October 01, 2009

Theater of Jihad: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Mosque of the Prophet, in Medina, Saudi Arabia (Photo by Puccaso, available at Flickr)

History:  The Arabian Peninsula is the birthplace of Islam and home to the faith’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

Today’s ruling Al Saud family traces its lineage back to about 1500, when it settled in Najd, an isolated region located near the present-day capital of Riyadh.  In the mid-18th century, Muhammad Ibn abd al-Wahhab, an Islamic scholar and preacher, began propagating an austere form of Islam in Najd (berated as “Wahhabism” by its detractors; the term later loses its pejorative connotation).  In 1744, the head of the Saud family entered into an arrangement with Abd al-Wahhab to create a state based on a reductionist interpretation of Islam.  The Saud tribe came to rule Najd by the early nineteenth century.  However, they were soon dislodged from power, first by Egypt’s Muhammad Ali in 1818 and then by the rival Rashidi tribe at the close of the nineteenth century.  After returning from exile in Kuwait, in January 1902, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Saud (the Ibn Saud of Western references) and twenty followers assassinated the Rashidi governor in Riyadh, thus launching a thirty year campaign, with the Ikhwan, a pan-tribal military force espousing Wahabism providing much of the military might, to bring the many tribes of the Arabian Peninsula under Ibn Saud’s authority.  The three-decade campaign would culminate in the establishment of the modern state of Saudi Arabia in 1932.  Ibn Saud decimated and disbanded the Ikhwan, whom he deemed a threat to his rule, and incorporated the Wahhabi ‘ulama into the state structure to provide the Kingdom with religious legitimacy and run schools, bureaucracies, and charitable organizations.  With the discovery of oil in 1938 and the introduction of abundant wealth, the history of Saudi Arabia displayed recurrent patterns of cooperation and tension between the Saudi royal family and the Wahhabi clerical establishment, the subjugation of the latter to the former through the exercise of power and wealth, and the capitalization of the latter on popular discontent—alleviated by services and exacerbated in some segments by the excesses of the royal family’s lifestyle.

Episodes of the tense relations between the monarchy and clergy include the role of the Wahhabi establishment in opposing King Saud ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the son of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, who succeeded to the throne after the death of his father. The tension spiraled out of the control of both the clergy and monarchy when, in November 1979, a radical Wahhabi group seized the grand mosque at Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, for several weeks.  The leader of the group, Juhaiman al-Otaibi, called for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy out of a conviction that it had deviated from true Islam and forged too close of a relationship with the West.  The Wahhabi establishment reluctantly granted religious permission for the security forces to end the rebellion.  In the 1980s, the Saudi royal family experimented with approaches to contain public discontent, with the anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan providing a convenient outlet for its emerging domestic Islamist militancy.  Osama bin Laden was one of the Saudi youth to seek to contribute to the Afghan Jihad.  However, this safety valve that channeled militancy away from the Kingdom, proved to be a short-term solution, which in fact amplified the problem of Islamist radicalization.

On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  Amid fears that he had designs on the Kingdom, the Saudis accepted an offer from the United States to deploy troops to the Kingdom.  That September, Osama bin Laden proposed a similar deal, offering the Saudi government the services of his mujahideen from Afghanistan, an offer the Kingdom summarily rejected.  Following Iraq’s eviction from Kuwait in 1991, the United States maintained roughly 5,000 troops on Saudi soil until August 2003—what would become a major grievance for Islamists, including bin Laden.  In June 1996, nineteen U.S. servicemen stationed in Saudi Arabia were killed, and hundreds more injured, when members of Saudi Hezbollah, backed by the Iranian government, detonated a bomb at Khobar Towers. 

In September 1997, Saudi Arabia became one of three countries to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.  The two entities maintained diplomatic relations until September 25, 2001, when Saudi Arabia cut ties after 9-11.  In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, in which fifteen Saudis participated, U.S.-Saudi relations became strained.  In May 2003, however, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group launched a series of terrorist attacks on Saudi soil, several of which claimed U.S. lives, prompting Saudi Arabia to enhance its counterterrorism measures and cooperation with the U.S.  On August 1, 2005, King Fahd died, and Crown Prince Abdullah, the current king, ascended to the throne.  He has since tried to introduce modest reforms within the Kingdom. 

