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The Forest for the Trees (Updated)

In recent days there has been a series – does three equal a spate? – of articles on the attempted assassination of Muhammad bin Nayif, which I have written about and blogged about (some would say to an unhealthy extent) earlier. But instead of focusing on what the attack means the articles are focusing on the tactics of the attack, suggesting that a similar attack on a plane could have devastating results. That may be true, and as a nervous flier I am glad someone is paying attention to that aspect, but I don’t think the tactics of the attempt is as important as what the attack means.

The first piece from NPR’s May Louise Kelly, uses the recent talk by Richard Barrett, the coordinator of the UN’s al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Monitoring Team at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy as the basis for much of her reporting. (Incidentally, I think Barrett’s paraphrase of the conversation between ‘Asiri and Muhammad b. Nayif is a bit off – ‘Asiri spent a lot of time talking about deputy commander al-Shihri’s wife and children as well as some individuals that wanted a direct assurance from Muhammad – it is a small but, I think, not insignificant difference.)

Also in the piece Adam Raisman of the SITE Intelligence Group claims that even though the attack did not succeed in killing Muhammad it was still “a victory” for AQAP. I don’t think this is true. Certainly, AQAP has been treating it as a victory, but one can’t really expect much different from the organization, yes? That is taking the group’s propaganda at a face value that even I can’t accept.

This exact type of attack will be nearly impossible to replicate. As I pointed out in my piece in the National on the attack, AQAP essentially used one of Muhammad b. Nayif’s successes against him. It used the same play that Muhammad utilized to convince Muhammad al-‘Awfi, the former Guantanamo detainee and commander of AQAP, to turn himself in. The attack was ingenious, but it is a one-off affair, and it is unlikely that AQAP can replicate it. It had one chance to eliminate its biggest nemesis and it missed. Undoubtedly the group will try again, since if Muhammad bin Nayif goes Saudis al-Qaeda policy would change drastically, but it will have to find a different way. In short, AQAP had one shot and it missed. A victory it is not.

This brings us to today’s article in the Washington Post from Sudarsan Raghavan, who also spends some time talking about Muhammad bin Nayif’s counterterrorism policies, describing them at one point as a “soft approach.” I would be wary of describing them as such. Certainly Muhammad uses a soft approach when it produces results, but he also uses a very hard approach that includes a number of tactics that would likely make US officials – elected officials, that is – squirm if they knew too much about them. Putting the pressure – this is the polite phrase for it – on the women of a jihadi’s family has produced results, such as with the al-‘Awfi case. But this is a double-edged sword and, at least in my opinion, AQAP has used these “hard approaches” to great rhetorical benefit in its propaganda videos.

Interestingly, Raghavan also quotes Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki as saying that al-‘Awfi is now free and living with his family in Riyadh (the reward for a poorly stage-managed confession?). Al-Turki also claims that Muhammad gave his assurance that whoever turned themselves in would be treated like al-‘Awfi was. This is not true. In the tape of the conversations released by AQAP, Muhammad clearly states that he can give no such assurance, but each case will be decided on its merits and it will depend if the militant has blood on his hands, and if so he is subject to the law.

The final of the three articles is this one from Reuters’ Ulf Laessing, who quotes my recent report in the CTC Sentinel and spends time talking about Saudi’s faith in its wall, which I don’t share (no surprise there). He also quotes Theodore Karasik of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, as saying “al-Qaeda will probably try to find a way around it.” Truer words were never spoken. (Apologies for the sarcasm.)

Laessing also brings up the absence of Sultan from Saudi Arabia as his health continues to fail and what this means for Yemeni-Saudi relations. This is an intriguing and important point. Even a few years ago, I would have agreed that Sultan was integral to getting things done in Yemen, but I don’t think that has been the case in the last couple of years and even before it was unclear – at least to me – what kind of a return Sultan and Saudi Arabia was getting on its money in Yemen. Muhammad bin Nayif, as AQAP constantly points out, has been very active on the al-Qaeda front.

But it is unclear who, if anyone, is steering Saudi’s Yemen policy. There are a lot of people directing different aspects of the portfolio but no one person, at least to the best of my knowledge that has control of the special council.

Update: I have changed the name of Saudi Arabia’s spokesmen for the Min. of the Interior. I mistakenly followed the Washington Post’s reporting, which had his name as Turki al-Mansur. But thanks to Thomas I have now corrected it to Mansur al-Turki. Waq al-waq apologizes for the error.


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