Debate over “jihad” in Saudi Arabia

A review of 'Jihad in Saudi Arabia', by Thomas Hegghammer, looks at the complications of adequately describing ideology and not just socio-economic movements
Murad Batal Al-Shishani
10 February 2011

Thomas Hegghammer's book, Jihad in Saudi Arabia, does not devote many pages to history, but is very useful for the non-specialist reader interested in the Jihadi trend in Saudi Arabia, providing ample analyses on the backgrounds of Saudi 'Jihadists'  - their education, social backgrounds, participation in fighting and other information.

The book raises three major issues that should spark further debate. The first is a distinction between the so-called 'classical Jihad' and ‘global Jihad'; the second is the shift from 'awakening' to 'Jihad'; and the third deals with the tribal backgrounds of the 'Jihadists', especially in regards to southern tribes in the Saudi Kingdom following their movement to Yemen where they have formed with their Yemeni counterparts an ‘Al-Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula’. 

Classic jihad vs. global jihad

Hegghammer differentiates between those whom he calls 'Classical Saudi Jihadists' and 'Saudis engaged in Global Jihad'. He views the first as representing those who went out to fight because a non-Muslim country had occupied a Muslim country, resting upon the 'Jihad Al-dafi’' (defensive Jihad) principle. Their actions appeared in their participation in the war in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, in Bosnia Herzegovina during the ethnic conflict in that region during the nineteen nineties, and in Chechnya during the Russian invasion of the region.  On the other hand, another trend appeared later - 'Global Jihad' which targeted the US and the west, shaping up after 9/11 in a bid to spread 'Jihad' outside the scope of the occupation of a Muslim territory by a non-Muslim power.

Although in many cases, as Hegghammer accurately notes, there were disputes among these 'Jihadists', yet their description as two separate parties without any connection between them overlooks the basic fact that we are dealing with an ideology and not only with socio-economic movements. The Salafi-Jihadist ideology has emerged through time and in its different stages out of what Hegghammer calls 'Classical Jihad', partly in the first Afghan era.

The Salafi-Jihadist trend is a process of conciliation (in the sense of merging two contrasting elements to produce one with new properties and behaviour, as in the chemical concept used in the study of thought evolution) incorporating the Jihadi ideas, couched in Islamic discourse, of political movements that aimed to overthrow political regimes through violent and armed methods. This was paradoxically influenced both by Iran's Islamic revolution and later by the Afghan Jihad and that conservative traditional and non-politicized 'salafi' thinking which focuses on socio-ethical issues and strictly jurisprudential mechanisms. The land of Afghanistan stood, during the fight against the Soviet Union, as a laboratory for this cross-fertilization and merger between two paradoxical groups; the 'salafi' Saudis who joined in the 'Afghan Jihad' and Egyptian 'Jihadists' who fled Egypt after an attempt to overthrow its regime and the assassination of its president Anwar Al-Sadat. It is simply not possible to draw a clear separation between the two parties suggested by Hegghammer.

Security solution

Hegghammer rightly concludes that security measures adopted to deal with the Salafi-reformist movement caused a void within the Islamic political movement in Saudi Arabia, leading new 'Jihadists' and their chiefs to fill the void. The Salafi-reformist movement began to form a popular political opposition in the early nineties, during the second Gulf war, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. This was led by Salman Al-Oudeh and Safar Al-Hawali, known as 'Sheikhai al-Sahwa' (the two chiefs of the Awakening movement), who were imprisoned from 1994 until 1999. They belonged to 'Al-Halaqa Al-Shueibah' (the Al-Shueibah ring) named after Sheikh Hmud Al-Oqla Al-Shueibi who died in 2002. His followers, including Nasser Al-Fahd, Suleiman Al-Olwan, Hmud Al-Khalidi and Ali Al-Khudeir, are all currently in prison. It is worth noting that such security measures have not only led to the emergence of new 'Jihadists' but opposing groups who were less educated and more violent, partially due to the absence of channels for legitimate political practice.

Yusuf Al-Ayyeri, a Saudi Jihadi leader and ideologue, is a good example. He was killed by Saudi security forces in 2003 after playing a major role in assembling the Jihadists and challenging Saudi authorities between 2003 and 2007. Hegghammer devotes several pages to his role, for example in the "Al-Qaseem demonstration" protesting against the imprisonment of Salman Al-Oudeh in 1994. He was arrested following that demonstration.

Jihadist social backgrounds

Compare the educational background of ‘Reformists’ and 'Jihadists', and you will see that in the early nineties, the reformists presented the late King Fahd Ben Abdel Azeez and the Mufti (religious leader) of Saudi Arabia, Abdel Aziz Ben Baz, with two documents known as 'Muthakaret al-Naseeha' (a memorandum of advice) and 'Khitab al-Mataleb' (a letter of demands). These made several demands for both reform and control, as well as demands regarding the conditions of the religious institutions in the Kingdom. Meanwhile, the latter (Jihadists) appeared on special ‘wanted lists’ issued by the Saudi authorities; list no.19 (May, 2003), list no.26 (December 2003), list no.36 (June, 2005) and list no.85 (February, 2009).

More than half of the first group are holders of university degrees, while only one of the 'Jihadists', currently in prison, held an MA degree and is known as the group ideologue, Faris Bin Shweil Al-zahrani, (aka Abi Jandal Al-Azdi).  Hegghammer also points to the low educational level of Jihadists, but he does not pursue the difference between the peaceful and armed opposition groups in Saudi Arabia, and instead concentrates on the absence of political channels and its impact in creating the movement.

The regional factor

One last observation on the book relates to the ‘regional factor’ in the formation of the Saudi 'Jihadists'. Hegghammer concludes, in terms of quantity, that a majority of them (260 persons) who were involved in confrontations with Saudi authorities after 2001 were primarily from the central region of Najd, followed by the western region of Hijaz and other areas. Hegghammer underestimates reports which after the 9/11 attacks pointed to southern Saudi Arabia as the region where the 'Jihadists' came from, since most of the Saudis who took part in the attacks were from the south. He regarded such reports as an overstatement by the media. But this is where the Saudi members of Al-Qaeda moving to neighbouring Yemen, whose tribes are interrelated with those of Saudi Arabia, come in. His study does not refer to such new developments because he wrote it before Al-Qaeda took its current position in Yemen.

According to figures compiled by the writer of this article, southerners make up nearly 22% of the Saudi Salafi-Jihadist movement members, close to the number of those who came from the western region, estimated at 21%. Those who came from the central region constituted 52%.[1] This development was accompanied by a manifesto from Abu Jandal Al-Azdi entitled "Ya Ahla Al-Janoub' (a call to the people of the southern region) considered as an exhortation directed to the southern Saudi tribes in 2004, with an early allusion to the possible involvement of Yemeni groups in the conflict. Among the Saudis who make up a third of 'Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula' Organization are 50% from the south and 39% from the central region, namely Al-Qaseem. Such figures point to a change in Al-Qaeda strategies. For reliance on the tribal dimension is considered as a cornerstone in the positioning of the 'Salafi-Jihadist' groups in Yemen. 

Whatever the case, Hegghammer's book remains one of the basic sources for those who seek deep knowledge of the 'Salafi-Jihadist' movement in Saudi Arabia, especially with the rich information it has provided to the media where so much that is real is mingled with so much hype. This latest development has now become a source of international political tensions, with more repercussions reported currently, as in Yemen.

[1] -"The Geopolitics of Al-Qaeda", A study by the writer, forthcoming, 2011 (in Arabic).

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