Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday has inflamed Sunni-Shia tensions in many parts of the Middle East. Analysts interpreted the move as bold step taken by the Saudi royals to show Iran that they are serious about holding its regional ambitions in check.
Rather than impressing the Iranians, I believe the Saudi royals set out primarily to impress their own people that they still have the stomach to fight. Rather than a match-up with Iran, the Saudis are foremost concerned about the Islamic State’s narrative regarding the legitimacy and vitality of the House of Saud in the eyes of conservative Sunnis within the kingdom.
Al-Nimr’s execution, decided upon months ago, and folded within a larger list of Sunni Saudi nationals accused of terrorism (the vast majority of them from Al-Qaeda, as opposed to Islamic State), was always expected to lead to Shia expressions of outrage. Iranian officials had been quietly pressing the Saudi king for a reprieve or at least a stay of execution for al-Nimr. They had even attempted to use Iraq’s leader pro-government Salafist authority to intercede with the Saudi king on the sheikh’s behalf. All this was to no avail; the Saudis went ahead with the execution.
The Saudis would argue that al-Nimr was no ordinary preacher or community leader; he stood accused of inspiring and directing a Shia ‘militia’ that engaged in killing security personnel, shoot-outs and the attempted abduction of foreign diplomats. The government has argued that the move was not sectarian in character, since al-Nimr was executed along with dozens of Sunni terrorists, and that the Saudi state has actively hunted down and arrested IS cadres involving in attacks on Shia places of worship last year.
However, given how al-Nimr’s sentence had become a cause célèbre among Shias in the region, especially for the Iranian leadership, the Saudis could have leveraged his reprieve or delayed the execution towards garnering goodwill with the Iranians on other regional issues of importance to them such as the reconciliation process in both Syria and Yemen, better rights and protections for Iraqi Sunnis, working out a formula for the Lebanese presidency, and tamping down flare-ups in the Persian Gulf. But all those potential advantages were sacrificed probably because there are other overriding and existential challenges that are weighing-in on Saudi decision making.
They had to execute al-Nimr at this time because the rulers of Saudi Arabia are caught in a rhetorical trap. Their main adversary in this regard is the Islamic State. Far more than al-Qaeda, the Islamic State has focused on the danger posed by Saudi Shias to ‘Sunnidom’ and had castigated the House of Saud as de facto protectors of the Shia.
Same Old Words, New and Dangerous Stakes
Al-Nimr was specifically mentioned in a speech made by the Nejd (Central Saudi Arabia) ‘Province’ of the Islamic State in October 2015. The unidentified speaker alleged that al-Nimr was spearheading the secession of the eastern section of Saudi Arabia, where a large minority of Shias reside. According to the speaker, the House of Saud are in collusion with foreign plans to weaken Sunnis by allowing the Shias to break off and create a pro-Iran satellite state.
This rhetorical tussle between the Saudis and IS bears the element of taunting, with the latter asserting that the royals had lost their ‘virility’.
‘Caliph’ al-Baghdadi makes this point clear in his May 2015 audio speech when speaking about the Saudi military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, what the Saudis call the ‘Storm of Decisiveness’:
“For it is only a ‘storm of delusion’ after the fires of the [Shias] had lapped at their thrones and their encroachment has reached our people in the Arabian Peninsula, which will lead lay Muslims to find refuge in the Islamic State because it is their defender, and this terrifies the [House of Saud] and the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula and shakes their bastions and that is the secret of their alleged ‘storm’ and, God willing, it shall be the [cause of their] demise. For the [House of Saud] and the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula are not people of warfare, and they do not have the patience for it, and they are people of luxury and frivolity, and people of drunkenness and dancing and banquets, who have acquiesced to the protection afforded to them by the Jews and Crusaders..”
This sort of taunting is not new to the Saudis. Nor is their counter reaction to prove their anti-Shia credentials from time to time. What is different nowadays is the scale of it, and the degree to which both sides are willing to go.