Demography:  As of 2009, the population of Saudi Arabia is an estimated 25-29 million people, of which 8.8 million are expatriates.  All native Saudis living in Saudi Arabia are considered Muslim, as the government does not officially recognize any other religion.  Most of Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslims follow the Hanbali and Shafi‘i schools of jurisprudence, with the former acting effectively as a state religion, through its adoption by the Wahhabi clerical establishment.  Estimates of the Shi’a population in the Kingdom range from five to fifteen percent, with most of the Shi’a population living in the Eastern Province.  About eighty-two percent of the country’s population is urbanized, thirteen percent live in rural areas, and five percent are nomadic.  The large expatriate community in Saudi Arabia is composed mainly of skilled and semi-skilled laborers.  Within that community, 6 million are Muslim, 1.5 million are Christian, and 1.3 million are Hindu.    

Politics:  Saudi Arabia is a monarchy.  In 1992, the late King Fahd ratified the Basic Law, which codified much of the Saudi system of governance.  Among other things, the Basic Law stipulates that the Qur’an and the Sunnah serve as the constitution; the King acts as both the head of state and prime minister; and future rulers come from the sons of Ibn Saud and their descendants.  There are no recognized political parties in the country, and elections do not occur at a national level.  Rather, the King appoints members of his cabinet, the Council of Ministers, and members of the 150-seat Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) for four-year terms.   In 2005, the nation did hold municipal elections – open to men only – for the first time in more than fifty years to determine half of the members of the local assemblies (the King appointed the other half).  The municipal elections scheduled for 2009 have been postponed until 2011.  The country’s laws, which are proposed by the Council of Ministers or Consultative Council and ratified by the King, must be in accordance with shari‘a.  The country’s judicial branch, which according to the Basic Law operates with complete independence, is administered by a system of religious courts, whose judges are appointed by the King upon the recommendation of the Supreme Judicial Council, a body made up of twelve senior jurists.  Currently the throne is occupied by King Abdullah, and Crown Prince Sultan is next in line for succession.  In 2006, King Abdullah created a new Allegiance Commission, which, should Crown Prince Sultan take the throne, will have a role in determining the country’s future rulers.        

Culture:  The reductionist interpretation of Islam adopted by the Wahhabi clerical establishment pervades every aspect of life in Saudi Arabia.  In fact, the Kingdom strictly forbids any public display of religion unrelated to Sunni Islam.  Religious police, known as Muttawa, patrol the streets to ensure compliance with a strict interpretation of Islamic rules, which, among other things, penalizes the consumption of alcohol, dancing, playing of music, women driving, proselytizing non-Wahhabi Islam, and being alone with an unrelated member of the opposite sex.  Converting from Sunni Islam, engaging in homosexual relations, possessing drugs, and adultery are all punishable by death.  In public, women must wear a veil covering their hair.  However, many wear the abaya, a black garb which covers the entire body from head to toe.  In addition to administering the country’s religious establishment and enforcing the law, the Wahhabi 'ulama are also responsible for running Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education.  This arrangement has led to the institution of hatred, intolerance, and, in some cases, violence toward non-Sunni Muslims throughout Saudi Arabia’s schools and universities.    

With the oil-generated wealth and the rapid rate of globalization, a cultural paradox has emerged within Saudi Arabia.  Much of the native population wrestles with maintaining its Islamic identity while trying to enjoy the luxuries that have stemmed from the country’s wealth.  Western food and clothing chains appear throughout the country, just as American-made SUVs decorate the roads.  Beneath all of this exists yet another layer of the Saudi population, often young and liberal-minded, striving for real modernization and liberalization, frequently using the Internet to express their messages of reform.


