Bilal Qabalan/AFP/Getty Images
In this 2004 photo, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (left) visits the scene of clashes outside a special security forces camp in eastern Riyadh. Prince Mohammed, who is responsible for the kingdom's counterterrorism program, escaped a suicide bomb attack in Jidda, but the case is worrying Western security officials.
In this 2004 photo, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (left) visits the scene of clashes outside a special security forces camp in eastern Riyadh. Prince Mohammed, who is responsible for the kingdom's counterterrorism program, escaped a suicide bomb attack in Jidda, but the case is worrying Western security officials. Bilal Qabalan/AFP/Getty Images
This is the story of an al-Qaida assassination plot that failed — or did it?
The two main characters are a Saudi prince and an al-Qaida suicide bomber. The prince survived their meeting in August. The bomber did not. And yet, the episode has sent a chill through Western security circles.
The assailant had a bomb hidden inside his body in an elaborate effort to kill the Saudi prince. And Western intelligence officials are concerned that the technique will be tried again.
Jarret Brachman, author of the book Global Jihadism, says the attack shows al-Qaida is still determined and still innovating.
"And so they've developed everything from body cavity explosives through surgical insertion of explosives into the body. So they've come up with a lot of ideas, and they've been playing with these on paper," Brachman says. "This is one of the first times we've seen them actually try to put some of these innovative ideas into practice."
The setting was Saudi Arabia — the palace of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The prince is not just a senior member of the royal family, but head of the country's counterterrorism program.
He works to rehabilitate terrorists, get them to renounce al-Qaida. And it was through his work that he came to meet Abdullah al-Assiri — Saudi-born, al-Qaida-trained and selected for the task of assassinating Prince Mohammed.
The trick was for Assiri to pose as a terrorist ready to surrender. He persuaded the prince to send a private jet to Yemen to pick him up and bring him to the prince's palace in Jidda.
On Aug. 27, the two men sat down to talk.
Richard Barrett, head of the al-Qaida and Taliban monitoring team at the United Nations, continues the story: "Assiri said, 'Oh, you need to speak to my friends because they also want to give themselves up, and if they hear from you, they'll certainly come.' "
Barrett says this was a key part of al-Qaida's plan: to get the prince talking on a cell phone. "The prince was on the telephone when the signal was sent to detonate the bomb that was concealed inside Assiri," he says.
As Barrett told it, in a speech at a Washington think tank, Assiri had swallowed a bomb. There is confusion on this point: Some accounts maintain he hid the bomb in his rectum.
However the explosive was concealed, it was detonated by that phone call. And amazingly, there's a recording of that call, which has now been released by al-Qaida. NPR obtained it through the Maryland-based SITE Intelligence Group.
During the call, there was a beep. Seconds later, the bomb detonated — and Assiri was blown apart. The prince was only slightly injured.
Security experts say that beep may have been a text message that triggered the bomb.
Adam Raisman, a senior analyst at the SITE Intelligence Group, says al-Qaida would have preferred to kill the prince. "But the fact that they were able to get someone onto his private jet, into his palace — that they essentially fooled the prince's security and the prince himself — it is, for them, a victory."
What's worrying Western security officials is where they might put these ideas into practice.
"Here is a guy who got on a plane, he went through at least two security checks — he would have passed a metal detector. So he could get on any plane," says Barrett, the U.N. al-Qaida expert. "That technique would work on any airline anywhere, regardless of what sort of security measures there are at any airport."
Barrett says there is a lot of chatter on jihadi Internet sites about the possibilities of the technique.
Then again, it's not totally clear whether Assiri did pass through airport security since he flew on the prince's private plane.
A U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition he not be named, says established airport screening procedures should be able to detect a bomb, even inside a body. But, he added, counterterrorism officials are studying the episode closely.