While international law enforcement authorities continue their investigation into the Yemen-based attempt to place explosives in express packages carried by air, the role in the case of Saudi Arabia and its anti-terrorism campaign – often criticized as much as it is praised – remains mysterious.

Media disclosure of the conspiracy quickly indicated that it had been foiled thanks to information from Saudi anti-terrorism agents – after one of the packages had been loaded and reloaded aboard two Qatar Airways passenger craft and detected in Dubai, but prior to its scheduled handoff to Federal Express. The other package had gone from Yemen to Qatar before being transferred to two successive United Parcel Service cargo jets, scheduled to go to Germany and then Britain. The second bomb-carrying package was cleared once by British inspectors for transmission to the US, and only detected after a second search at East Midlands airport.

Both terror devices were addressed to Jewish synagogues in the US, but the intent of their senders – most certainly members of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP – may have been to blow up the passenger planes, most of which, throughout the world, also carry cargo.

Saudi anti-terrorism chief prince Muhammad ibn Nayef – son of the hardest of the Wahhabi hardliners among the top Saudi royals – was credited with warning US officials of the deadly plan, and even with providing tracking numbers for the parcels. The bombs – hidden in computer printer cartridges – were, according to the Saudis, designed by Ibrahim Al-Asiri, brother of Abdullah Al-Asiri, who blew himself up during a suspicious meeting with Muhammad ibn Nayef last year. The bomber was killed but the prince was barely touched, and Western media transcripts of telephone conversations between Abdullah Al-Asiri and the prince – described as portraying "a tangled history" – included cordial greetings and messages of concern about the situation of the bomber's brother, who designed the explosive intended for the prince. The prince had then sent his private plane to Yemen to bring Abdullah Al-Asiri to meet him.

The parcel-express bomb conspiracy is no less replete with questionable details than the incident last year, and, as rumours proliferate, the real role of Saudi Arabia in the activities of AQAP becomes less clear. First, nobody in any Western government even hints at the commonsense probability that AQAP was "exported" to Yemen by the Saudi authorities, with communications and other links between retrograde royals, intransigent Wahhabis, and the bombmakers remaining "tangled." The New York Daily News of October 31 used vague language, suggesting that Ibrahim Al-Asiri had "slipped" explosive material into his brother's body cavity and then activated the device by means of a text message and "a chemical fuse that would elude metal detectors." This explanation remains insufficient, but the same newspaper reported the next day that the parcel-express bomb plot was denounced to Yemeni authorities by Jaber Al-Faifi, a Saudi-born Al-Qaida fighter in Afghanistan and detainee at Guantánamo Bay. Al-Faifi had been transferred to the Saudi program for rehabilitation of terrorists, and had then gone to Yemen to rejoin Al-Qaida, perhaps as a double agent.

US government officials, however, discounted any role by Al-Faifi in preventing the attacks. They pointed out that Al-Faifi had surrendered to Saudi authorities in mid-October, before the Yemen-based plot was undertaken.

The air cargo bomb plot is yet another enigma within Saudi Arabia's convoluted internal and external relationships. According to the BBC, US security chief Michael Chertoff criticized the Yemenis for their lack of capability in foiling Al-Qaida. But a more pertinent query should be addressed to the richer, more prosperous Saudis: if they can track terrorist parcels, and have thoroughly infiltrated the AQAP networks they sent across their borders into Yemen, why can they not act more consequentially to rid the Arabian peninsula of the terrorist threat, once and for all? Those who observe Saudi reality closely believe the princes are restrained from a final course of action against Al-Qaida by powerful elements within the royal family and the Wahhabi clerical caste. That explanation has, at least, the virtue of simplicity, as well as precedent.

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