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 . 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.
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
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  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.