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Saudi Arabia’s ambitious al-Qaida fighter

He is the unknown general in the war on terrorism, a man who some European and American officials are now  calling the leader of one of the most effective counterterrorism operation in the world. He is Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the man in charge of the Saudi counterterrorism campaign, who some say would like to be king.

He is the unknown general in the war on terrorism, a man who some European and American officials are now — surprisingly — calling the leader of one of the most, if not the most, effective counterterrorism operation in the world, and a man who could use the success he has achieved fighting al-Qaida to become his country’s leader.

He is Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the man in charge of the Saudi counterterrorism campaign, who some say would like to be king.  His official title, which he has held for five years, is deputy minister of the interior for security affairs. But his portfolio and ambitions are bigger than that. He is not likely to be considered for the top job anytime soon, but there is little doubt he has increased both his visibility and reputation for competence.

Although rarely interviewed or seen by Western media, he is an emerging hero in the Saudis’ state-controlled media, a man who is seen as protecting the nation as well as the House of Saud — and who is not shy about taking credit.

In many ways, he represents the conflicts inherent in trying to thwart terrorism at home while not going far enough to discourage it elsewhere. 

In interviews with U.S., Spanish, British and French counterterrorism officials, Prince bin Nayef comes away with almost universally high grades.

But, say those same officials, the Saudis are much more effective in countering terrorism inside Saudi Arabia than stopping it from happening outside the country.

“How much do they care about what is going on outside the country is the question,” said one former U.S. intelligence official.

Cleaning up the counterterrorism operation
Bin Nayef is regarded by senior U.S. counterterrorism officials as part of the “new breed” of Saudi officials, one who they see several times a year and trust and who they believe has cleaned up the Saudi equivalent of the FBI, long suspected of incompetence as well as disloyalty.  Among those he has met with are National Security Council counterterrorism director Fran Townsend, FBI Director Robert Mueller and State Department counterterrorism director Cofer Black.

“The Saudi anti-terrorism program is the best in the world right now,” says Baltasar Garzon, the Spanish counterterrorism prosecutor who met with Prince Nayef in Riyadh in December.  What impressed Garzon was Prince Nayef’s willingness to sweep aside impediments to greater cooperation within the Saudi government.

Initially, Islamic lawyers at the Saudi Ministry of Justice told him they could not establish such relations because Spain was not an Islamic country. Then bin Nayef intervened.  Bin Nayef told him that he would make certain a relationship was established.  Bin Nayef told Garzon that he wanted relations not just with U.S. and U.K. counterterrorist operations but with Europeans as well.

“He told me not to worry about that,” said Garzon, and indeed, the relationship was established and is working, with the two countries sharing information on counterterrorism.

“Saudi Arabia, I must say, it appears to be impressive what they're doing — yes,” said Jean Louis Bruggiere, Garzon’s counterpart in France.

‘He gets it’
“He gets it,” says an equally high-ranking U.S. official, noting that unlike his predecessors in the job — and unlike his boss and father, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz — he is amenable to U.S. requests for help and cooperation. And in turn, the United States has been willing to help him with technical intelligence, knowing the Saudis are not as strong in that area.

“He is a modern man who believes to confront terrorism the kingdom must take steps beyond security measures and that he uses his influence as counter terrorism czar to lobby for reform across a broader spectrum,” said a Western diplomat in Riyadh.

“Although not in charge of education reform, he can influence it, for example, because of who he is in the royal family.  He sees himself not merely a security official, but a critical force in reform,” the diplomat said.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is a frequent guest of the prince and speaks highly not just of him, but of the entire Saudi counterterrorism effort.

“The bad news is that this is a chronic and serious problem. It's going to take years to solve, and I think the Saudi authorities will be the first to recognize that,” said Cowper-Coles, who has been in Saudi Arabia since 2003.  “But the good news is they've conducted a really pretty effective counterterrorist campaign. They've disrupted the al-Qaida network here. They've taken it down, and the terrorists are on the back foot.”

Since late 2003, Saudi forces working under bin Nayef have drawn up two wanted lists — the first with 19 names and the second with 26 more.  All of those on the first list have been killed or captured, and all but three on the second list have met the same fate.   Most have been killed.

Exporting terrorists
The United States, however, is also concerned with the larger issue of Saudi fundamentalists forming the backbone of several radical Islamist movements in Iraq and elsewhere. One U.S. official said, “They will take you to the border with Iraq and tell you how great the security is.  It isn’t”

As they did in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Saudis now represent a majority of suicide bombers in Iraq.  In fact, an NBC News analysis of online obituaries shows that as many as 55 percent of all suicide bombers in Iraq have been Saudi, and one U.S. official described Saudi Arabia as the worst case of “bleed back” — Muslim anger at U.S. actions in Iraq — in the world. 

A Saudi intelligence official said the Saudis are using public information campaigns to turn the public against terrorism in general but admitted a deeper cultural problem: “We encouraged our young men to fight for Islam in Afghanistan. We encouraged our young men to fight for Islam in Bosnia and Chechnya. We encouraged our young men to fight for Islam in Palestine. Now we are telling them you are forbidden to fight for Islam in Iraq, and they are confused.” 

The Saudi government has yet to take bolder steps, like stopping radical clerics from going on state-owned television and calling for Saudis to travel to Iraq to “slit the throats of the occupiers.”

This disparity is, according to some U.S. officials, reflected in the differences between bin Nayef, the “modern man” and his father and boss.

