said there was no need for the government to increase its security measures and that it would continue its war against terror with the same pace. "What happened was exceptional and it would have never happened if the prince didn't allow that man to enter without a security check," Major Gen al Turki said.

King Abdullah visited Price Mohammed in hospital yesterday and state television showed him with a bandage around two fingers of his left hand. "I did not want him to be searched, but he surprised me by blowing himself up," said Prince Mohammed. "However, this will only increase my determination" to fight terrorism in the kingdom, he said. It is customary for senior members of the royal family to hold regular open gatherings during Ramadan where citizens can air grievances, seek settlement of financial or other disputes or offer congratulations.

Samir al Saadi, a Saudi journalist and researcher on terrorism, said it would have been difficult for the bomber to launch an attack if it was not for the openness of Prince Mohammed. "Prince Mohammed is very tolerant with terrorists. He met many of them personally to bring them closer to the government as he believes that many of them went astray at some point and can go back to being normal people," he said.

No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but al Qa'eda is believed to have been behind almost all attacks in the kingdom since 2003. The country is the birthplace of the al Qa'eda leader, Osama bin Laden, and was home to 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers. Major Gen al Turki refused to give any details about the militant who blew himself up, saying that an investigation was still on going and revealing his identity might jeopardise the country's crackdown on militants.

"There is a sleeper cell of terrorists in the country but I can't link the militant to the cell at the moment," he said. Saudi Arabia has waged a fierce battle against al Qa'eda militants in the country that has succeeded in killing or capturing most of its leaders. Last month, Saudi officials said a criminal court had convicted and sentenced 330 al Qa'eda militants to jail terms, fines and travel bans in the country's first known trials for suspected members of the terror group.

The 330 are believed to be among the 991 suspected militants that the interior minister has said have been charged with participating in terrorist attacks over the past five years. Since then, al Qa'eda's Saudi branch has largely moved its operations to neighbouring Yemen, where instability and poverty have enabled it to take root. Saudi officials have repeatedly expressed concerns that turmoil in Yemen, where the government lacks control of large areas outside the capital, could allow al Qa'eda to carry out cross-border attacks in its territory.

Al Qa'eda militants, including fighters returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, have established sanctuaries in Yemen, particularly in three provinces bordering Saudi Arabia known as the "triangle of evil" because of the heavy militant presence. In January, militants announced the creation of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, a merger between the terror network's Yemeni and Saudi branches, led by Naser Abdel-Karim al Wahishi, a Yemeni who was once a close aide to bin Laden. * With additional reporting by Associated Press