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Tue Jul 14, 2020, 06:18 PM

The dazzling rise and tragic fall of Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Nayef (WaPo).

A grim new chapter in the Saudi “Game of Thrones” battle for control of the kingdom appears to be underway, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman prepares corruption and disloyalty charges against his predecessor and onetime rival, former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef — a man who was once the United States’ champion in the war against Islamist terrorism.

This royal family showdown has been building ever since MBS, as he’s known, deposed his predecessor in June 2017. The roots lie even deeper, in the bitter rivalry between supporters of the late King Abdullah, who had championed MBN, as the former crown prince is called, and the courtiers who surrounded his successor, King Salman, and his impulsive son MBS, when the new king assumed power after Abdullah’s death in January 2015.

John Brennan, a former CIA director who worked closely with MBN for more than a decade, explained in an interview: “The Interior Ministry was provided with a budget so they could build up capabilities, recruit personnel and develop intelligence service contacts to penetrate al-Qaeda. … Abdullah’s view was that he had to be invested in the activities that MBN was leading. MBN was one of his favorites.”

Brennan addressed the allegation, made to me by Saudis who are close to MBS, that MBN had skimmed money from intelligence accounts. “Over the course of my interaction with MBN, he wasn’t someone I thought was engaged in corrupt activity or was siphoning off money,” Brennan said.

George Tenet, who was CIA director when MBN took control of the counterterrorism portfolio at the Interior Ministry in 2003, spoke glowingly of MBN in his memoir, “At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA,” published in 2007. “He is someone in whom we developed a great deal of trust and respect,” he wrote. “Many of the successes in rolling up al-Qaeda in the kingdom are a result of his courageous efforts.”

The Saudi security establishment sleepwalked toward the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Nayef was convinced the attacks were a conspiracy designed to defame the kingdom’s reputation. This Saudi attitude of denial continued until May 2003, when al-Qaeda bombers attacked a foreign housing compound in Riyadh, killing 35 people, including 10 Americans. Tenet rushed to Riyadh for an urgent meeting to warn Abdullah that the royal family was facing a dire threat.

Tenet recalled the scene in an interview. Gathered with him and Abdullah were Nayef and his son MBN, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, who acted as interpreter. Tenet admonished Abdullah that al-Qaeda’s plots were “directed against your family and religious leadership” and urged him to “declare war,”he wrote in his memoir.

Abdullah nominated his commander on the spot. As Tenet recalled in the interview, “the king looked at MBN and said in front of the others, ‘You’re going to handle the counterterrorism account.'

For the U.S. government, which only a few years before had feared that Saudi Arabia might by overrun by al-Qaeda, MBN’s well-financed mobilization against extremists was a godsend.

A March 30, 2009, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to the intelligence and national-security agencies back in Washington boasted that the Interior Ministry was “THE BIGGEST DOG … the largest and most domestically influential Saudi ministry.” MBN, the cable said, “is held in high regard” by Abdullah and “well-respected by the Saudi populace for his effective work in beating down Al Qaeda in the Kingdom and running an effective deradicalization program which has gained wide local and tribal support. ... The result is operations in the USG interest can be conducted in a highly effective and cooperative manner within the Kingdom.”

Abdullah had placed extraordinary trust in MBN. This commitment deepened after an assassination attempt nearly killed MBN on Aug. 27, 2009. An AQAP operative named Abdullah al-Asiri visited MBN’s palace in Jiddah on the pretext of surrendering personally to the ministry’s terrorist rehabilitation program. He detonated an explosive hidden in his rectum, and MBN was injured in the blast. Abdullah rushed to see him in the hospital.

Abdullah’s support for his counterterrorism chief seems never to have wavered. MBN succeeded his father as interior minister in 2012 and, even after Adbullah’s death and Salman’s succession, MBN was named crown prince in April 2015 — suggesting that he would eventually become king. But MBS was named deputy crown prince at the same time, an ominous sign for MBN.

The last chapters of MBN’s story have a sad inevitability: He simply wasn’t a match for MBS in his ability to protect his friends and punish his enemies. American and Saudi friends of MBN say that he may have been limited by substance-abuse problems that began with the painkillers he took after being wounded in the 2009 assassination attempt.

The ambitious, risk-taking MBS found a powerful new ally when Donald Trump became president in 2017. Aljabri fled the kingdom in May 2017. A month later, MBN was summoned by his nominal deputy, MBS, and told to resign. He asked to call two prominent princes, Mohammed bin Fahd and Khaled bin Sultan, the MBN associate said. They told him the game was up, they’d made their deals with his rival and MBN had no choice but to resign as crown prince.

MBN submitted and swore allegiance to MBS. A royal decree issued June 21, 2017, announced that he had been removed as crown prince and replaced by his deputy. Some of his former friends and allies, including senior officers of the Mabahith, had already switched sides and become MBS supporters. Others were arrested and reportedly tortured. The Ritz-Carlton arrests of prominent Saudi businessmen and princes in November 2017 intimidated any remaining dissenters.


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