Al Qaeda leader in Yemen tries to woo Saudi soldiers

Said Ali al Shihri

Said Ali al Shihri, former Guantanamo detainee and deputy leader of al Qaeda in Yemen. Photo from The SITE Institute.

In a nearly 15-minute audio tape released in early August, Said al Shihri, one of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) top leaders, tried to convince Saudi soldiers and security officers to serve al Qaeda. Al Shihri set forth a dozen reasons why Saudi citizens should betray the royals, and he offered a cursory plan for doing so.

Al Shihri said it should be “easy” to overthrow the House of Saud if his plan is followed.

Al Shihri called for willing recruits to form cells that can attract logistical support from members of the Saudi Air Force, Army, and office of the Interior Ministry. Al Shihri urged guards for the Saudi royals to turn on “the tyrant princes” and “kill them.” Those in charge of security at “weapons warehouses” inside the Kingdom and employees of the Interior Ministry are especially valuable recruits, al Shihri said.

Operational cells should also perform surveillance on “important targets” inside the Kingdom, al Shihiri advised, according to a translation of the tape obtained by the Long War Journal.

Al Shirhi’s tape is the just the latest example of how the Saudis’ rehabilitation program for former Gitmo detainees and other jihadists has faltered. Al Shihri was captured in northern Pakistan in late 2001 and handed over to American authorities. He was detained at Guantanamo until Nov. 9, 2007, when he was repatriated to the Saudis.

The Saudis arranged for a private jet to fly al Shihri and other Gitmo detainees back to the Kingdom. Typically, the former detainees are pampered, and are offered inducements to renounce al Qaeda, including jobs, cars, and wives. The Saudis set up an art therapy program as part of the rehabilitation effort, too.

The program does not try to convince the former detainees that waging violent jihad is inappropriate. Instead, the Saudis tell the Gitmo grads that jihad must be authorized by the right religious authorities – i.e., those loyal to the Saudi establishment – and not target Saudi Arabia itself. In written testimony supplied to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February 2009, then Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair explained:

The rehabilitation course covers various religious topics, including takfir, loyalty, allegiance, terrorism, legal rules for jihad, and psychological instruction on self-esteem. The course does not address anti-Western/anti-U.S. views, focusing only on the difference between Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s conservative branch of Islam, and takfirism, the violent ideology espoused by al Qaeda.

Al Shihri, who graduated from the Saudi rehabilitation program, clearly did not buy the program’s lessons. Throughout the tape, al Shihri warns Saudis that if they continue to remain loyal to the Kingdom, then they should “fear Allah” because they are serving the “sheikhs of Satan.”

Four assassination attempts on Saudi deputy interior minister

AQAP is actively targeting some Saudi princes for assassination, just as Said al Shihri calls for in his tape. According to the Saudi Gazette, al Qaeda has tried to kill Prince Muhammad Bin Naif Bin Abdul Aziz, who is the Saudi deputy interior minister and oversees the Kingdom’s counterterrorism efforts, four times since 2004.

The first attempt “involved a bomb-laden vehicle that was used to target the Ministry of Interior building in Riyadh.” In a second attempt, al Qaeda fired a missile at the prince’s plane but missed when the pilot took “evasive action.”

In a third attempt, an al Qaeda suicide bomber stuffed explosives in his rear and tried to blow up the prince. The bomber was on the Saudi Kingdom’s most wanted list, as is Said al Shihri, and pledged to turn himself in. The prince agreed to accept his surrender in person and that opened up a window of opportunity for al Qaeda. The suicide bomber was reportedly directed by senior AQAP leaders, including perhaps Said al Shihri himself.


Yousef al-Shihri, a former Gitmo detainee and now a member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Photo courtesy of the NEFA Foundation.

The fourth attempt on the prince’s life is noteworthy because it involved Said al Shihri’s brother-in-law, Yousef al Shihri, who was also a former Guantanamo detainee. The Saudi Gazette reports that Yousef al Shihri and another al Qaeda terrorist were killed in a shootout with Saudi security forces along the border on Oct. 13, 2009. [For more on Yousef al Shihri, see LWJ report, Another former Gitmo detainee killed in shootout.]

The pair were dressed as women at the time, and their garb hid two suicide explosive belts. They had two other suicide belts in their possession that were reportedly intended for two other al Qaeda operatives living inside the Kingdom. Their intended target was Prince Muhammad Bin Naif.

Echoes of Anwar al Awlaki’s messaging

Said al Shihri’s tape is similar in its message to the sermons delivered by Anwar al Awlaki, who is in hiding in Yemen. Awlaki has consistently tried to convince Muslim soldiers to turn on their armies in the name of jihad. Awlaki’s most infamous recruit in this regard is Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Tex., on Nov. 5, 2009.

Shortly after the Fort Hood attack, Awlaki wrote on his web site:

Nidal Hassan is a hero. He is a man of conscience who could not bear the contradiction of being a Muslim and fighting against his own people. No scholar with a grain of Islamic knowledge can deny the clear cut proofs that Muslims today have the right – rather the duty – to fight against American tyranny.

This theme – that Muslims cannot serve infidel armies and Allah at the same time – has been part of Awlaki’s messaging for years. Maj. Hasan even explored this theme in a presentation he gave to his colleagues at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. After the Fort Hood shooting, it emerged that the FBI was aware that Maj. Hasan was in contact with Awlaki via email, but the communications were dismissed as innocuous.


Anwar al Awlaki, from a jihadist website.

In a more recent tape, Awlaki proudly called Hasan one of his “students” and said that Hasan asked about the religious permissibility of certain acts, including serving in the American military.

Said al Shihri’s tape echoes Awlaki’s messaging. Al Shihri says that “some members” of the Saudi armed forces have asked for guidance from AQAP as to “whether they should remain at their jobs” or join al Qaeda in Yemen. Al Shihri counsels them to stay in Saudi Arabia and only flee if it is necessary to evade authorities.

Al Shihri wants Saudi recruits to serve al Qaeda from inside the Saudi establishment. AQAP is clearly hoping that some Saudis follow Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s path.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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1 Comment

  • TLA says:

    Difficult to tell whether this is AQAP getting desperate, or that it’s part of the ‘plan.’
    I rather suspect that the Saudis will deal with it in their own special way. Or that it’s a nice way of convincing the West whose side their on.


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