Crown Prince Nayef, the interior minister who spearheaded Saudi Arabia’s fierce crackdown crushing al-Qaeda’s branch in the country after the 9/11 attacks in the United States and then rose to become next in line to the throne, has died. He was in his late 70s.

Prince Nayef’s death unexpectedly reopens the question of succession in this Islamic kingdom for the second time in less than a year. The 88-year-old King Abdullah has now outlived two designated successors, despite ailments of his own. Now a new crown prince must be chosen from among his brothers and half-brothers, all the sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder, Abdul-Aziz.

The figure believed most likely to be tapped as the new heir is Prince Salman, the current defence minister who previously served for decades in the powerful post of governor of Riyadh, the capital. The crown prince will be chosen by the Allegiance Council, an assembly of Abdul-Aziz’s sons and some of his grandchildren.

A statement by the Royal Family said Prince Nayef died on Saturday in a hospital abroad. It did not specify where. Prince Nayef had been out of the country since late May, when he went on a trip that was described as a “personal vacation” that would include medical tests. He travelled abroad frequently in recent years for tests but authorities never reported what ailments he may have been suffering from.

Prince Nayef had a reputation for being a hard-liner and a conservative. He was believed to be closer than many of his brothers to the powerful Wahhabi religious establishment that gives legitimacy to the Royal Family, and he at times worked to give a freer hand to the religious police who enforce strict social rules.

Prince Nayef, who was interior minister in charge of internal security forces since 1975, built up his power in the kingdom though his fierce crackdown against al-Qaeda’s branch in the country following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and a broader campaign to prevent the growth of Islamic militancy among Saudis.

Prince Nayef, a soft-spoken, stocky man of medium build, was born in 1933, the 23rd son of Abdul-Aziz, the family patriarch who founded the kingdom in 1932 and had dozens of sons by various wives. Prince Nayef was one of the five surviving members of the Sudairi seven, sons of Abdul-Aziz from his wife Hussa bint Ahmad Sudairi who, for decades, have held influential posts. That makes him a half-brother of King Abdullah. Before being appointed interior minister, he held the posts of Riyadh governor, deputy minister of interior and minister of state for internal affairs.

Prince Nayef has 10 children from several wives.

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