Cablegate: Saudis Condemn Assassination Attempt, Rally Behind

DE RUEHRH #1121/01 2430443
P 310443Z AUG 09

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 RIYADH 001121


E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/29/2019


Classified By: CDA Ambassador Richard Erdman for reasons 1.4(b) and (d)


1. (C) In the aftermath of the failed assassination attempt
targeting Assistant Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin
Naif (MbN) (ref A), King Abdullah and other officials
responded swiftly and decisively to reassure the public that
the Prince was well, and reaffirm the Kingdom's commitment to
combating terrorism. The press and the public universally
condemned the attack, characterizing it as a direct assault
against the Saudi state and Islam. A more measured reaction
in the blogosphere hints at how this most recent incident
might affect domestic debate on the proper approach to
dealing with domestic terrorism, with some calling for
continued leniency and emphasis on reform and others arguing
the Saudi government is being too lax. The attack seems to
have strengthened the already positive public reputation of
Prince Mohammed bin Naif, and many religious-minded Saudis
will see his miraculous survival, almost unscathed, as a sign
of Divine protection and blessing for his efforts against
Al-Qaeda and other extremists. For his part, Prince Mohammed
has told us the attack has only strengthened his resolve, and
convinced him that the Kingdom's counter-terrorism strategy,
combining firmness with understanding, is effective and
should continue. End Summary and Comment.


2. (U) Official condemnation came from all quarters
immediately following the attack. The Saudi Press Agency
published photographs of King Abdullah and MbN, wearing a
bandage on his left middle finger, meeting at the hospital in
Jeddah. News channel Al-Arabiya played a tape of the visit
throughout the day in which the visibly concerned King
praised Allah for the Prince's safety and described the
attack as an attack against both Islam and the country:
"Thanks be to God that you are safe and nothing has happened
to you. Everything you might have suffered in the service of
your religion and homeland will not be for nothing, God
willing." MbN responded that this attack "would only
strengthen our resolve to root out the terrorists," and
admitted that he was at fault for failing to require a full
search of the bomber. Official reports note that the
would-be assassin was on a list of 85 wanted terrorists, that
MbN was aware of his planned attendance, and that he had been
expected to turn himself in at the event.

3. (U) Other prominent religious and political figures were
widely quoted in the press the day after the incident. The
Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia told Okaz newspaper the attack
was "not unexpected," and called the assailant "deviant" and
"corrupt to the core." Justice Minister Mohammed Al-Issa
"thanked Allah" for keeping the Prince safe. Interior
Ministry Spokesman Major General Mansour Al-Turki reaffirmed
the Ministry's commitment to fighting terrorism,
characterizing the attack as "an isolated incident" and
adding "those who think the war on terror is over in the
Kingdom are mistaken."

--------------------------------------------- ---

4. (U) All major Arabic and English dailies led with the
story, focusing prominently on MbN himself and his role in
the Kingdom's war on terror. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat dedicated the
first three pages of the August 29 edition solely to the
attack on the Prince and related subjects. Other papers
included lengthy biographical profiles of the Prince,
editorial cartoons dealing with the event, and even poems in
his honor.

5. (U) The articles and editorials show broad support for
MbN and, more generally, the fight against terrorism. Many
depicted the event as an assault on the Saudi state that
called for a patriotic response. Saudi journalist Dawood
Al-Shiryan wrote in Al-Hayat that the attack was "terrorism
as a political rebellion attempting to undermine the
authority of the state." Okaz called the attack "an attack
on the security of the nation...that should make everyone
alert and ready to fight." The August 29 editorial cartoon
in Al-Watan depicted a prone terrorist, wearing an explosive
belt and holding a detonator in each hand, dead and bleeding

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from a wound caused by the Saudi flag planted in his back.
In the same paper, a caricature accompanying a poem
celebrating the Prince as "Engineer of Love and War" shows
him carrying a shield resembling the Saudi flag.

6. (U) The public's reaction as portrayed in an Arab News
article was of "shock, disgust, and dismay," noting that the
timing of the attack during the holy month of Ramadan was a
particular source of ire. One student in Jeddah said "Yes,
there is frustration among a section of people regarding our
foreign policy, but what deplorable and utterly
un-Islamic." A Riyadh-based professional questioned whether
the Kingdom should continue with its rehabilitation programs,
saying these efforts had been "nullified" by the attack and
that the perpetrator had "betrayed our leaders." Others
called the attack "evidence that the government's anti-terror
tactics have been largely successful," and observed "panic in
the terror camp" and "frustration with the government's
continued success of hitting (terrorists) hard."


7. (U) On his Saudi Jeans blog, Ahmed Al-Omran expressed
relief that the Prince was not seriously injured and hope
that the incident would not "add fuel to the fire" of the
debate between liberals and conservatives. He added, "this
is a time for solidarity and national unity, let us not ruin
it." A contributor to blog Al-Saha encouraged MbN to
continue to demonstrate openness and patience with
terrorists, not revert to iron-fisted policies. An informal
poll on the same website indicated strong support for the
Prince, with 58% of voters suggesting MbN should replace his
father as Interior Minister. Liberal blog Al-Tomaar said the
attack was the result of "spoiling terrorists and treating
them leniently," referring to the SAG's widely-touted
terrorist rehabilitation scheme (ref B).


8. (C) Post contacts were reluctant to comment substantively
on the attack over the phone, telling us that it was common
for royals to welcome well-wishers during Ramadan, that they
were relieved MbN was not injured, and that they wondered why
the man was not checked. When the subject was broached at a
meeting between PAS officers and Deputy Minister of Higher
Education Mohammed Alohali on August 29, however, he went
somewhat beyond the fulsome praise of MbN as "Qahir al
Erhaby" (conqueror of terrorism) that is the stuff of most
media commentary. "We know what we,re up against," said
Alohali, adding that dangerous extremists were still a threat
to the country. This, he said, was the reason the SAG was
pushing educational reform so hard.


9. (U) Saudi soul-searching about the root causes and extent
of domestic terrorism has been evident since 2003, and the
August 20 announcement that 44 suspected Al-Qaeda militants
had been arrested in the Kingdom injected it with new vigor.
On August 22, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist Husayn Al-Shubakshi
praised the Saudi security forces for their "pre-emptive,
focused, professional, and secret blows," and credited MbN
directly for the Ministry's success.

10. (U) In an August 27 piece in the same paper, columnist
Mshari Al-Zaydi also considered the arrests a success, while
citing the need to confront terrorism as an ideological
issue. That this new batch of terrorists was predominantly
Saudi, middle-aged, and well-educated challenged previous
assumptions that economic deprivation and youthful religious
zealotry were responsible for domestic terrorism, and
indicated that the government needed to rethink its approach.
"Saudi Arabia is now confronting a new virus that is
constantly evolving," he writes, adding "the ideological
doctor who is holding on to the surgeon's yet to
enter the operating theater."

11. (C) Although unvoiced in the gushing media paeans to
MbN, ordinary Saudis are wondering how this assassination
attempt came so close to fruition. According to today,s
edition of "Okaz," the suspect managed to make his way from
Yemen into Saudi Arabia some weeks ago, and finally rented a
furnished apartment in Jeddah. We anticipate that such
reports will inevitably spur some introspection into how well
the security services are patrolling the Asir region.

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