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

July 1, 2010

How could jihadi violence break out in a country seen as the historical heartland of Islam and ruled by a state that boasts about its many Islamic credentials? Here, Thomas Hegghammer unpacks the paradox of jihadi militancy in an Islamic state.

The book is based on fieldwork in Saudi Arabia, and draws on an impressive collection of biographies and written sources from al-Qaeda websites. Its 10 chapters trace the evolution of militant Islamism and its later containment by Saudi authorities.

Since 9/11, scholars and security specialists have searched for plausible explanations to account for jihadi militancy at local and global levels. Wahhabi radical theology, Western foreign policies, socio-economic deprivation, dictatorships in the Muslim world and, more recently, the rise of the internet, are often cited as causal factors. In a global world, it has become difficult to isolate local conditions from global contexts.

Hegghammer introduces his own hypothesis: Saudi pan-Islamism, "a macro-nationalism, centred on the imagined community of the umma (global community of Muslims)", is the primary explanation for the brief outburst of violence in Saudi Arabia. As an orientation, pan-Islamism is mainly linked to the oil boom of the 1970s, when sympathy with the suffering of other Muslims became a new source for Saudi legitimacy, activism and engagement with the Muslim world. This engagement came to fruition in 1979, when Saudi Arabia joined Western powers to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It was an opportunity to direct Saudi jihadi effervescence outward. The suffering of the umma on the periphery of the Islamic historical centre proved to be a successful recruitment slogan to draw Saudis, recently tamed by the luxuries of the new oil era, into the Afghan jihad.

While Osama bin Laden was the most notorious jihadi icon, the Saudi state and its many religious institutions were instrumental in igniting the flames of jihad among a young generation awaiting martyrdom in the name of the umma. Up to that moment, pan-Islamism had found expression in global Muslim institutions, charities, banks and education centres, but with the outbreak of the Afghan jihad, combat in Kabul and Kandahar provided an opportunity to be really involved.

For the first time, the vanguards of the imagined umma came to interact as defenders of faith and land. Multiple militant Islamist ideologies intermingled, albeit not without conflict, dissent and competition. Although a small group, the first wave of Saudi jihadis was born.

In 2003, Saudi jihadi violence returned home - first in an attack on a residential compound that killed 35 people and later in suicide bombings that claimed more than 300 lives. Hegghammer traces the rise of the QAP (al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula), which claimed responsibility for the attacks and shattered the myth about Saudi immunity to jihadi violence. The Saudi security forces were not prepared for such sudden attacks. In Hegghammer's words, they were complacent and inefficient.

Initially, Saudi Arabia went into a state of denial. The main concern was to absolve the Wahhabi religious tradition of any wrongdoing and its network of global Islamic charities of financing terrorism. When terrorism became an internal problem, Saudi officials began to search for explanations and solutions. They boosted their security and intelligence services, mobilised their society, cooperated with the international community and allowed foreign journalists and researchers to enter the country. By 2008, the danger was contained and militant mobilisation undermined thanks to the power of the state, the lack of popular support for the QAP and the Iraq war.

If pan-Islamism was the cause of the Saudi militant jihad, Hegghammer suggests that the solution could lie in promoting local Saudi nationalism and moderating populist sentiments in support of the umma. However, a shift from pan-Islamism to local nationalism may be difficult in a state founded on the principle of spreading true Islam and guarding the interests of Muslims.

Here, Hegghammer does not move away from typologies that have dominated security studies of Islamist militants. With every new publication, classical and global jihadis, nationalist and internationalist jihadis, and in this book "al-Qaeda Central", serve as ideal types, with biographies of ideologues and activists organised in neat categories. Luckily, Hegghammer does recognise the limitations of classifications.

Profiling terrorists may be one of the most difficult tasks facing security agencies today. After a decade of research and investigation, we are far from predicting with reasonable accuracy who will be drawn into Islamist militancy in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. This dense book is not an easy read for novices, but it is a welcome contribution to understanding the Saudi paradox and the enigma of the QAP.

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

By Thomas Hegghammer
Cambridge University Press, 302pp, £60.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9780521518581 and 732369
Published 1 April 2010

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