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 militant 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 in to 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."
But the prince was only lightly injured.
Government-run Saudi TV showed bits of human flesh embedded in the wreckage in the room where the attack occurred. The torso of the bomber lay on the floor, and a hand was shown pulling down an arm that had stuck to the ceiling.
The Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the attack, identifying Assiri as the bomber. Saudi officials have expressed concern that instability in neighboring Yemen could provide al-Qaida a sanctuary from which they could conduct cross-border attacks in the kingdom.
The White House criticized the attack as a "cowardly act" and said it underscored the importance of strong cooperation between the U.S. and Mideast allies like Saudi Arabia in fighting al-Qaida.
The attack was the first major setback to the kingdom's anti-terror efforts 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.
The ministry statement said investigations have uncovered more details about the attack that will not be revealed at this time for security reasons.
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, who heads the country's anti-terror program, wanted to treat the militant with respect and trust to encourage other wanted militants to come forward.
Al-Qaida has said that Assiri actually arrived from the Yemeni border to Jiddah on a plane sent by the prince. The ministry statement did mention a plane, but Saudi TV aired a taped conversation between Assiri and Mohammed in which the militant asks Mohammed for such transportation.
The prince sounded friendly during the call and tried to put Assiri at ease. When the militant said others were afraid of surrendering, the prince was heard saying, "What are they scared of?"
There have been various media reports about how Assiri blew himself up. One by the 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-Qaida.
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-Qaida cell whose goals included assassinations and targeting oil installations in the kingdom. In Yemen, he got military training, which included the use of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and Sam7s.
Before Thursday's bombing, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula had made several unsuccessful attempts to strike inside the kingdom.