For example, The ‘General Deputy’ for ‘Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ (AQAP) Abu Sufyan al-Azdi, released a 16 minute audiotape in April 2009 regarding the events of the previous February in the Baqee’a cemetery of Medina, when Shia kids tried to ‘steal’ the soil from the grave of a holy figure in order to be blessed by it. This led to a crackdown by the Saudi ‘Religious Police’ on Shia pilgrims in Medina (an act which al-Azdi lauds), and it then set off confrontations between locals and the security forces in the Shia strongholds of the Eastern Province. But al-Azdi concludes that the Saudi royals are generally unable or unwilling to counter to Shia assertiveness. [The Nejd Province spokesman of IS also refers to this specific incident.]
Al-Azdi’s speech followed an earlier pattern: after a 22-month lull, AQAP has resumed its monthly magazine, Sawt Aljihad, whose 30th electronic issue was released on jihadist websites in February 2007. One lead article in that issue, written by someone calling himself Abu Ali al-Shimali, warns that “every Muslim must be aware of what might happen in the near future concerning the role to be played by the [Shias] of the Gulf in the next phase which I believe will be similar to what the [Shias] of Iraq did after the American occupation.” In other words, Mr. al-Shimali is cautioning that the Shias, who live in places like Saudi Arabia, may become allies of America, and must be dealt with before that happens.
Nor did this criticism come solely from the jihadists, it also emanated from members of the mainstream Salafist establishment such as the once-troublesome (for the royals) Sheikh Safar al-Hawali in his vitriolic response to the petition signed by Saudi Shias for greater political and economic participation that was delivered to the Saudi Crown Prince after the Iraq war in 2003. The Saudi Shias saw an opening in the Arab-leaning (rather than sectarian) character of then Crown Prince Abdullah, and the Salafist establishment sought to nip that conciliatory tendency in him in the bud.
There has been a progression in the loyal Salafist establishment’s response over time to keep up with jihadist messaging, and one can only assume that this was done with at least with the acquiescence of the Saudi royal family. For example, their first fatwa on the Iraq war (signed by al-Hawali, among others) counselled the Salafist jihadists in Iraq against antagonizing the Shias. However, by December 7, 2006, thirty-eight leading Saudi clerics issued a proclamation inciting Sunnis against Shias in Iraq in very stark language, as well as directing Saudi preachers to warn of Shia encroachment on Sunnidom. This fatwa was followed by a another dated December 17 (2006) proclaimed by the leading Wahhabi religious authority then, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman bin Nassir al-Barrak, that essentially brands all Shias, including lay persons, as legitimate targets for Sunni hostility since they are “more dangerous” to Islam “than the Jews and the Christians.” It was followed a month later by another, even harsher fatwa dictated by the second biggest recognized Wahhabi authority, Sheik Abdullah al-Jebreen.
The latter put forward seven reasons why he sees the Shias as heretical polytheists and concludes that “we must be careful and should warn others of their tricks and plots, and we should boycott them, and expel them and cast them off to protect the Muslims from their evil.”
The rhetoric emanating from the Saudi establishment over the last decade is not very different than that employed by the Nejd Province ‘spokesman’ of the Islamic State last year. It goes back even further: Zarqawi did not invent his anti-Shia ideology—he borrowed heavily from material produced, financed, and propagated by the official Saudi bodies.
However, what is different now is that the IS is suggesting that the only way to solve the problem once and for all is to eradicate the Shias from the Arabian Peninsula (in fact, that was al-Baghdadi’s first item on the agenda in his inaugural policy speech as Caliph, Nov. 2014). The Saudi royal family, on the other hand, can only go as far as executing Sheikh al-Nimr. Some sectarian extremists in Saudi Arabia are not going to see al-Nimr’s execution as enough of a remedy or a deterrent; these are the kinds of fence-sitters that IS is hoping to recruit.
