The tumult caused by the spate of bombings in Saudi Arabia may reflect accurately the turmoil happening in the war of hearts and minds – including those of the terrorists themselves.
Although Saudi Arabia has long been under the spotlight for its role in the al Qaeda phenomenon1, it was only early this year that there was graphic evidence that al Qaeda was sufficiently organized and equipped to counter-attack against the increasing pressures its members were coming under within the Kingdom itself.
Towards the end of 2002 the Saudi authorities, with an anxious eye on the forthcoming war in Iraq, had initiated a series of anti-terrorism measures against al Qaeda members in a climate of slowly increasing tension that manifested itself in occasional shooting attacks on Saudi officials in the north of the country. A series of arrests and weapons seizures was followed in January by armed raids in Riyadh and in February with the trial of 90 Saudi nationals for their activities in Afghanistan.
But for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the year 2003 has been punctuated by two signal events – the 12th May and 9th November bomb attacks in Riyadh – which have ‘upped the ante’ in ways that go beyond the contest of firepower. In both cases the bombings appeared to be pre-empted attacks by al Qaeda cells on the run. But if the first incident raised questions as to the purposes of the al Qaeda attack – a clumsy attempt at best at targeting westerners as outlined by Bin Laden’s notorious ‘fatwa’ of February 23, 1998 – (see Monitor September 26th), the second attack, where the victims were almost exclusively Muslims, focused a more explicitly outraged public opinion on its propriety.
For whatever the intended target of the second attack, and whatever the level of success claimed by the perpetrators, the damage to what one might term al Qaeda’s ‘passive’ support base is considerable. More than any other incident to date the November bombing holds major implications for the future of both the Saudi state and for the future of al Qaeda and jihadist militant Islam. For more than ever before a third player, public opinion, has been added to the contest and, more than the contest of arms, will very likely prove the decider. Indeed, what is happening in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may be a turning point like no other in the War against Terror, all the more surprising since it is passing largely unnoticed in the West.
Eroding the support base
The revelation for the Saudi in the street, was not only the reminder that anyone could be ‘caught in the crossfire’ but more importantly the concern that al Qaeda, in extremis, had resorted to the Algerian takfiri model of Islamic militancy, and now considered any Muslims not actively opposing the kufr (‘infidel’) regime as fair game in the struggle against the ‘Crusaders’ and their ‘local agents’.
Al Qaeda, for one, understood the PR dilemma. After a confused period, where responsibility for the attack was opaque, and in one case explicitly denied, one Islamist website, al-Qal’a, featured the commentary of an al Qaeda commander in Iraq to the effect that Saudi media reports claiming Muslim women and children victims were “merely media deceit”, and that the target held “at least 300 Americans and a large group of Lebanese Christians who had tortured Muslims in Lebanon during the civil war.”
This sensitivity was echoed in another declaration following the November synagogue attacks in Istanbul (later claimed to have targeted the presence of Mossad agents inside) where Muslims were again caught up in the explosions – “Some claim that we consider most Muslims as non-believers and sanction killing them. How do we go everywhere to protect them and then sanction shedding their blood? This cannot be accepted by sound reason, let alone a Muslim who knows the rulings of God”.2
The running contest between al Qaeda and the religious establishment heated up after the May attack, the comments of a recorded will and testament of a shahid typifying the widening gulf: “I have looked over the list of the Shahids and of their history, and I was most regretful to find among them not a single cleric from among those of the Islamic nation… I found not a single preacher from among those who have filled the world with their cassettes in which they spoke of the reward of Jihad and its status in the eyes of Allah… why do you help the tyrants against your brothers? Stop harming us.” 3
Subsequently a commentary on an online magazine identified with al Qaeda, the Sawt al-Jihad (‘Voice of Jihad’) highlighted the level of pressures exerted by the security forces: “We must take note of the stratagem used by the tyrants in many lands. They have tried to halt the Jihad project in these countries by diverting the struggle with the occupying enemy to struggle with his guards … We must guard ourselves against this trick and avoid, as far as possible, confrontations with the armies and forces of the state, so that we can strike deadly blows against the occupiers.” 4
From the side of the religious clerics critical of the authorities, notably Shaykh Al-Awaji, Shaykh Al-Hawali and Shaykh Al-Dawish, there was an ill-fated attempt at preparing the ground for mediating a settlement with the jihadists in the Kingdom, on the grounds that it was the Saudi regime that had changed its tune, not the mujahidin, who had been helped by them on their way to Afghanistan. The conditions placed on the negotiation – a general pardon to all prisoners and anyone turning himself in, the placing on trial investigators who had dishonoured, tortured, and insulted prisoners, the rehiring of all imams fired by the regime5, and the abolishing of all laws made by man and the full implementation of Shari’a law – were summarily dismissed by the Saudi Interior Minister Prince Saud Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz on the grounds that “We will talk with them only by rifle and sword” and equally by al Qaeda: “What is there to negotiate about? … anyone who rejected Allah’s law and wanted to convert his religion to the religion of America, or wanted to believe in one part of [Islam] and deny the others – we have no dialogue with them… We call upon the nation to harm Americans everywhere.”6 Three days later the Riyadh bombing took place.
