Yemen, where the government barely controls the capital Sanaa and the major cities, has become the epicenter of al-Qaeda activity. It has links to the jihadist groups in Somalia, across the Red Sea, and as far as Pakistan. Al-Qaeda militants, including many who fled from Saudi Arabia, have been rebuilding their strength. Militants from Afghanistan and Pakistan also have been reported in Yemen recently. Most of the 85 militants named on the recent Saudi wanted list are believed to be in Yemen. All but two on the list are Saudis.
Saudi officials fear militants are finding refuge in lawless swaths of Yemen, whose security forces are stretched by a tribal revolt in the north and separatist unrest in the south. Yemeni authorities are confronted with a relentless insurgency by the Zaidi Shiites in the northern mountains along the Saudi border as well as with Al-Qaeda's growing strength. The Yemeni government claims that Iran is arming and funding the Zaidi rebels whereas the Iranians claim that the Saudis have sent military forces to help Yemeni president Saleh to prevent his country from falling apart and becoming a springboard for al-Qaeda campaigns in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Many regional analysts see this as a new element in a widening proxy war between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has been most evident in Iraq. Even though Iran and the Shiite movements are usually at odds (or at war) with Al-Qaeda on religious and political grounds, fighting a common enemy - in this case Saudi Arabia, seen as proxy of the West - can determine a union of interests that can lead to some sort of undeclared alliance.
The security problems in Saudi Arabia and Yemen are at present linked as never before. The recent attack on Prince Mohammed bin Nayef of Saudi Arabia raises concerns that Yemen’s instability could allow Al-Qaeda to carry out cross-border attacks. The Yemeni army is presently on a three-week-long offensive on strongholds of Zaidi rebels, also known as Huthis, and there are rumors of a direct involvement of the Saudi air force. It is an open war, forgotten by most of the media, in which different camps of the Muslim world are confronting each other. The attempt to the life of Saudi prince Mohammed bin Nayef is only the tip of the iceberg in such a struggle.
Recently, a suicide bomber linked to Al-Qaeda recently tried to kill Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, head of the Saudi counter-terrorism services. However, the attacker stumbled just short of his target and fell, detonating an explosion that killed the attacker and slightly wounding the Saudi prince.
The attack took place in the Red Sea port of Jeddah and was the first terrorist assault on a member of the royal family in decades. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula quickly acknowledged responsibility for the attack with a communiquÃ© that read: "The hero martyr is Abdullah Hassan Tali al-Asiri, known as Abul-Khair, who managed to enter his palace [the prince's], pass his guards and blow up a package. He managed to get through all the inspections at Najran and Jeddah airports and traveled on his private jet."
In fact Asiri, a 23-year-old Saudi wanted for terrorism, came from Yemen and had said that he intended to hand himself over to the Saudi authorities. “He expressed his desire to turn himself in directly to the prince and the prince granted him his complete trust by requesting that he should not be searched,” declared General Turki - spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry. The attacker had counted on the prince’s graciousness to perpetrate a crime that would have boosted the morale of the Al-Qaeda affiliates.
The Saudi paper Al-Hayat suggests that even though the attacker did not succeeded in his goal, the attempt “sends a dangerous message from terrorist groups to the Saudi state, signifying that they will not surrender and that they will maintain their ideology and their methods, as they assert yet again that they are able to target officials and that they will, just as they murder innocent civilians.” Further, the attempt reveals that terrorism in Saudi Arabia has not been weakened, and that sleeping cells are just “waiting for the opportunity to attack and return yet again to sucking blood, and to restore the cycle of violence.”
But, why was Prince Muhammad the target of such an attack? He had actually played the role of a mediator and had forgiven those wanted by the law; at the same time, though, he was very effective in implementing counter-terrorism measures.
Last January, Saudi and Yemeni jihadist groups merged into Yemen in one organization. Analysts saw the merger as an attempt to consolidate after the Saudi branch of Al-Qaeda was practically wiped out following a vigorous counter-terrorism campaign led by Prince Muhammad.
In April, Saudi authorities discovered a cave in the remote Saudi mountains near the Yemeni border that was a way station for the militants. Saudi police seized 11 suspected Saudi militants planning armed robberies, kidnappings and other attacks. Recently, Saudi authorities announced the arrest of 44 militants and the seizure of explosives, detonators and guns.