RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – The wanted Saudi militant who attacked the kingdom's anti-terror chief after pretending he wanted to surrender blew himself up while the official was on the phone reassuring another terrorist in Yemen it would be safe to return home, the Interior Ministry said Tuesday.
The disclosure offered a strange twist to an already surprising story. The events that led up to Thursday's attack began when Yemen-based Saudi militant, Abdullah Hassan Tali Assiri, got in touch with authorities, saying he wanted to turn himself into Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, said a ministry statement.
The prince, who is the kingdom's assistant interior minister, agreed to see Assiri and received him at his home in the western seaport of Jiddah late Thursday during a gathering to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, according to the statement.
During the meeting, Assiri, who was on the country's most wanted list, told Mohammed that other Saudi militants who had fled to Yemen following the kingdom's fierce anti-terror campaign wanted to surrender too but were seeking safe passage from the prince.
"They wanted to hear this by phone from the prince himself," said the statement.
The statement said contact was made with one of the men in Yemen while Assiri was in the same room as the prince.
"The explosion occurred during the phone call," said the statement. "It led to the death of the wanted man."
Government-run Saudi TV showed bits of human flesh, an arm and part of a torso of a young man at the scene of the explosion. But the prince was only lightly injured.
The ministry statement said investigations have uncovered more details about the attack that will not be revealed at this time for security reasons.
The attack was the first major setback to the kingdom's anti-terror efforts, led by Mohammed, since February 2006, when suicide bombers tried but failed to attack an oil facility at the Abqaiq oil complex, the world's largest oil processing facility, in eastern Saudi Arabia.
In remarks early Friday, Mohammed admitted he ordered guards not to search the attacker when he arrived at his home. Saudi officials have said the prince wanted to treat the militant with respect and trust to encourage other wanted militants to come forward.
The Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the attack, identifying Assiri as the bomber. It said the bomber arrived on the prince's plane.
In a taped telephone conversation between Assiri and the prince aired on Saudi TV on Tuesday, the militant is heard asking the prince for a plane.
The ministry statement did not say if Mohammed sent a private jet to transport Assiri from the Yemeni border to Jiddah. It only said that the man arrived with security to the prince's home.
There have been various versions of the events. One, reported by Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television network, said the attacker concealed the explosives in his anus, allowing him to evade detection. The network also quoted an expert as saying that the method of concealment aimed the blast away from the target, while blowing the bomber to bits.
Assiri's name was on the kingdom's latest most wanted list, which was released in February. The list includes the names of 83 Saudis and two Yemenis living abroad and suspected of belonging to Al Qaeda.
A profile of Assiri released by the Interior Ministry said the 24-year-old militant was born in Riyadh.
According to the profile, he was recruited by an Al Qaeda cell whose goals included assassinations and targeting oil installations in the kingdom. He received self-defense training. In Yemen, he got military training, which included the use of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and Sam7s.
Before Thursday's bombing, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula made several unsuccessful attempts to strike inside the kingdom.