Most discussions of Saudi Arabia and jihadists tend to focus on Riyadh's key role in producing the different variants of jihadism that have emerged since the 1970s. Although this narrative is true, it is dated. Often, once a narrative is formed it remains in currency even after it has become obsolete. This is because reality is usually more complex than presented and is constantly evolving, making it hard for observers to keep up with the shifts taking place. Despite the persistent narrative, in recent years Saudi Arabia has been waging a growing fight against jihadism. If al Qaeda's ideology is to be defeated, it is essential that the Saudis succeed in their efforts.
The news that the Saudi government on March 7 declared two al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria to be terrorist organizations confounded many. In a statement issued by the Interior Ministry, the kingdom formally blacklisted Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaeda's official branch in Syria) and its rival, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Riyadh included the two along with the Saudi branch of Hezbollah and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
The move against Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group linked to its parent organization in Lebanon, is obvious, given the sectarian struggle in the region. Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood's calls for a republican form of Islamism, which run counter to the monarchy's interests, inform the historic animosity between the Saudis and the Brotherhood. However, the Saudis' denouncement of two groups that share the goal of toppling the Syrian regime — especially when Damascus and its main regional patron, Iran (the Saudis' principal foe), have the upper hand in the civil war — is notable. Even though the Saudis do not support Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, they benefit from the attacks that these two groups conduct against the Syrians and their Iranian/Shiite allies.
More important, the nuclear negotiations between Tehran and Washington are leading Iran to international rehabilitation and highlighting the divergence in U.S. and Saudi regional interests. Under these circumstances, why is the Saudi kingdom outlawing two groups that make up a large portion of the forces battling the Syrian state?
The Saudis' Reasoning
Recently, we explained how Saudi Arabia cannot effectively combat Iran unless it deals with al Qaeda and transnational jihadism. Al Qaeda and transnational jihadism are, in many ways, the unintended consequences of the Saudis using Salafism and jihadism as instruments to promote their foreign policy interests. For some time, the Saudis pursued this same policy in Syria, but it only created more problems.
Groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant have hijacked the anti-Iran/Shia ethnic and sectarian cause. Moreover, the Syrian regime bounced back last year — aided by infighting among and against the jihadists — and began retaking territories lost to the rebels. In addition, the United States and the West have held back support for the non-jihadist rebel groups for fear that jihadists would be the main beneficiaries of regime collapse in Syria.
This situation has forced the Saudis to overhaul their policy on Syria. A key component of this is the cultivation of a rebel force of relatively moderate Salafists and jihadists who are equally opposed to the Alawites and al Qaeda. This policy has yet to produce dividends because the Saudis face a strategic dilemma: Al Qaeda and transnational jihadists are challenging the Saudi monarchy's status as the ultimate authority over Salafism.
This is where Saudi Arabia has a problem in competing with Iran. Arab Shiite militant groups such as Hezbollah and others remain aligned with Iran, or at least do not wish to confront Iran. In contrast, many Salafist-jihadist militants fighting Tehran and the Shia also want to assume leadership of the Sunni world — and have targeted the Saudi monarchy directly. This puts the Salafist-jihadists on a collision course with Saudi Arabia. From the Saudi perspective, Iran and the Shia represent the "other" and are thus easy to confront. The jihadists, however, are part of the "self" and are thus more difficult to deal with.
Challenges to the Saudi Fight Against Jihadists
Saudi efforts against jihadists are not new. During the mid-2000s, Saudi Arabia put down the al Qaeda insurgency within the kingdom. This forced the jihadists to relocate to Yemen, where the Saudis have largely been able to contain the problem.
The Arab Spring, however, has greatly complicated matters and constrained the Saudis' ability to act in the way they have previously at home or south of their border. Weakening autocratic regimes have created space for the jihadists to expand. At a time when the Saudis need to focus on the challenge posed by the Iranians and their Arab Shiite allies, Riyadh's attention is being diverted.
The jihadist threat from within the Sunni/Arab milieu not only distracts the Saudis from the larger threat of an assertive Iran, it also undermines the Saudi aim of assuming regional leadership. In this regard, Riyadh has two problems: countering the perception that Saudi foreign policy is largely responsible for the proliferation of transnational jihadism and the reality that Saudi Arabia's actions tend to work in favor of al Qaeda's agenda.
Ultimately, the challenge that the Saudis face is hardwired into the nature of their polity, the official ideology of which is Salafism. With the exception of a few occasions (such as the uprising of the Ikhwan militia in the late 1920s, the resistance to modernity in the 1960s, the uprising in 1979 and the short-lived insurgency in the mid-2000s), the Saudis have been able to combat the competing notion of Salafist-jihadism. Indeed, within the confines of the kingdom, the Saudis do not face any competition to their ownership of Salafism.
The problems occur outside their borders, where non-state actors who offer a competing view of Salafism abound and Saudi control is limited. From the Saudi point of view, jihad is only legitimate when sanctioned by the rulers (more specifically, an Islamic polity), which is the Saudi view of the struggle against the Syrian regime. Because it does not control the discursive boundaries of this type of jihad, the Saudis cannot control the actions of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which tend to subvert Saudi imperatives for their own ambitions. More specifically, rather than launching the war itself, the Saudi state is using non-state proxies to wage war. This empowers the non-state proxies, who then turn on the Saudi regime, which they consider corrupted.
As a result, the Saudis are less able to leverage jihadists for their strategic objectives. Instead, the jihadists are exploiting the Saudi moves for their transnational ambitions. Well aware of this problem, Riyadh is trying to counter the jihadists on both the ideological and practical levels.
On the practical level, the kingdom is trying to control the flow of money and weapons and give training and diplomatic support to the rebels who oppose al Qaeda and transnational jihadism. But there are limits to exercising such control because the battlefield is fluid. Once deployed, human and material resources can interact in unexpected ways, leading to undesirable outcomes.
Compounding the problem is that ideologies are much harder to control, especially in this age of social media. We are seeing this in the intra-jihadist debate centered on Syria, where leading jihadist theoreticians such as Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi of Jordan are having a hard time trying to counter the formulations of those who support the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which no longer takes orders from al Qaeda. If such bona fide jihadist ideologues are struggling to maintain influence over the jihadist landscape, then the Saudis are even more removed from the context.
In essence, the core problem the kingdom faces is that Salafist and jihadist ideas have evolved well beyond the limits the Saudis prefer. This is why the state that exported Salafism and supported jihadists around the world for decades now cannot focus on the real issues — countering Iran and managing the Arab Spring — because it is distracted by Salafist-jihadists and is now working against the very forces it fostered.