As the birthplace of Islam, Wahhabism, and Osama bin Laden, Saudi Arabia has played a critical role in the history and activity of Al Qaeda.  Indeed, the country’s importance to the global network’s worldview was articulated in bin Laden’s August 23, 1996 fatwa entitled, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.”  The declaration enumerated a list of grievances that bin Laden harbored against the Saudi regime, including human rights abuses, corruption, and its failure to implement shari‘a—all of which he attributed to the “Zionist-Crusader” occupation of Saudi Arabia during and after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.  In fact, the expulsion of Americans from Saudi soil was his top priority: “Clearly after Imaan (‘belief’) there is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the holy land,” he stated.  While bin Laden’s long term goal was to drive U.S. forces out of Saudi Arabia, in the short term, he hoped to inspire a change in regime and “re-establish the greatness of this Ummah.”  Several years later, in May 2001, Saudi Arabia remained at the forefront of bin Laden’s overall strategy, when he declared that “the moment is right for the formation of a single pure and Muslim army… to march to liberate the land of the two holy places.”  That September, with a small contingent of U.S. troops still based in the Kingdom, 15 Saudi hijackers would launch the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania

After 9-11 and the United States’ subsequent military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, bin Laden again emphasized the importance of Saudi Arabia.  In a February 2003 statement, the al-Qaeda leader mentioned Saudi Arabia in a list of six countries “most in need of liberation,” and, a few months later, in May 2003, the group launched a string of deadly attacks throughout the Kingdom.  Nonetheless, some of al-Qaeda’s top leadership advocated not striking the Kingdom out of fear that such operations would ignite a crackdown by Saudi security forces and thus negatively impact the group’s operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The dispute over how to approach the Saudi issue was brought to light by the head of al-Qaeda’s operations in Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, when in an October 2003 interview with the Internet magazine Voice of Jihad, he explained that, “There were those who said we must attack the invading forces that defile the land of the two holy places.  There were others who said we had to preserve the security of this base and this country [i.e. Saudi Arabia], from which we recruit armies, from which we get [financial] backing.  It is true that we must use this country because it is the primary source of funds for most jihad movements, and it has some degree of security and freedom of movement.”  The first school of thought, which considered it a duty to banish Westerners from the country, overthrow a corrupt regime, and establish an Islamic state, ultimately won the debate, and the deadly string of al-Qaeda attacks continued in the Kingdom until December 2004. 

During this period, al-Qaeda employed various methods of terror, including shootings, hostage takings, beheadings, and suicide and vehicle bombings.  The attacks primarily targeted Westerners—particularly Americans—and Saudi economic interests.  The intentions were twofold: 1) to drive Americans and Westerners out of Saudi Arabia, and 2) to weaken the Saudi government by inflicting damage on the country’s economy, especially its energy sector.  The terrorists achieved a degree of success, as the U.S. State Department urged all Americans to leave Saudi Arabia and pulled its nonessential diplomats from the country in April 2004.  However, the Saudi government also launched an unprecedented counter-terrorism operation and dramatically increased its intelligence cooperation with the United States.  Consequently, the number of attacks in the Kingdom abated significantly after 2004.  Nevertheless, the country remained of great importance to al-Qaeda.  In December 2004, bin Laden posted a long, scathing address on a jihadi webpage criticizing the Saudi regime for its subservience to the United States, widespread graft, and economic policy.  The address warned that should the regime not rule according to the Qur’an and hadith, it would be overthrown. 

In late-June 2009, the leader of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Mustafa abu al-Yazid acknowledged that operations in Saudi Arabia, which has not suffered a successful major terrorist attack in over four years, have been experiencing “lethargy”, though he claimed the Kingdom still retained a “dear place in the heart of every Muslim.”  Similarly, in February 2009, Nassir al-Wahishi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group that formed in January 2009 with the merger of the Yemeni and Saudi franchises of al-Qaeda, called for Muslims on the peninsula to rise up against the Saudi and Yemeni governments because of their close relationship with the United States, which he claimed had perpetrated the killing of Muslims in Gaza.  Al-Qaeda has since failed in a bold assassination attempt on the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister, Mohammed bin Nayef, executed in late August 2009.  Al-Qaeda subsequently vowed further attacks in Saudi Arabia after the humiliating failure.  It appears that AQAP is currently attempting to establish the fragile Yemeni state as a base from which to plan and launch attacks at Saudi Arabia and other regional targets.