On May 27, an airstrike by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in northeastern Afghanistan killed Sakhr al Taifi, a Saudi citizen and al Qaeda’s deputy commander for Afghanistan. As The Long War Journal noted, al Taifi was the fourth Saudi al Qaeda leader killed by ISAF forces in Afghanistan’s Kunar province alone since the summer of 2010.
Saudi jihadis are active not only in Afghanistan. They also make up a core component of Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), including the group’s deputy commander, former Guantanamo Bay detainee Said al-Shihri, and bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri.
And despite the death of Osama bin Laden last May, Saudi Arabia has yet to purge the jihadist legacy of its most notorious former citizen.
The problem persists despite the Saudi government’s considerable efforts to subdue it. After al Qaeda staged violent attacks in the kingdom in 2003 and 2004, the Saudis launched a crackdown to root out terror finance and radicalism, focusing on “men, money, and mindset.”
Between 2003 and 2008, Saudi authorities broke up local al Qaeda cells, worked with the US government to implement financial oversight of banks and charities, and monitored thousands of the country’s mosques and schools, as well as websites. They also developed a deradicalization program for extremists, designed to combat the “deviant” ideologies that drive terrorism.
These initiatives have had success, notably the deradicalization and counterterror finance campaigns. Though the purported recidivism rates for the deradicalization program may not be entirely reliable, the Saudi government is taking steps to battle the ideology that it promoted for decades. And US Treasury officials say that the Saudis are now much more willing to help contain terror finance.
Online jihadist messaging from Saudi clerics
Yet the problem of “bin Ladenism” lingers in Saudi Arabia. In an attempt to examine what Saudi clerics are saying online and how they spread their messages, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) commissioned a study covering the period Jan. 1 – June 30, 2011. FDD worked with ConStrat, a Washington, D.C.-based technology company, to collect and analyze more than 40,000 social media entries in both English and Arabic that focused specifically on the Saudi clerics.
ConStrat was five months into data collection for the study when the US killed Osama bin Laden in the raid at his Abbottabad, Pakistan compound on May 2. Shortly after the news broke, Saudi clerics, led by Salman al Odah, a former inspiration to bin Laden, weighed in on the social media. “We disagree with [bin Laden’s] actions, and call for mercy and forgiveness on his soul. However, ideas do not end by the demise of their owners; these ideas are resisted by ideas, by spreading justice, and correcting mistakes.”
Al Odah’s statement dovetails with the campaign by the Saudi state and its religious establishment since 2003 to repudiate the actions of bin Laden and al Qaeda. The results of those efforts were reflected to some extent in the FDD study data. For example, in January 2011, Minister of Islamic Affairs Salih Al al Sheikh highlighted the government’s efforts to spread “moderate” Islam and reject “deviant” and “extremist” ideas through da’wa (outreach) websites.
Then in February 2011, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al al Sheikh — Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority — vehemently condemned al Qaeda. “[Al Qaeda’s] words and actions have caused destruction for Islam and Muslims. Every sane Muslim can easily understand that they are following a deviant path…,” he said.
To a large extent, the campaign to undercut al Qaeda in Saudi religious discourse appears to have worked, according to the FDD study. Calls for violence accounted for just a small portion of the total content of the social media data — only 5 percent.
Saudi clerics’ ambivalence on jihad
But apparent success of the Saudi campaign, as suggested by the data above, obfuscates a key point: the clerics do not condemn jihad per se, just al Qaeda’s jihad.
For example, on his personal website, the Grand Mufti rules that, “[i]ndividual citizens should not get involved with security matters….It is up to the rulers [i.e., the Saudi ruling family] of the land to assess the intentions of non-Muslims and decide what course of action to take towards them.”
Similarly, the Permanent Committee for Research and Ifta, an affiliate of the CSU, advises that jihad “becomes obligatory when the Muslim ruler declares a general struggle and commands you to go to war or when the person is actually involved in the battle.”
And although most Saudi clerics now explicitly oppose al Qaeda’s tactics, the fatawa [plural for fatwa] issued by current and former clerics still provide fodder for extremists.
Hamud ibn Uqla al-Shuaibi, who died in 2001, was a proponent of suicide attacks and was celebrated in AQAP’s Inspire magazine. A ruling from the website dedicated to his works concludes: “Martyrdom operations…are legitimate in religion…if the intention of the perpetrator is pure. They are one of the most successful means of jihad….”
And Saudi clerics continue to advocate violent jihad. For example, Muhammad al Munajjid, whose Islam Q&A website is available as a free “app” on iTunes, also provides justifications for violence. “[The Caliph]…must strive in jihad against those who stubbornly reject Islam after being called to it, until they become Muslim or agree to live under Muslim protection and pay jizyah (tax on non-Muslims), so…[Islam] will prevail over all others.”
Even Salman al Odah, the ostensible moderate who boasts 1.1 million Twitter followers, has endorsed jihad. He states: “Jihad means fighting the infidels and the like — this is the duty of the people of the country that has been dominated or occupied by the infidels. The rest of the Muslims must assist and support them.”
And finally, clerics continue to urge extremism toward Israel. After Israel and Hamas completed the prisoner swap for Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit in October 2011, Aidh al Qarnee defended a fellow Saudi cleric who had offered $100,000 to any Palestinian who could capture another Israeli soldier. Al Qarnee, who has 1.1 million Twitter followers, asked Allah to grant him martyrdom “for the conquest of Jerusalem,” and lauded “all who struggle with their tongue, their money, their blood, or their knowledge [against] the Zionist entity.”
The data from the FDD study suggests that the Saudi government’s efforts to restrict or reduce the amount of militant online content have been somewhat effective. This indicates that when the Saudis are sufficiently motivated, they can temper the radicalism that has long percolated in the kingdom. But the data also shows that the Saudi campaign has not been able to eliminate radicalism, even, and perhaps most significantly, at the highest levels of the Saudi religious establishment.
Steven Miller is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and recently co-authored the monograph “Facebook Fatwa: Saudi Clerics, Wahhabi Islam and Social Media.” He tweets @ShaykhSM.