Lessons from Islamist violence within Saudi Arabia

I recently read a fantastic paper, titled “Islamist violence and regime stability in Saudi Arabia”, written by Thomas Heghammer and published in 2008 in International Affairs, pp701-715.  It presents a compelling and well-researched analysis of why al-Qaeda was unable to destabilize Saudi Arabia and the rule of the House of Saud during its terrorist campaign between 2003 and 2007, and accomplishes this by analyzing the internal contradictions between the quietist and jihadi schools of Salafi theology, as well as the contradictions between certain schools of Salafi-jihadi thought–and the position of Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda with regards to all these currents.

The paper argues that “Saudi jihadism has been driven primarily not by regime discontent but by extreme pan-Islamism, and has thus been geared towards fighting non-Muslims” (703)–this is seen in the way that the regime sponsored the promotion of jihad in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya in the ’80s and ’90s.  Attacking the Saudi state was thus seen as an illegitimate attack on a “good” Islamic state that supported the defense of the global Islamic community.

What changed was that in the wake of the First Gulf War and the hosting of troops from the United States on Saudi Arabian soil, many Salafi-jihadis–notably, Osama bin Laden–began to view the House of Saud as illegitimate and worthy of attack.  This put him in opposition to other prominent Salafi-jihadis, such as Ibn Khattab, a Saudi jihadi leader in Chechnya who lead the local Arab contingent, who stuck with the “classical” jihadi viewpoint that violence and guerrilla warfare were only legitimate in areas where the senior Saudi/Wahhabi clerics had decreed as “theatres of jihad” (706).

The classical Salafi-jihadi viewpoint continued to hold sway into the 2000s as al-Qaeda attempted to launch an insurgency; consequently, there was little popular support for the campaign even from veteran jihadis.  Furthermore, the Saudi state engaged in a propaganda campaign portraying al-Qaeda as “misguided rebels”, which was aided by the declarations of fundamentalist clerics like the Chechnya-based Abu Umar al-Sayf who argued that the jihad in Saudi Arabia “undermined the more important jihad in Iraq” (713).

In general, it seems like Salafi-jihadi movements have a similar relationship with Saudi Arabia and its politico-religious order as do many ultra-nationalist and fascist movements and their respective states.  The state hammers into its population a message of extreme patriotism–often to the point of chauvinism, expansionism, and/or racism–and consequently breeds movements that encourage and organize for expansionist or interventionist tendencies, as well as even more extreme offshoots that view the very state whose arguments and legacy they advocate for as being too soft on “enemies”.  But a key point here is that the bolstering of ultra-nationalist ideology is often done to confront crisis and unrest (or potential for crisis and unrest) within the state, and funnel anger into more controllable directions, and in ways that can shore up the power of state elites and fulfill geopolitical and foreign policy goals.


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4 thoughts on “Lessons from Islamist violence within Saudi Arabia

  1. PW January 6, 2016 at 6:33 am Reply
  2. mukul chand January 6, 2016 at 8:06 am Reply

    great post.


  3. […] ← Lessons from Islamist violence within Saudi Arabia […]


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