Study shows Saudi ambivalence on radicalism

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.



  • Paul D says:

    Who is more dangerous to the West, Saudi or Iran?
    Look what Saudi mosques teach re jihad and hating infidels worldwide.

  • mike merlo says:

    Good information. Every time I read about this ‘subject’ it gives me the creeps. This ‘subject’ of dogma, indoctrination, ideology etc., illustrates not only how far we’ve come but even spookier is how far we still need to go in dealing with this threat.

  • Joshua says:

    I think we need to come to terms with the fact that jihad is in fact an integral aspect of the islamic religion. You can’t exactly expect them to condemn all interpretations of it – unless you expect them to abandon their religion altogether.

  • Tony Buzan says:

    I am unable to support the following conclusion of this report:
    “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.”
    Your methodology to studying Saudi religious “discourse” only included online content.
    Like all others, Saudis discuss religion at the place of worship (church or mosque) quite a bit, as well as in study groups and among themselves.
    The Saudi jihadists who are online know darn well their posts are being monitored. They have a clear incentive to avoid being easy prey for the authorities and keeping a lowered profile online.
    The state of online religious discourse is only a subset of the much broader domain of religious discourse in Saudi Arabia.
    Additionally, the median income of those who post heavily online has generally been shown to be higher than those who have zero online access. This is known as the “digital divide” where those of us with access to computer networks fare far better financially than those unwired among us.
    And it is not at all far-fetched to assert that the most marginalized and dispossessed in Saudi society, those living on the fringes who cannot afford pretty gadgets may very well carrying on some pretty nasty religious discourse offline.
    In short, you are using online content to serve as a proxy variable for the underlying state of the Saudi nation.
    For a variety of reasons, a broader and more comprehensive analysis would inspire more confidence in me.
    Indeed, this is what the Rendon Group likes to do; they survey newspaper, television, radio and online in their efforts to learn more about trends.
    I just don’t trust the Saudis further than I can spit.

  • Pete says:

    I don’t see what the big deal is. They can’t wage Jihad without the consent of their leaders, and the Saudi king isn’t going to give his consent anytime soon. Even concerning Syria, the muftis and sheikhs had to shutup about it and the struggle in Syria isn’t even controversial. If your problem is the word, “Jihad”, well that’s not going to be fixed anytime soon. Does it really matter if they use the word “Jihad”, or “war” or “fight” or “struggle?” In any country, no one goes to war until the leader gives his consent. Sure there’s some Saudis and Kuwaitis trickling into Syria to go and fight, but they are not pouring in. If the King gave his consent, they would be pouring in. I think the fears expressed in this article are a bit exaggerated. Also, if you expect them to become soft on Israel, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Every Muslim country, even secular or more liberal ones, express hatred towards Israel and pray for their destruction. I suggest going to Israel and hearing how rampant the hatred of Muslims and Islam are there. It’s not going to be much different.

  • Rogg Gollibo says:

    Buzan – great point.
    As long as the KSA/Yemen border is passable, the Kingdom will not be able to defend themselves. On another note, when AQAP memebers can break out of KSA prisons about once or twice a year, that doesn’t help either.

  • The author forget about spread of Wahabism in all Muslim lands by Saudi funded clerics. In India the funds are flowing into Madrassas which teach wahabism.West has to think about the Ideology and not the rulers who may be US lackeys.

  • Paul D says:

    You might want to look at the amount of Saudi insurgents in Afghanistan,Yemen and Iraq who did not ask for the Kings permission in the last ten years.
    Its whats taught by the religious hierachy which is the problem.

  • Tony Buzan says:

    Paul D raises an essential point.
    Private and massive Saudi funding of jihadis worldwide is done openly on Saudi television through ranting televangelists that get a wink and a nod from the monarchy.
    And those massive fundraising drives on mainstream Saudi TV channels, coupled with white hot jihadi trash talking are completely unaddressed in this study.

  • Paul D says:

    Islamist groups like MB see freedom of religion in the West as an opportunity/weakness.

  • Samuel says:

    I agree with Tony B: In the West, radical Muslim clerics effectively recruit the prison population/ghetto poor to virulently radical Islam while running a clever information operations campaign that has convinced (at least American) security services that their outreach efforts are harmless. Some sources cite at least 20% of the prison population of the state of New York has converted to some form of radical Islam.
    If this kind of comprehensive radical recruitment can happen in the West where antipathy to radical Islam runs deep since 9/11, it is certainly still happening in Saudi Arabia on a large scale, online trends notwithstanding. Clerics saying one thing in public to mollify government mandate but preaching quite another message to their congregations is not only possible but likely. Culture/religion changes slowly, and deep-seated beliefs that are cocomitant with radical Islam (like the belief that Americans are unjust occupiers and enemies because of their alliance with hated Israel) will not change soon simply because of a government mandate cracking down on the expression of radical speech. This turn against al-Qaeda is an expression of ‘political Islam’, that is, political powers using the tools of religion for political ends. If the state sees fit to endorse another radical group for political means, they will do so.


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