In this respect, neither IS or Saudi strategists are that afraid of a Shia, or Iranian, strategic threat. Inciting Sunnis in Saudi Arabia against a ‘Shia bogeyman’ is all about who can claim the mantle of Sunni legitimacy. The Shia ‘menace’ is a red herring, at least if viewed from far-away Nejd, where the Saudi and Wahhabi movements originated. It is a narrative that been constructed over centuries, more so for local consumption and inter-Sunni rivalry. Several years ago, I posed the origins of this stoked-up fear as a topic worthy of deeper research.
Still, for the Saudis to execute al-Nimr, and incur all the regional Shia wrath it was expected to unleash, they had to be concerned about IS’s messaging, if indeed that was their primary motivation as I attempted to demonstrate above. And since we have very little insight about Saudi decision-making, such a bold move suggests that the royals there are very concerned about IS. But why now?
The Islamic State’s Plan for Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is very important for Zarqawi’s heirs. It goes back to the pivotal importance of Juheiman al-Uteibi’s uprising in Mecca (Nov. 1979) to their ideological foundation, via its influence on Zarqawi’s one-time mentor, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. In a July 2005 interview with Aljazeera, al-Maqdisi claims that while in Afghanistan in the late 1990s Zarqawi tried to convince Bin Laden to employ al-Maqdisi’s books, including his anti-Saudi tome, as assigned curricula for Al-Qaeda’s youth, but that Bin Laden rejected this by saying that that would anger the Saudi government. Bin Laden’s rebuff, if true, may have contributed to the fact that Zarqawi withheld his pledge of allegiance from Al-Qaeda at the time, deeming it not hardcore enough of a revolutionary organization if it was unwilling to confront the Saudi state.
I have always been troubled to two pieces of the puzzle that just don’t fit into the dominant narrative: why do Iraqi forces keep finding pick-up trucks with Saudi license plates when retaking positions from the jihadists. Second, why are estimates for the number of Saudis among the foreign fighter contingent so low (approx. 2000 to 2500) while the number of Tunisians reaches over 5000?
The estimate of the number of Saudis goes against the grain of all that we have learnt in the last decade and a half, against common sense, and against anecdotal evidence. It may be due to our low visibility on internal Saudi dynamics, something the Saudis guard very carefully and suppress through intimidation and largess.
We know it is likely that the jihadists may have sympathizers in Saudi. For example, these are the results of a recent Brookings study of Twitter:
“A study out of the Brookings Institution used Twitter to shine some light on this, comparing the countries where tweets from ISIS supporters originate. The study dealt with a sample size of 20,000 and found that Saudi Arabia is the top location claimed by Twitter users supporting ISIS in 2015. Syria follows, Iraq rounds off the top three and the U.S. takes fourth place.”
The same news report about the study adds: “The number of fighters joining from Saudi Arabia is between 2,000-2,500, the largest total number, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. Per capita, that represents 107 fighters per million people. On a per capita basis, Jordan tops the list, with an estimated 315 fighters per million people.”
This doesn’t make sense to me. In my Syria monograph (2010) I wrote:
“Furthermore, the jihadists, unlike their Iraq campaign experience, are aided by logistical familiarity with the terrain and customs of Syria; at the beginning of summer, one is always struck by the throngs of young Saudi, Kuwaiti, and other Gulf males—usually the best regional recruiting pool for jihadists—patiently waiting for their passports to be stamped at Syrian overland border points. Tens of thousands of them go there annually. At least tens of thousands may have Syrian mothers, married off to wealthier Saudis and Gulf Arabs who had gone shopping for younger brides. Plus, there are also tens of thousands of Sunni Syrian families residing and working in Saudi Arabia whose sons and daughters have been exposed to a Wahhabi curriculum, in many cases a sure recipe for radicalization. They too can be recruited. None of this familiarity or ‘pollination’ with radical ideas was readily available in Iraq.”
This sort of anecdotal and ‘common sense’ read of sympathies for the jihad in Saudi are challenged by the relatively low incidence of jihadist activity (that we know of) inside Saudi. A few shoot-outs with security forces here, a few attacks on Shia mosques there.
