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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We're about to tell the story of a terror attack that failed.

INSKEEP: It failed and yet captured the interest and concern of the United States and its allies. The attack over the summer serves as a reminder that operatives from al-Qaida are still at work.

MONTAGNE: What bothers intelligence agencies is the question of how an al-Qaida suicide bomber got very close to a Saudi prince.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: The setting is 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 counter-terror program. He works to rehabilitate terrorists, get them to renounce al-Qaida, and it was through his work that he came to meet this man.

Mr. ABDULLAH AL-ASSIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

KELLY: That's a recording of Abdullah al-Assiri(ph), 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 Jeddah. On August 27th, the two men sat down to talk.

Mr. RICHARD BARRETT (Head of al-Qaida and Taliban Monitoring Team, U.N.): And then 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.

KELLY: That's Richard Barrett picking up the story. He's head of the al-Qaida and Taliban monitoring team at the United Nations. Barrett says this was a key part of al-Qaida's plan to get the prince talking on a cell phone.

Mr. BARRETT: The prince was on the telephone when the signal was sent to detonate the bomb that was concealed inside Assiri.

KELLY: Thats right, the bomb concealed inside Assiri. 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, but, however it 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. Listen to it here, you'll hear a beep.

Unidentified Male #1: (Foreign language spoken).

Unidentified Male #2: (Foreign language spoken).

(Soundbite of beep)

KELLY: 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, sure, al-Qaida would have preferred to kill the prince.

Mr. ADAM RAISMAN (Senior Analyst, SITE Intelligence Group): 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 - is for them, a victory.

KELLY: Jarret Brachman, author of the book, "Global Jihadism" agrees and says the attack on Prince Mohammed shows al-Qaida is still determined, still innovating.

Mr. JARRET BRACHMAN (Author, "Global Jihadism"): 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. This is one of the first times we've seen and actually tried to put some of the innovative ideas into practice.

KELLY: What's worrying Western security officials is where they might put these ideas into practice. U.N. al-Qaida expert, Richard Barrett, says remember how Assiri got to the prince, he flew.

Mr. BARRETT: 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. That technique would work on any airline anywhere regardless of what sort of security measures there are at any airport.

KELLY: 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. Remember 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.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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