What to make of the attempted assassination on Saudi Arabia Prince Muhammed bin Nayef? Was it a good or bad sign for America? Is it a dying lunge or a sign that al-Qaeda is as ingenious, ruthless, and active as ever despite rumors of falling ranks? Did al-Qaeda poke a finger into the eye of Afghanistan and the “War on Terror,” or is the attack an illusion designed to make us think that way?
Assume first that al-Qaeda is on the decline, systematically destroyed in Iraq and hunted down in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Intelligence officials claim Osama bin Laden’s network has been disrupted to the point of him operating as a figure head who can’t step foot into sight. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula specifically claimed responsibility, and Saudi authorities believe the cell operates under a higher ideology but is tactically independent.
Al-Qaeda certainly hasn’t done itself any favors in Saudi Arabia. The mayhem of 2003 and 2004, when militants detonated bombs, instigated gun battles across the country, and stormed the United States Consulate in Jidda, is a thing of the past. The attacks were well planned but their magnitude backfired. Saudi Arabia launched a crackdown that arrested thousands of militants connected to al-Qaeda. The group sought refuge in Yemen, where the Saudi Arabia and Yemen outfits combined in January 2009.
At this point a weakened al-Qaeda would be highly annoyed by the talk of its demise. Action would be required, proof of its invincibility, that there will always be enough hardcore fighters to continue a low-intensity war. Time to show the world we’re alive, determination mixed with desperation. Saudi officials believe al-Qaeda, having been prevented from large-scale attacks, has switched tactics to assassination. Prince Muhammed is evidence of this theory and a possible sign that al-Qaeda is running out of options to fight its war.
Hussein Shobokshi, a columnist for the London-based Asharq Alawsat Arabic newspaper, said the attack, “has also created an incredible amount of sympathy for the government.” He said the response will be “strong, consistent and with enormous popular backing.” Sure enough, a lightly-wounded Prince Muhammed said from the hospital, “This will only increase our determination to eradicate this [militancy.]”
America must hope this scenario is the truth because the alternative poses numerous threats to President Obama’s strategy in the Middle East.
Whether thriving or struggling, al-Qaeda seems to have an unlimited supply of daring and novelty. As usual the attack was meticulously planned months in advance. The bomber played on Ramadan and Saudi Arabia’s policy of accepting repentant terrorists, and supposedly flew in on a royal jet. His acting skills were good enough to convince Prince Muhammed of his sincerity and bypass security. Apparently he wasn’t a good runner though; he tripped and detonated before he reached his target. Al-Qaeda will likely learn from the mistake.
And what happens when Saudi Arabia adjusts to al-Qaeda’s new tactics? The group will likely adjust as well - a terrorism evolutionary arms race. Al-Qaeda can also regroup in the right conditions.
Raise yet another flag in Yemen. Feared as a new haven for al-Qaeda, the reality is more advanced than a beginning stage. The Sa’dah insurgency that began in 2004 has acted as cover and distraction for al-Qaeda’s movements. Fighting numbers are supposedly low but it enjoys popular support, and Islamic Jihad of Yemen has already joined the umbrella; other groups could follow. Al-Qaeda was open of its infiltration methods, bragging that it evaded two security checkpoints en route to the target. Rumors even claim the Yemeni government deploys Islamic militants to attract international aid, an easily corruptible system.
Is America prepared to use military force in any country that allows refuge for al-Qaeda? Yemen could become the next nightmare given enough time.
The failed attempt on Prince Muhammed’s head was meant for the West in general. Whether legitimate or exaggerated, the message is one of diversity. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Iraq, Palestine, and Somalia aren’t part of the discussion. Occupy them and al-Qaeda will move to other conflicts. Victory in Afghanistan may not even stabilize Pakistan - it certainly won’t stabilize Yemen, persuade Israel to accept Palestinian demands, or quell Muslim tensions in Xinjiang. Al-Qaeda is taunting America that it can't be in all places at once.
An assassination attempt on a Saudi Arabian Prince by Yemen militants makes the “War on Terror” feel wider than ever. A nebulous al-Qaeda doesn’t seem to pose a lesser threat to global security, just a different type of threat. It's job was to launch the Jihad. Others are fighting the war now.