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Al-Qaeda on the march
By Ehsan Ahrari

The Islamic militant attack on the US Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Monday is evidence that a major showdown with the Saudi government is in the works. The Saudi rulers are now at the receiving end of what al-Qaeda-practiced militant jihadism has in mind: to bring down that dynasty, and an end of the era in which the birthplace of Islam sounded nothing more than the personal fiefdom of the Saudi family.

What al-Qaeda wants to achieve is a contradiction of the compact of 1745 between the Saudi dynasty and Mohammad Abdel Wahhab [1]. Al-Qaeda seems to have concluded that the focus of its objective on the Arabian Peninsula is to bring an end to Saudi rule. Tactically speaking, al-Qaeda appears bent on carrying out such operations periodically, largely to demonstrate to its supporters in the kingdom that it can strike at will and at points of its own choosing. In this sense, the selection of the US Consulate contains a huge symbolic message.

Three powerful forces operate on the Saudi rulers today. The first one is related to Wahhabism. The aforementioned compact of 1745 obligates them to remain loyal to the ideals of Islamic purity delineated by Wahhabism. That is not a problem if the doctrine of militant jihad is not applied on the Saudi government itself. Any attack on the Saudi government and its personnel becomes a violation of the spirit and letter of the compact. The second force operating on the Saudi government is the United States. In this instance, the pressure is on it for moderation and even revision of militant jihadi doctrine in order to make it least hostile toward the US and the West, to put it rather simplistically. The third force is al-Qaeda, which is the product of Saudi political and social milieu. Yet its global vision is heavily influenced by the militant doctrine of jihad promoted enthusiastically by Washington in the 1980s in order to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden received his first practical lessons on Islam's role and place in the world in Pakistan and Afghanistan during that decade.

This was also an era when two other Islamists - Abdullah Azzam and Ayman al-Zawahiri - were formulating and putting into practice their own views of global jihad. To Azzam, the focus of global jihad was winning freedom for his native Palestine. Al-Zawahiri formulated his own views about the necessity of political change in the world of Islam through militant jihad in the dungeons of president Jamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. It was there that he was convinced that all brutal Arab autocracies are motivated by two "dark" objectives: self-preservation and serving the "evil" designs of the West to ensure the subjugation of Muslims. Rightly or wrongly, al-Zawahiri was convinced that the purpose of global jihad had to be not only defeating the West, but also to bring an end to all corrupt Arab autocracies.

Azzam influenced the thinking of bin Laden early in his tenure as a teacher in a Saudi Islamic university, then again by getting involved in the US-led struggle to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. For Azzam, global jihad had to be focused on winning independence for the Palestinians. For bin Laden, on the contrary, the purpose of global jihad was only to glorify Islam once again. All other objectives were of tactical significance. The notion of a caliphate becomes just one objective in this thinking, but not to the extent it has been emphasized in the West. Whereas Azzam may not have been a global jihadi, al-Zawahiri certainly fits that bill, and has remained a profound influence on bin Laden to this day.

Bin Laden's notion of global jihad seems to have fully evolved during his stay in Afghanistan between 1997 and 2001. That was also a duration when Islamist forces were becoming increasingly active in Central Asia, Xinjiang, and even in Chechnya.

Saudi rulers' own perspectives regarding militant jihad were largely focused on expelling the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in the 1980s. After that, the major purpose of their political and religious activities in Central Asia, or even in such countries as Indonesia and the Philippines, was to promote Wahhabi Islam, not necessarily militant jihad. However, they did not have much objection if al-Qaeda harped on it in Central Asia, China or even Russia.

The September 11, 2001, attacks on the US started an era when Saudi Arabia was eventually forced to revisit its lackadaisical approach toward militant jihad. Since the US became a victim of it, it also demanded a major doctrinal revision of it. However, it is easier said than done. The doctrine of militant jihad is not something that can be tinkered with at will, or supported/opposed based on changing political objectives and realities.

The preceding in essence describes the dilemmas of the Saudi government today. Washington thinks Riyadh has the capability to deprive jihad of its militancy simply because it is being used against the US. About the best the Saudi rulers may be able to do is to instruct a group of Islamic scholars who are on their payroll to issue new fatwas (edicts), stating something to the effect that "changed circumstances no longer warrant its applicability, etc". But fatwas along those lines have no papal authority, since no such power exists in Sunni Islam.

As the US and Saudi bureaucrats argue and bicker over these legal issues, al-Qaeda seems bent on operating on the basis of its own version of global jihad, whose two chief purposes are to overthrow the Saudi government and continue to harm the US, its citizens and its assets anywhere and everywhere. The Saudi-al-Qaeda conflict, though it has not yet reached its final stage, has undeniably reached a point of no return. It will have to result either in the eradication of al-Qaeda or the end of the Saudi regime. No one knows that better than the Saudi government.

Note
[1] Cleric Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the founder of the puritanical Wahhabi movement, arrived in Dar'iya, near present-day Riyadh, and made a bargain with its ruler, Mohammad ibn Saud. The Saud family would provide the generals, and the Wahhabis would provide the foot soldiers.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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Dec 8, 2004
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