But what if we are looking at the wrong sets of data? What if intel analysts and those keeping track of satellite imagery are too busy looking at the front-lines of the war in Iraq and Syria, and neglecting to look at the ‘true’ strategic depth of the jihadists, the northern desert? And what if everyone is assuming that the Saudis have the southern desert under watch, while they too are stretched too thin to look deeply into it?
This brings us back to the odd case of Toyota pick-ups with Saudi license plates. Clearly, there is some movement back and forth across the deserts that span the Iraqi, Syrian, Jordanian, and Saudi borders.
What if the projected numbers for Saudi fighters that common sense and anecdote would warrant are not physically in Syria and Iraq? Either their numbers are under reported, or the overall numbers of foreign fighters, such as the Tunisian contingent, have been inflated. If the former is true, where are those would-be Saudi fighters?
More research needs to be done on this.
These are the following categories that I would use to think about Saudi vulnerability, from the perspective of jihadist strategist:
1) What is the timeline that the jihadists project for launching a Saudi front?
How are Zarqawi and Bin Laden different? Their chief difference is boldness of style. Bin Laden believed in the gradual success of jihad as it fought the enemies of Islam at the periphery of Islamdom (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kashmir, Sudan, etc.) The principal anthem of Al-Qaeda in 2001 carried the chorus of “[from the periphery] we shall fold up the space [between us] and the Ka’aba and the Holy Sanctuary [of Mecca].” Zarqawi didn’t have the patience for such a timeline. In the true al-Uteibi tradition, he took the fight into the heart of Islamdom in Iraq, to face incredible odds. It is interesting that when Al-Qaeda decided to begin a jihad against Saudi Arabia, it set up shop in the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen (AQAP). We have yet to see how the Zarqawists are planning to launch in Saudi. We know that they want to do that. Al-Baghdadi’s first ‘policy’ speech as caliph placed Saudi as his principal priority.
2) Why are the Saudis vulnerable now?
The Saudi royal family has been very unlucky as of late. King Abdullah died. The implication here is the break in the zealous loyalty of the National Guard that was focused on his person. There were many reasons for that. Abdullah was the most ‘Arab’ of the family, meaning the closest to the Bedouin sense of the word. His mother was from the princely family of the Shammar tribe, whose dominion was broken by Abdullah’s father, Ibn Saud, early in the 20th century. Many of the National Guard comes from tribes such as that of the Shammar. Their grandfathers had broken from tribal cohesion to join Ibn Saud who peddled a new type of cohesion: Wahhabi revolution. Ibn Saud tried to bring them under control by forcibly settling them into garrisons, as Muhammad had done at the onset of the Islamic conquests. The tribes under Ibn Saud grew restless and he had to destroy them. Their revolt in the 1920s was called the Ikhwan Revolt. Much of the history and motivation of the Saudi state since that time was to attempt to exorcise the ghosts of that revolt. That is why they formed the National Guard, as opposed to the modern Saudi army that Ibn Saud had used to destroy the Ikhwan. The late King Abdullah was the best fit, in terms of temperament and pedigree, to lead the National Guard. After his death, his son was left to lead them.
Before Abdullah, the royal family lost Prince Nayif, who was their principal ambassador to the varied traditions of Salafism in the country. He was respected by all those various Salafist strands, even the ones who turned against the royal family in the 1990s (the mentors of Bin Laden such as al-Hawali). Nayif was able to co-opt their dissent. He even succeeded, together with his son, in enabling them to fight back against the caliphal project of the Zarqawists, which they found to be anathema. Muhammad bin Nayif, the current Crown Prince, now holds his father’s portfolio, but he is no match for his father’s gravitas among Salafists.