The key to his success is that bin Nayef is well connected, permitting him access to the highest councils of the kingdom.  In his early 50s, bin Nayef  is the son of the Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the brother of Saudi’s ambassador to Spain and the nephew of both Saudi King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah.   Nayef has the added advantage of being a full brother of the king, unlike the crown prince.

But the father also has, as one intelligence official described it, “baggage”.

Nayef, 72, is seen by many in the U.S. government as anti-American and not as anti-radical as the United States would like, although Osama bin Laden singled him out along with the king and Defense Minister Sultan as “the source of the disease” in Saudi Arabia.

Nayef was one of the Saudi ministers who initially suggested that the 9/11 attacks were not conceived in Saudi Arabia or Islam but hinted darkly that bin Laden was “a tool” of others because the Saudi hijackers did not seem to have “the capability to act in such a professional way.” The suggestion was that Saudi Arabia was not responsible.  He also ran the Saudi Committee for Support of the Al-Quds Intifada, which has distributed tens of millions of dollars to Palestinians, including payments to the families of “martyrs,” i.e. suicide bombers, as well as those whose homes have been destroyed by the Israeli military. Nayef is also general supervisor of the Joint Saudi Committee for the Relief of Kosovo and Chechnya.

The question now is how far can bin Nayef go in pushing reform when faced with such opinions even within his own family.  Countering terrorism has given him a chance to burnish his image, but royal reformers are rarely rewarded and often shunned.

So far, so good.  After years of being seen as a virtual non-entity in the Saudi royal family — or worse, seen as just another corrupt prince — bin Nayef  has become a rising star in the House of Saud.

Simon Henderson, the Financial Times reporter who tracks the ups and downs of the Saudi royals, dismissed him in his 1994 book, “After King Fahd,” as “not considered significant in the leadership stakes.”  But in a piece for the Washington Institute in December, Henderson described bin Nayef as one of a handful of “prominent” princes “in their 50s or 60s and with considerable administrative experience.”

“I think he wants to be king,” said one senior Western counterterrorism official who has met bin Nayef, with only the hint of a smile on his face. “He is campaigning for it.”

Managing the media
Bin Nayef has become media savvy, establishing himself as the face of the Saudi war on terror. He has been shown exhibiting an openness uncommon among the leaders of the older generation of royals.  He has been seen on Saudi TV meeting with the wounded from his security service as well as families of  “martyrs,” Interior Ministry troops who have been killed in shootouts with bin Laden’s operatives. More significant, he has gone personally to Saudi universities to meet with young al-Qaida sympathizers.

His most public appearance came when the then-top figure in al-Qaida, Ali Al-Ghamdi, surrendered to him personally in June 2003.  Most recently, he gave the keynote address at the Saudis’ Counter-Terrorism International Conference in February, getting top officials from around the world, including Townsend, to fly to Riyadh for the event.

He has pushed hard the cultural campaign that terrorism hurts everyone and even provided the foreign media with interviews and video news releases on successes in the hunt for al-Qaida.  The city of Riyadh is filled with billboards and electronic banners exhorting the public to call in tips and rally against terrorists.

But he is smart enough to show himself as well in situations where he is criticizing Americans.  For example, he has met with families of those Saudis who are being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  And in each case where a Saudi has been placed on the most wanted list, there has  been an offer of amnesty for those who give themselves up and submit to what in other countries would be called re-education.

“We have succeeded actually in convincing a lot of them that what they were doing is wrong,” said Lt. Gen. Mansour al Turki, bin Nayef’s spokesman.

Bin Nayef, himself was not always seen as someone who understood the threat.  Prior to the May 2003 attacks on a U.S. residential compound, U.S. officials had warned his office that attacks were planned and could happen at any time.  Bin Nayef, said U.S. officials, did not take the threat or the intelligence seriously and was criticized when the attack took place for not beefing up security.

Some in the United States also fear that with the successes coming so easily in the last two years, the Saudis will become complacent. One example: The Saudis initially decided there will not be a third most wanted list.  

But the ministry disputed the need for one.

“The only people left from the first list are not operators, but ideologues,” said al Turki, bin Nayef’s spokesman.  “There will be no new most wanted list.  The police do not want the terrorists now to know who they are pursuing. They are less known.”

Then at the end of June, they reversed themselves and put out a new list of 36 most wanted.  More importantly, the list contained the names of 29 Saudis, three Chadians, a Moroccan, a Kuwaiti, a Yemeni and a Mauritanian, indicating an expansion of Saudi interests. 

Forcing terrorists to change tactics
U.S. and other Western intelligence officials understand that the Saudis have improved on their own capabilities, forcing the terrorists to react in different ways.  Crime scene coverage is one area where the ministry has picked up the pace, turning its forensic labs into 24/7 operations, ordering mobile crime labs for dispatch to the scene and filling the labs outside Riyadh with the most modern equipment.  It has paid off.

“The terrorists are operating more and more at the periphery of cities, permitting them to quickly move into the desert,” said one Saudi official.

“They have taken countermeasures,” adds a Western diplomat. “Now, the terrorists have taken to communicating through short ‘burst’ mobile phone calls while traveling at high speeds on the ring road around Riyadh, having been shut off from easier communications.

But everyone admits Saudi Arabia is in a race, between the reformers’ best wishes and the terrorists’ worst. The question is whether bin Nayef can speed up one while slowing the other.

“It's rather like dealing with cancer,” said Cowper-Coles.  You need tough action to cut out the tumor itself.  But you also need therapies to address the causes of the cancer and to prevent it recurring.  And the Saudi authorities, to their great credit, will be the first to acknowledge that.”