Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979

A review of Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979. (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Brian M Downing

Thomas Hegghammer, a research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, looks at al Qaeda with an eye trained in international affairs, statistical analysis, and sociology.  His book is an outstanding, engagingly-written study of the rise of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the methods used by the Saudi state to defeat it.

Phase One: 1979-1990

The movement in Saudi Arabia, which in 1988 would form into al Qaeda, began with Pan-Islamic sentiment in the late seventies and early eighties.  Despite differences and antagonisms between Islamic peoples and their leaders, there was a significant sense of community among fellow believers and an attendant conviction that oppressed brethren around the world had to be helped.  Assistance took the form of charities, relief agencies, and of course, armed fighters.  

Bosnia and Chechnya were prominent fronts, but the most significant one emerged when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in late 1979.  The war there created the personal contacts, organizational structure, and beliefs of the jihadi movement in Saudi Arabia (and elsewhere).  No Afghanistan, no al Qaeda.  Volunteers flowed into Afghanistan, often with the help of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood and other religious networks.

Who were these Saudi volunteers?  They were urban, typically from the cities of the Red Sea coast (Hijaz), as that is where influential religious networks existed.  They ranged broadly across the social structure from working class to well-to-do.  Few were poor or especially religious.  

Why did they volunteer?  Mainly to help oppressed Muslims – often to compensate for inability to help the Palestinians in their plight.  Many felt that taking part in the war was a religious duty and a purification for past sins.  Others wanted adventure (a motivation likely found in young men since time began).  In addition to the religious networks in the Hijaz, heroic stories by returning veterans were cited as inspirations, as was the coaxing of family members.

Phase Two: 1990-2001

The second phase saw the shift from “classical jihadism,” which sought to help oppressed brethren around the world, to “global jihadism,” which went beyond that and sought to attack the West and overthrow pro-Western governments.  

Islamist movements in Algeria and Egypt had failed and classical jihadism had gone nowhere in Bosnia and Chechnya.  The build-up of US troops in Saudi Arabia following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and American flailing in Somalia as well, energized some in this new generation to attack American targets.

Upon return from victory in Afghanistan and with fewer attractive theaters abroad, jihadis formed common cause with Sahwa – a moderate moral reform and anti-westernization movement.  Though Sahwa itself was not radical, many jihadists turned to violence, attacking the headquarters a US contractor in 1995 and a US barracks the following year.  The Saudi government responded with a crackdown on Sahwa and veterans of jihad.  The net was wide, the methods harsh. 

The crackdown eased in 1999 as Crown Prince Abdullah took the reins from his ailing half-brother King Fahd.  Abdullah enacted prison reforms and even compensated many of those who had been mistreated.  But repression had embittered veterans, their families, and others who felt the heavy hand fall upon them, many of whom were innocent.  The relaxation gave them the opportunity to plan revenge.

Events inside Saudi Arabia meshed with this sentiment.  The arrests of moderate Sahwa clerics opened the door for the more militant clerics of al-Shuaybi to assume more prominence.  The al-Shuaybi clerics called for and justified “mass casualty” attacks on western targets around the world – especially American ones.  

These jihadis were less educated and their social origins less broad than their predecessors in the eighties.  Religion and the quest for adventure were again main motivations. They were not overtly hostile to the US upon recruitment; that came with the training/indoctrination process abroad in al Qaeda camps.  Nor was this cohort hostile to the Saudi government, only to the harsher elements of the security forces.  

Phase Three: 2001-Present

The September 11th attacks and ensuing events led to an upsurge of al Qaeda actions in Saudi Arabia.  Al-Shuaybi clerics praised the 9/11 crews and endowed them with martyr status.  The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the continuing Palestinian Intifada, the Guantanamo internment camp, and of course the invasion of Iraq in 2003 all strengthened al Qaeda.

Several hundred al Qaeda fighters made their way back to Saudi Arabia following their (and the Taliban’s) ouster in late 2001/early 2002.  They allied with local elements and planned jihad on the Arabian peninsula.  This group was mostly Saudi but had a number of other Arabs who had also fled Afghanistan.  South Asian migrant workers might have made for eager recruits but Saudi condescension toward them precluded that.  

This third group’s education was lower and their employment more tenuous than the two cohorts that preceded them.  Ties to religious organizations were more significant.  Fifty-five percent had previously taken part in foreign jihads.  Many of them had been roughed up during Saudi crackdowns.  Many seethed with anger toward the Saudi government – a new development as earlier hostility had been directed against security forces, not the regime itself.  

Many of them had experienced difficulties in readjusting to daily life after the war and they sought to re-find the sense of purpose and brotherhood that jihad had provided.  

Counter-Terrorism and the Decline of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

The influx of hundreds of veterans and the rise of anti-American sentiment would suggest deep trouble for the Kingdom.  There were indeed bombings and shootouts, yet the movement fared badly.

The leadership of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was high in ardor but low in judgment.  Their operational and support networks were loose and many proved unreliable.  The leadership was unaware or disdainful of prevailing public sentiments against jihad inside the Kingdom.  Most Saudis preferred to see holy war waged in Baghdad, Kabul, and Grozny, not in their own cities. 

The movement’s aim of overthrowing the Saudi government found little resonance in the public.  This hindered recruitment efforts and financial support and made many Saudis willing to inform on suspect activity.  The deaths of fellow Saudis in al Qaeda attacks made the public become hostile to the movement.  

And of course the war in nearby Iraq enjoyed far greater support than the one at home.  Recruits and money went there instead of into al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Perhaps most importantly – and of most interest – the Saudi government’s countermeasures were highly effective.  The government eschewed the harsh methods of earlier efforts, which fueled anger and aided al Qaeda support, and instead opted for soft methods.  Intelligence identified and closed off financial support; border forces reduced the influx of firearms and bomb-making materials.  In time, confidence and esprit de corps grew within Saudi security forces.

Religious leaders were used to discourage recruitment and encourage desertion.  Deserters were put into reeducation centers, not prison cells.  Propaganda campaigns depicted al Qaeda personnel as confused young men or senseless killers.  They brought nothing to the nation but disorder and chaos.  The Saudi government made little if any use of torture.  

Though specific aspects of Saudi society might limit the effectiveness of this approach in other parts of the world, the methods described by Hegghammer should command the attention of those in other countries interested in countering al Qaeda and kindred groups.  In pointing out the role of western policies in the region in building jihadist sentiment, Hegghammer also demonstrates the problematic nature of American troop deployments, firepower, and use of torture.   

©2010 Asia Times