Crown Prince Nayef,the hardline interior minister who spearheaded Saudi Arabias fierce crackdown crushing al-Qaedas branch in the country after the 9/11 attacks in the United States and then rose to become next in line to the throne,has died. He was in his late 70s.
Nayefs death unexpectedly reopens the question of succession in this crucial US ally and oil powerhouse for the second time in less than a year. The 88-year-old King Abdullah has now outlived two designated successors,despite ailments of his own. Now a new crown prince must be chosen from among his brothers and half-brothers,all the sons of Saudi Arabias founder,Abdul-Aziz.
The figure believed most likely to be tapped as the new heir is Prince Salman,the current defence minister who previously served for decades in the powerful post of governor of Riyadh,the capital. The crown prince will be chosen by the Allegiance Council,an assembly of Abdul-Azizs sons and some of his grandchildren.
A statement by the royal family said Nayef died on Saturday in a hospital abroad. Saudi-funded pan-Arab TV station Al-Arabiya later confirmed he died in Geneva.
Nayef had been out of the country since late May,when he went on a trip that was described as a personal vacation that would include medical tests. Authorities however never reported what ailments he may have been suffering from.
Nayef had a reputation for being a hardliner and a conservative. He was believed to be closer than many of his brothers to the powerful Wahhabi religious establishment that gives legitimacy to the royal family,and he at times worked to give a freer hand to the religious police who enforce strict social rules.
His elevation to crown prince in November 2011,after the death of his brother Sultan,had raised worries among liberals in the kingdom that,if he ever became king,he would halt or even roll back reforms that Abdullah had enacted.
Nayef,who was interior minister in charge of internal security forces since 1975,built up his power in the kingdom through his fierce crackdown against al-Qaedas branch in the country following the Sept. 11,2001 attacks in the United States and a broader campaign to prevent the growth of Islamic militancy among Saudis.
The 9/11 attacks at first strained ties between the two allies. For months,the kingdom refused to acknowledge any of its citizens were involved in the suicide airline bombings,until finally Nayef became the first Saudi official to publicly confirm that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis,in a February 2002 interview with The Associated Press.
Criticism grew in the United States that the Saudis were not doing enough to stem extremism in their country or combat Al Qaeda.
In mid-2003,Islamic militants struck inside the kingdom,targeting three residential expatriate compounds the first of a string of assaults that later several important premises. The al-Qaedas branch announced its aim to overthrow the royal family. The attacks galvanized the government into serious action against the militants,an effort spearheaded by Prince Nayef. Over the next years,dozens of attacks were foiled,hundreds of militants were rounded up and killed.
By 2008,it was believed that al-Qaedas branch was largely broken in the country. Militant leaders who survived or were not jailed largely fled to Yemen,where they joined Yemeni militants in reviving al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The cooperation against al-Qaeda both in the kingdom and in Yemen significantly bolstered ties with the United States.