RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Aug. 31 (UPI) -- A failed al-Qaida suicide attack on the Saudi Arabian prince who heads the kingdom's counter-terrorism war is the most audacious operation by the jihadists regrouping in neighboring Yemen and could trigger Saudi intervention in that chaos-ridden state.
The attack Thursday in the Red Sea port of Jeddah on Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was the first direct attempt to assassinate a member of the Saudi royal family since al-Qaida launched a campaign of violence in the kingdom in May 2003.
Saudi security forces under Prince Mohammed crushed that campaign by early 2007. In all, up to 3,000 suspects were arrested and dozens, including several leaders, were killed.
In July, more than 300 militants were convicted in secret trials, some sentenced to 30-year prison terms. The Saudis issued a list of 85 suspects in February.
There are fears now that there may be more attacks on the royal family, igniting a violent convulsion. "In this country we are targeted," Prince Mohammed's father, Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz, the longtime interior minister, said at a weekend conference in Jeddah.
"The situation could change and intensify, not in terms of the number but rather in their nature and that's more dangerous."
Responsibility for the operation was claimed by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, an alliance of Saudi and Yemeni jihadist groups that merged in Yemen in January.
Yemen, where the government's writ barely extends beyond the capital Sanaa and major cities, has become the epicenter of al-Qaida activity in the Arabian peninsula. It has links to the turbulence in Somalia across the Red Sea and as far afield as Pakistan.
Thursday's assassination bid was the first al-Qaida attack in the kingdom since four French nationals were killed in the western desert in February 2007 and the first bomb attack since a failed strike against the sprawling oil terminal at Abqaiq in February 2006.
The plot to kill such a prominent member of the House of al-Saud appeared to indicate that AQAP could be preparing to launch a new offensive in Saudi Arabia two years after it was effectively smashed by forces commanded by Prince Mohammed.
The attacker was identified by al-Qaida as Abdullah al-Asiri, a wanted fugitive. He stumbled as he approached Prince Mohammed at his office in Jeddah and detonated the explosives he was carrying. He was the only fatality. The prince suffered minor wounds.
Asiri, a 23-year-old Saudi, had posed as a repentant militant seeking to surrender personally to the prince, who as a sign of good faith allowed him to pass through royal security at a Ramadan reception without being searched.
Asiri crossed into Saudi Arabia from the central Yemen region of Maarib, where al-Qaida 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.
AQAP's leadership includes a Saudi former inmate of Guantanamo Bay, Said Ali al-Shihri, who was al-Qaida's No. 2 in Yemen.
Most of the 85 militants named on the recent Saudi wanted list are believed to be in Yemen. All but two on the list -- including Asiri and his brother Ibrahim -- are Saudis.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has not been able to eliminate al-Qaida forces in his country, one of the poorest in the Arab world.
He is grappling with a relentless insurgency by minority Zaidi Shiites in the northern mountains on the porous Saudi border, a swelling secessionist movement in the socialist-dominated south as well as al-Qaida's growing strength. The economy is collapsing amid widespread social unrest.
Saleh's government, dominated by Sunnis, claims that Iran is arming and funding the Zaidi rebels. No hard evidence of that has been produced, but many regional analysts see this as a new element in a widening proxy war between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic republic, which has been most evident in Iraq.
The Iranians claim the Saudis have sent military forces to help Saleh prevent his country falling apart and becoming a springboard for al-Qaida campaigns in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
Riyadh and Sanaa have denied that. But if there are more attacks like the one on Prince Mohammed, Riyadh may feel disposed to get involved more forcefully to keep al-Qaida from re-establishing itself on the peninsula and dominating the tanker routes through the Red Sea.