In the eyes of the Saudi population, the royal family has suffered several instances of ‘loosing face’ in rapid succession since Abdullah died: the ill-conceived Yemen war, the hajj debacle, and the release of Saudi secrets documents on Wikileaks. Not to mention their failure to stand up to Iran through their traditional alliance with the United States; Iran ‘seems’ to be winning in the eyes of regular Saudis, and it seems that America doesn’t value the royal family as it did before (…some jihadists may have concluded that the Americans won’t come to the rescue of the family if it challenged by internal forces this time around). When jihadists attack Shias in Saudi, then the Saudi royal family is forced to protect Shias, the same people their media and theological organs had been railing against for decades. Al-Baghdadi instructed his followers to kick things off by attacking Shias in Saudi.
The Saudi approach—airstrikes, arming indigenous forces, and trying to forge a political conciliation—is not succeeding in Yemen. Maybe it is too early to tell, but the Houthis (who are supplemented by the martial expertise of the former president’s Republican Guardsmen) are still holding ground. The under-performance of Saudi infantry (under reported in the media) when faced by Houthi raids into Saudi territory may indicate why the Saudis are reluctant to send ground forces to Syria. Theoretically, the Saudi troops should fight hard against a sectarian foe like the Houthis. They aren’t. Now imagine what might happen if they face the jihadists in Syria. It would reasonable to assume that the Saudis would factor in the possibility of defections. (IS is closely monitoring the Yemen war. They have a small subsidiary organization active there.)
And after getting their nation accustomed to the largess that 100 dollars plus per barrel allowed, the money coming in is less now, and patronage (and arms purchases) are eating into the Saudi treasury.
All these factors have converged and weakened the stature of the Saudi royals. But these royals have faced lean and turbulent times before. They took wise and measured decisions that have withstood the test of time. I can’t tell whether with hindsight we shall look back at their decisions to conduct the war in Yemen and to execute al-Nimr would indeed be perceived again as wise and measured after a couple of decades of review. But such decisions do seem exceedingly risky and bold given the current regional atmospherics. Maybe the Saudis are sensing something that we cannot see, which drives them to undertake such moves.
What would an IS insurgency in Saudi look like?
Answering this question is difficult because we have such little visibility on the internal dynamics of Saudi society. I would assume that IS would use many of the tactics it found useful in the Iraqi and Syrian fronts. For example, relying on roaming units in the desert rather than urban cells. And even though the ‘Most Wanted’ lists put out by the Saudi Ministry of Interior suggest that IS recruits hail from the leading tribes of the country, I would assume that the jihadists would try to recruit from amongst the ‘Other Saudis’—the large plurality of the population that does not descend from the major tribes, as IS had done in Iraq and Syria. These tribes, colloquially referred to as ‘220’ in Saudi Arabia (as opposed to the ‘110’ high-status tribes; using voltage as a label), are relatively neglected by Saudi largesse. They have also been neglected by old Al-Qaeda and AQAP. Some of the lowest-caste tribes, such as the Shararat (probably of Sulubba origin), control many of the pathways across the Iraqi and Jordanian deserts into and out of Saudi. There is plenty of brainstorming ahead for analysts seeking to flesh out the possible means that IS would employ in order to expand into Saudi territory.
[At this point, I would like to pose this question “If the problem described in the post—that the Saudis sense IS breathing down their necks—is indeed unfolding, would the Saudi feel too proud to ask for help?” This is a difficult one to answer. One way of looking at it is that the Saudis might not be hiding anything they know, because they themselves don’t understand the size of the problem yet; in this light their moves would merely be pre-emptive measures against IS, by stealing a march on the latter’s narrative. The Saudis are busy fighting in Yemen, watching Iran, managing their acolytes in Syria, watching Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, hunting down urban-based terror cells, watching oil markets, and worrying about the implications of a disinterested Washington. They have a lot on their plate, and I would imagine their intel, security, and strategic bodies are stretched thin too. However, what we (and IS) learned in Syria and then Iraq after 2011 is that IS can succeed by rebuilding its strength in the blind spot of policy. Is there a part of the picture that constitutes Saudi Arabia’s blind spot?]
