Press reports out of Iran have accused Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, of masterminding the late November 2013 bomb attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut that killed more than two dozen people and wounded 150. (On Thursday, another attack in a Hezbollah-controlled suburb of Beirut killed at least two.)
Al-Alam, an Arabic news channel broadcast from Iran and owned by state-controlled media, reported that the two suicide bombers who launched deadly attacks on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut Nov. 19 took their orders from Bandar, citing unnamed sources in Lebanon. The Lebanese sources claimed to have uncovered information that Majed al-Majed, the Saudi leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attacks, under Bandar’s direction.
Bandar has been a strong voice for military intervention in Syria to topple Iran’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad. Lebanese security forces have reportedly arrested al-Majed. The report asserted that al-Majed lived in a military camp in southern Lebanon, before leaving for Syria to help al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front fight against the military of Assad. Al Alam further noted that al-Majed returned to Lebanon, wounded, after a failed bid to seize leadership of al-Nusra. Al-Alam also indicated that al-Majed has committed “many terrorist attacks” and is a wanted man in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
At the time of the November attacks, the Azzam Bridges indeed took responsibility for them, tweeting: "It is a twin suicide operation by two heroes from the Sunni community in Lebanon.” The Brigades further warned that they would conduct more attacks until Hezbollah withdrew its fighters from Syria and Sunni Islamist prisoners in Lebanon were released.
But both the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, and Marzieh Afkham, spokeswoman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, blamed Israel for the November attack, according to the Daily Star newspaper of Lebanon. “[The bombings are] an inhumane crime and spiteful act done by Zionists and their mercenaries," Afkham told the IRNA news agency of Iran.
Iran, Syria and Hezbollah are led by Shia Muslims, while Saudi Arabia is a Sunni-dominated kingdom.
A few weeks after the Beirut bombing, the chief of the Iran-supported Hezbollah in Lebanon, Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah, pointed his finger at Saudi intelligence and accused it of having forged links with the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. It is not clear if Nasrallah connected Bandar himself to the bombings.
Some academics in the U.S. do not believe Iran’s latest claims about Bandar – but still hold out that the Saudis may indeed be involved in the Beirut violence, at least indirectly. “I think the Iranian regime is exaggerating that Saudi Prince Bandar was personally behind the attacks,” said Dilshod Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in an interview. “Yet, in broad terms, the Saudi government is surely involved in a covert ‘cold-war’ type warfare with Hezbollah and the Iranian Al-Quds force.” Achilov added that it is unlikely that Prince Bandar personally orchestrated the bombings in Beirut. “But his money was definitely involved,” he added.
Similarly, Alex Vatanka, a Middle East analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, said Iran has not provided any “hard evidence” to link Bandar directly with the Beirut suicide bombings. “But having said that, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Saudis had a role in the incident,” he said, given that Riyadh has financed a number of radical groups in the region, including Syrian rebels and other Sunni militant factions.
Achilov also adds that Iran rightly suspects the Saudis in such attacks, which target its proxies across the Middle East. “Iran is not entirely wrong to blame the Saudis, at least from financial sponsorship aspect,” he said. “The Iranian regime is blaming Bandar on the basis of the broad Sunni-Shia ‘cold-war’ rivalry that has existed for centuries in the region.” But he noted that Bandar himself does not have much to gain from complicity in the Lebanon attacks. “If implicated, Bandar’s international and regional reputation would be at stake. At the same time, however, he would gladly celebrate any damage done to Hezbollah,” Achilov stated.
Iran’s English-language broadcaster Press TV even accused Bandar of promoting “Zionism” in the Middle East by allying with Israel and the United States and seeking to destabilize Syria and Yemen. “Bandar and his brother, the Deputy Defense Minister Salman bin Sultan, have been actively supervising the establishment of a new special military unit: Mohammed Army, which will act as an extraterritorial military force to the [Saudi] Kingdom and by extension its Zionist allies,” an editorial in Press TV alleged. “As Saudi Arabia lines up its dominoes, it is bent on crushing any potential contender to its power and will in the region.”
But who is Prince Bandar? According to the Saudi Embassy, Bandar was appointed chief of Saudi intelligence by his uncle King Abdullah in July 2012, following seven years as head of the kingdom’s National Security Council. Now 64 years old, Bandar has had a long tenure in very high official posts. He served as the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. from late 1983 to late 2005, through four American presidencies, reportedly developing particularly close ties with the Bushes. Some called him "Bandar Bush."
Gen. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, described Bandar as “flamboyant, dramatic, personable, smart, canny and probably manipulative.” Prince Bandar’s biographer, David Ottaway, said he is the perfect man to lead the Saudi kingdom’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East. “They have a more hawkish foreign policy and he’s the leading hawk of the House of Saud,” Ottaway was quoted as saying, according to Gulf News.
Moreover, both Iran and Syria have long been concerned with how Bandar will drive Saudi foreign policy. “Damascus and Tehran are obsessed with the conspiracy theory that Gulf states are behind [the] planning and funding of such terror acts,” Ali Bluwi wrote in Arab News. “Moreover, the two countries are also obsessed with Bandar Bin Sultan. They think Prince Bandar has a firm stand against them and that his close relationship with Jeffrey Feltman [a U.S. diplomat for the Middle East] and the American political and security institutions posed a threat to them.”
Bandar has an interesting genealogy -- his mother was a black African slave, while his father was Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, who was crown prince before his death in 2011. Yet, despite the Saudis' extreme racism against blacks, he was able to rise very high in the kingdom’s hierarchy. Bandar has also led quite a charmed existence with much controversy, including allegations of adultery, high living and receiving massive bribes (which he has denied). The so-called "Playboy Prince" was once accused of having accepted a bribe in excess of £1 billion to help guarantee Britain gained a £43 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia – which hardly raised an eyebrow in the Middle East. “In an absolute monarchy flush with petrodollars where the line between state and royal finances is blurred, arms deals are assumed to carry lucrative commissions,” wrote Roula Khalaf in the Financial Times, adding that Bandar is seen as “a symbol of royal excess as well as submission to the U.S.”
Bandar also has a long history of successful diplomacy and covert activity – among other achievements, he helped to negotiate the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1991, he persuaded the Libyans to hand over two suspects in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing case, and even helped convince the Russians to withdraw from Afghanistan in the late 1980s.
As a final note, some Iranians also accused Bandar of complicity in the recent bombings in Volgograd in southern Russia, which killed 14 people. The Iranian.com website, citing reports from the Middle Eastern news agency Al Monitor, claimed Bandar has demanded Russian President Vladimir Putin withdraw his support for Assad’s regime in Syria in exchange for certain concessions with respect to the Sochi Winter Olympics. “I can give you a guarantee [that we will help] protect the Winter Olympics next year,” Bandar allegedly told Putin, adding, “The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us.” The implication was that if Putin did not pull back, Bandar (or his proxies) would escalate the Chechens' war against the Russian state.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.