The diplomatic efforts to free a Saudi al-Qaeda captive

The diplomatic efforts to free a Saudi al-Qaeda captive
6 min read
06 March, 2015
Feature: After three years, a Saudi diplomat was recently freed by al-Qaeda and flew back to Riyadh. His remarkable story sheds light on the difficulties negotiating with the extremist group.
Al-Qaeda has fought a viscous war with the Yemeni state [AFP]

With the current turmoil gripping Yemen, many where relieved to hear the news that a Saudi diplomat held by al-Qaeda had been released.

After three years in captivity in Yemen, Abdullah al-Khalidi made his way back to Saudi Arabia, where he was welcomed home by huge crowds that included Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef and Minister of Defence Mohammad bin Salman.

Riyadh said that Khalidi was freed after intensive work by Saudi intelligence, but didn't reveal how and why he was released.

A quiet case

According to local sources in Shabwa province, al-Qaeda handed the diplomat over to Yemeni officials in Bihan last Sunday.

Khalidi's fate was rarely discussed publicly. Most assumed that he had been executed or died in captivity.

Sources who spoke to members of Yemen's al-Qaeda branch say that a ransom was paid in return for Khalidi's freedom although they did not reveal the amount.

Khalidi, a 48-year-old diplomat, was from Saudi Arabia's eastern governorate of Qatif. He began his career in the government with the foreign office in Dammam.

He was transferred overseas to the Saudi consulate in the Philippines, before being promoted to the position of vice consul to Yemen in 2008.

On March 28, 2012, while he was kidnapped outside his home in the Mansoura district of Aden by tribesmen, who struck a deal with al-Qaeda for the hostage.

The kidnapping had a major impact on relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Riyadh ordered the closure of its consulate in Aden and moved all its diplomatic staff to the country's embassy in Sanaa.

"Before the abduction of Khalidi, we thought we had powerful friends in the government and society in Yemen, who would work quickly to secure the release of any Saudi employee kidnapped by any party," said one Saudi diplomat who was based in the Aden consul.

"We were shocked to see the months and years pass, without our friends being able to do anything," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

"Ever since Khalidi was kidnapped, our relatives in the kingdom would contact us on a daily basis to check in on us. The biggest concern was that al-Qaeda would execute him," he said.

Khalidi's fate remained an unknown for 20 days after he was kidnapped.

On April 18, 2012, the then Saudi ambassador Ali bin Mohammad al-Hamdan received a phone call from a man wanted by the authorities in Riyadh, Mashal al-Shadwakhi.

He told the ambassador that Khalidi was in al-Qaeda’s hands, but alive and well.

Shadwakhi then issued a set of demands to Saudi Arabia. It included the release of a number of detainees held in Saudi jails, and a ransom that was to be determined at a later date.

A recording of the conversation was posted online.

Helping the hostage 

Offers came in to the Saudis from a number of figures in Yemen to mediate in negotiations for Khalidi's release.

There was even an offer of a Yemeni military operation to free the diplomat by force.

"We were confident some of those had sincere intentions though they did not know where he was being held or have any influence over al-Qaeda. Others were just after a reward or wanted to gain favour with Riyadh,” said one Saudi source who was privy to these offers.

"Ambassador Hamdan welcomed any efforts that could lead to his release, but onhe would inform all those offering to mediate that the kingdom, while determined to get Khalidi released, would not cave in to the dictates of the terrorists."

Weeks passed, then months, and the promises led to nothing.

     Khalidi made five video appeals to the Saudi government, which were posted online by al-Qaeda's media arm.

Khalidi made five video appeals to the Saudi government, which were posted online by al-Qaeda's media arm. In one video he reminded Riyadh that Israel had released "more than a thousand Palestinians" in return for one kidnapped Israeli soldier.

"I am a Saudi citizen who served the Saudi government in more than one place and post. Do I not deserve being released in return for a few women and elderly people?" he asked.

Those who took part in some negotiations for Khalidi's release say that al-Qaeda at times appeared on the brink of releasing the diplomat, before backtracking giving various excuses.

Sometimes they would demand that the ransom sum be increased, or end talks because of a US drone strike. 

Then it might be due to the stubbornness of Saudi al-Qaeda members involved in the negotiations who were unhappy about the conditions for the release of their comrades held in Saudi jails.

"The problem after that was Saudi-Saudi. Yemeni al-Qaeda leaders did not have any problem releasing him, and the main objection came from their Saudi associates," one mediator said.


On April 23, 2012, the Saudi authorities released five female detainees linked to the extremist group through a court order, but without making any reference to al-Qaeda's hostage demands.

Khalidi appeared later in a recording calling for the release of the remaining detainees.

As the negotiations reached stalemate, an intense media campaign took place that forced Riyadh to completely refrain from offering a ransom in return for the diplomat’s release.

The kidnappers responded by saying that money was owed for protecting and feeding the captive, and even for Khalidi's medical treatment.

They say that even if all al-Qaeda detainees were freed, Khalidi would not be released without Saudi authorities paying a "fee".

The list of the bills including a fee for treating his eyesight and one mediator says this was confirmed later, when Khalidi appeared in videos without his glasses.

These complications to the negotiations meant that years passed without any progress.

From the Saudi side it appeared that they were managing the crisis successfully enough to preserve the life of Khalidi, but not enough to achieve a decisive breakthrough.

Yemeni army campaigns against al-Qaeda strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa were encumbered by Khalidi's presence in al-Qaeda's custody.

Concerned that this might risk the diplomat's life, Yemeni authorities were said to have pressed the Saudis to meet the bare minimum of al-Qaeda’s demands.

On several occasions, negotiators were told that al-Qaeda were ready to execute Khalidi unless Riyadh complied with their demands.

Saudi Arabia also relied on tribal leaders who had channels open with the extremist group, such as Tariq al-Fadli, a sheikh from the al-Qaeda stronghold of Zinjibar who had fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Any counter-terrorism swoop to free Khalidi would also be risky, and Riyadh knew that the Yemeni state was al-Qaeda's number one enemy, so were reluctant to use officials and intermediaries.

Saudi Arabia might have made the right steps to have the diplomat freed, although with the current turmoil it appears that the threat of the group in Yemen is far from diminished.

The long tale also shows just how hard the group is to negotiate with.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.