Eroding the theology base
While the jihadists in Saudi Arabia would have been unsurprised at the universal media antagonism to a response made to “those who helped nurture this culture of violence” and those “whose lexicon does not include the word ‘dialogue,'” they received a debilitating blow when on 17th November Shaykh Ali al-Khudayr, a leading Saudi extremist Islamic scholar arrested together with Shaykh Nasser al-Fahd7 and Shaykh Ahmad al-Khalidi in Medina on May 28 in the aftermath of the May 12 Riyadh bombings, appeared on Saudi television to distance himself from his past fatwas supporting militant jihad. In these fatwas he had praised Osama bin Laden by name, declared certain Muslims infidels and called for a confrontation with Saudi security forces and for attacks upon Americans residing in the Arabian Peninsula. During the TV interview, which he stated was at his own request, he now considered these fatwas “misguided ijtihad (‘legal deduction’) that did not take into consideration reality and recent developments.” The Shaykh added: “We never imagined that we would reach a situation that resembles what happened in Algeria. This bloodletting must be stopped.”
The reference by such a figure to Algeria and the takfir (‘anathematization’) pronounced by the Groupe islamique armee on all Muslims not openly in conflict with the regime, is a highly significant development. So too was his approval of the retraction issued by the Egyptian al-Jama’a al-Islamiyyah, who had publicly acknowledged that they were mistaken in advocating the path of violence.
Al-Khudayr’s statement is significant for two reasons:
a) in the public sphere – the public relations failure. Irrespective of the immediate effect on the jihadists of the recantation(such a public retraction will probably be self-defeating since Islamic law invalidates a fatwa issued under conditions of imprisonment) the public relations failure implicit in the term takfir (given that making an enemy of everyone is not guaranteed to win hearts and minds) presages a failure of the program to provoke a massive rising of Muslims against the present world order.
b) in the private sphere – the damage to ideological self-confidence. For the future of militant jihad the implications of this are obvious. Saudi Arabia has been a principal manpower pool for militant mujahedin, whose most effective weapon – suicide attack – is fundamentally dependent on theological propriety.
Jihadist militancy, although aimed at galvanizing the masses, is a supremely modern individualistic phenomenon, more powered by the believer’s hopes for his own personal salvation than the more traditional ‘community feeling’8 represented in its various stages of development by tribalism or nationalism. Hence the lack of any significant effect on morale that might have been expected from the continuous train of defeats sustained by the mujahedin since the allied campaign in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
The al Qaeda phenomenon, largely spawned and sustained by the political lacuna that the Saudi kingdom has until now chosen to maintain for itself, is psychologically dependent upon the cultural adolescence of its ideologues. Consequently, more than the vagaries of the armed contest, it is in this theological dimension of the struggle, hitherto understood as the ultimate motivation for sacrifice, where its ultimate Achilles Heel lies. Given the ‘institutional weakness’ of this psychological dependency, the Riyadh bombings, in hindsight, may prove to have been al Qaeda’s most costly mistake.
Stephen Ulph is a political analyst specializing in the Islamic world and a managing editor at Jane’s Information Group.
1 Fully 17 of the 21 hijackers on 11 September were Saudis, while a total of 127 Saudis have been detained at Guantanamo Bay (by far the largest of any national contingent). In addition the activities of a number of the Kingdom’s 264 Islamic charities and the intentions of certain members of its numerous and deep-pocketed royals have come under scrutiny.
2 Statement from the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, quoted in London-based Arabic newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi on Monday 17th November.
3 Abu Tareq Al-Asswad, in video recording posted in October on an al Qaeda website (anwar-islam.com).
4 Suleiman Al-Dosari, Sawt al-Jihad, issue no.2.
5Since December 2002 204 preachers and prayer leaders have been dismissed from their posts and several hundred more prohibited from preaching. The authorities have also suspended more than 1,300 religious officials, who were obliged to undergo re-training. A number of religious figures, including Shari’a judges, have since been imprisoned for failing to stay within the new guidelines.
6 Suleiman Al-Dosari, Sawt al-Jihad, issue no.4.
7 Famous for his Risala fi Asliha al-Dimar al-Shamil (‘Treatise on Weapons of Mass Destruction’) published on his own website in which he advocated their use on the basis of qiyas (analogy) with the Prophet’s employment of similarly foreign technology, the manganikon (‘catapult’) of the Byzantine Greeks.