Even within the ultraconservative Saudi royal family, Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud was regarded as a hard-liner. During his four decades as interior minister, he cracked down on even the smallest real or imagined threat to the ruling House of Saud, arbitrarily imprisoning thousands of dissidents—including liberals, women’s-rights campaigners, and religious minorities. But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., his ruthlessness made him a crucial ally of Washington, which looked on approvingly as he crushed Islamic militants inside Saudi Arabia. 

Prince Nayef was the 23rd son of the kingdom’s founder, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. “Much more important, however, was the fact that he was one of seven sons born to the king’s favorite wife, Hassa bint Ahmad al Sudairi,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). In a land of more than 7,000 princes, this elite pedigree put him and his brothers on top over the past 80 years. The oldest of the seven, Fahd, ruled from 1982 until his death, in 2005, and since then Abdullah, now 88, has held the throne. 

As overseer of Saudi Arabia’s internal security, Prince Nayef confronted three of the gravest domestic challenges the monarchy has ever faced, said The Wall Street Journal. In the late 1970s, his security forces crushed a wave of protests by the country’s marginalized Shiites, and played a key role in ending the two-week takeover of Mecca’s Grand Mosque by Iranian-backed extremists. Following the attacks of 9/11, Nayef “peddled the theory that the attacks were a Jewish plot, and denied that 15 of the 19 hijackers could have come from Saudi Arabia,” said The New York Times. But his attitude changed in 2003, after al Qaida bombed government facilities and targeted members of the royal family. He used a novel program to combat the extremists, offering housing and jobs to jihadists who renounced violence, and jailing or killing those who did not.

Nayef is thought to have had up to 10 children with several wives. Though his younger brother Salman, 76, now becomes crown prince, his oldest son, Saud bin Nayef, is considered a strong contender to become king when the succession finally moves to the next generation.