Beginning in September 2014, the Saudi re-activated plans to build a ‘Great Wall’ along its 600 mile border with Iraq (five layers of fencing, radar, night vision cameras, watch towers, ..etc). They have stationed tens of thousands of troops along the border, according to press reports.
I don’t know whether that would be enough to block the danger of spillage from what IS is doing further north in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts.
The minority view in Tehran holds that it won’t be enough. Iraqi sources familiar with Qasim Suleimani’s thinking tell me that he has concluded that an IS insurgency in Saudi Arabia is inevitable. He represents the minority view among strategists counseling Khamen’i about regional dynamics. However, Suleimani seems to have convinced the Supreme Leader of Iran that the Iranian leadership must prepare for such an outcome, and must gear-up at least a part of their strategic plans to offset its effects. (Allegedly, Suleimani has been responding to his detractors who claim that the wars in Iraq and Syria are too costly, both logistically and strategically, by saying that an IS insurgency in Saudi would put the Eastern Province and its Shia population in play, and that Iran would end-up with a net gain as protector of that region and its oil wealth. He gives a 5-7 year timeline for that happen.)
Is Saudi Arabia ripe for the picking by the jihadists?
The best argument that I have heard as to why regular Saudis would be reluctant to invite IS’s form of jihad into their lands is three-pronged: Saudis would feel uneasy about blood being spilled in the ‘Holy Peninsula’, they are still beholden to the deep and rich traditions of homegrown Salafism, and they are culturally put-off by the ‘Iraqi color’ of the caliphal project (al-Baghdadi and much of the post-Zarqawi leadership is Iraqi, whereas Bin Laden was one of their own).
These are all valid arguments. But taking them at face value is a bit of a gamble. It assumes that the jihadists are not thinking up ways to rebrand their jihad for a Saudi market.
Bloodshed is already beginning to happen inside the ‘Holy Peninsula’. It is Shia blood, so it’s not so bad as it purifies the Peninsula of the Shia taint, from the perspective of sectarian extremists. Many Sunni Saudis were raised on these ideas through schools and media, a process that’s been going on for decades.
The old Salafist establishment in Saudi Arabia, even the dissenters within it who mentored Bin Laden, are losing credibility because they are allied with the Saudi royal family, whose credibility in turn is being undermined on many fronts as described above.
The ‘Iraqi-ness’ of the jihad is the hardest to counter. But what if IS is preparing a media package (for example, by highlighting Saudi operational leadership) that reflects the transition from Iraqi-ness to something closer to Saudi sensibilities?
IS had declared three ‘provinces’ for the Arabia Peninsula: Nejd, Hijaz, and Bahrain (here, probably referring to the old geographic name for the Eastern Province as well as the states of the Persian Gulf littoral).
We have yet to see what the plans of the IS strategists are going to look like, and whether they have any deeper insight into the preparedness of Saudi society for their messaging than we do.
On the other hand, assuming that the Saudi state is flimsy construct is dangerous; dangerous for the jihadists, as well as to Qasim Suleimani and his cohorts, but also to the analysts trying to understand their plans. The Saudi state stands on strong foundations. This 1948 directory of the Kingdom, as it set out to join the modern world, tells a very interesting story (link is in Arabic). The elite is well-established, going back generations; the Saudis have much continuity to their institutions and patronage networks when compared to other major states in the Middle East were revolutions have been endemic. The members of the House of Saud are old hands at rule and governing, and they have found ways back to power and control over the course of three centuries.
The question of who commands more ‘virility’ and endurance, as expressed by al-Baghdadi in his May 2015 speech, is still up in the air. But I believe it weighs heavily on the minds of the Saudis, who may have been taunted by the ‘caliphate’ into executing al-Nimr, and may be taunted into going further still.
UPDATE: This report by MEMRI published today goes a long way towards showing how IS is putting a Saudi face on its jihad for a Saudi audience in multiple videos released by the jihadists over the last two weeks.