Saudi Arabia: Jihadist Revival Unlikely Anytime Soon
5 MINS READFeb 12, 2009 | 15:42 GMT
HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images
There has been a lot of noise in the media over the past few weeks about a potential jihadist revival in Saudi Arabia. Much of it has to do with the Saudis move to issue a list of 85 militants that they are looking for, in terms of their wider counterterrorism efforts. More important, however, is the fact that the remnants of the battered Saudi node of the global jihadist network has had to relocate to neighboring Yemen, which means that it will be a while before the jihadists can regain the capability to strike inside the kingdom.
In recent weeks, there have been a number of developments that have contributed to fears of a revived threat of attacks from Saudi Arabia. Key among them is the Saudi decision to publish a list of 85 jihadist fugitives on Feb. 3, 15 of whom are former Guantanamo Bay inmates, and most of whom are believed to be residing in Yemen, Pakistan and Iran. Not only was this the first most wanted list from the Saudi Interior Ministry in a while, it is also the first time Riyadh has sought people living outside the kingdom (until recently the Saudis were content with the militants' leaving the country). And Riyadh not only issued the list, it also sought the involvement of Interpol, requesting that an international alert for the missing militants be issued. The Saudis also acknowledged Feb. 4 that as many as a dozen or so individuals who went through their rehabilitation program had returned to their old jihadist ways. Meanwhile, CNN on the same day reported that Saudi jihadists had made their way to Yemen, where they were planning attacks on U.S. interests. Earlier, on Jan. 20, jihadists released a video-taped statement announcing the merger of the Saudi and Yemeni nodes of al Qaeda under new Yemeni management. So the question is, why this sudden surge in jihadist-related developments on the Arabian Peninsula? There are actually two separate issues here. First is the Saudis' ability to, over the past 4 years or so, be increasingly successful at neutralizing the jihadist threat. Second is the jihadist attempts to rebuild operational capabilities to strike in the kingdom. It has been four and half years since the Saudi regime was on the defensive in the wake of a nascent but sustained jihadist insurgency. The Saudis have been successful in degrading the operational capabilities of the jihadists, and they would obviously like to keep it that way. But the Saudis are under no illusion that they have won the war against the jihadists, and have been focusing not just on counterterrorism but anti-extremism and de-radicalization efforts. The anti-extremism efforts are being accomplished on a national level targeting a broad cross section of society, the purpose of which is to prevent militants from exploiting the ultraconservative religious nature of the society, which will be a work in progress for years to come. More immediate is the need to deradicalize youth who have to varying degrees been exposed to the jihadist phenomenon. The government-run rehabilitation program is designed for this purpose, which, by the government's own account, has its shortcomings. Cognizant that the Salafist/Wahhabist religious underpinnings of the state make it difficult to completely root out militancy and their need for militant proxies on the foreign policy front — especially with the rise of Iran and its Arab Shia allies, particularly in Iraq — the rehabilitation program is about regaining control over the jihadists. The Saudis obviously cannot simply say that jihad no longer exists. Instead they are saying there is jihad but only the rulers can declare it. Considering the November 2006 threat from a top Saudi government strategic adviser to use militants to counter Iran and its Shia allies in Iraq, the jihadists are likely being told that Iran/Shia is more of a threat than the West and that when the time comes, they should be ready to deploy. In fact, at the height of the Sunni/jihadist insurgency in Iraq, the Saudis had their own insurgency underway. One way for them to deal with this was to encourage people to go to Iraq to fight U.S. forces and/or Shia as opposed to staging attacks in the kingdom; this was done rather openly. And now it appears that the Saudis want to make sure that those who did not make it into the next world are all accounted for. This helps them with their own anti-extremism efforts and allows them to raise a future force to deal with the Iran/Shia problem. This is why the Saudis are interested in knowing the whereabouts of the jihadists. Nonetheless, the fact remains that, at present, the jihadists lack the capabilities to stage attacks in the kingdom. Either they are in lands far away from the kingdom or they have been forced to relocate to neighboring Yemen, where the conditions are much more hospitable. The announcement of the newly reconstituted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula should not be taken to mean that the organization is capable of resuming operations any time soon. The video-taped statement is just that — a statement produced in Yemen. The ability to stage attacks in Saudi Arabia, however, will require the re-development of a real organization, recruitment and training of cadre, planning, securing of finances and weapons and, most important, being able to get back into the kingdom and establish operational cells. Saudi jihadists had to migrate to Yemen, which itself is an indicator of the harsh environment they faced in the kingdom and of their own weakness. The Saudi node, not too long ago, in addition to war-making capabilities, had a robust public relations department generating some high-quality electronic propaganda publications; however, that PR department has since all but disappeared — a clear sign of how hard it had become for the jihadists to operate inside the kingdom. One can never completely rule out the possibility of attacks, but between the Saudis aggressively trying to regain control over the jihadist enterprise and al Qaeda having to relocate outside the kingdom, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will experience another wave of jihadist attacks anytime soon.