Last Man Standing

Posted: 3rd July 2009 by Thomas Hegghammer in propaganda, Saudi Arabia

I promised you more on Abd al-Aziz al-Julayyil, the Saudi author of the article on Obama being more dangerous than Bush. The reason I find al-Julayyil interesting is that he is among the last remaining Saudi sheikhs to play an active ideological role for the jihadi movement.

Back in the good old days of the early 2000s, there was a whole community of Saudi jihad scholars: Hamud al-Shu’aybi, Nasir al-Fahd, Ali al-Khudayr, Abd al-Rahman al-Jarbu’, Sulayman al-Alwan and many others (who all feature prominently in my forthcoming book). Around 2002 these guys were churning out pro-al-Qaida fatwas faster than you could say “al-wala’ wa’l-bara’”. But then came the 2003 terrorism campaign in Saudi Arabia, and most of them were sent to the cooler. This is why you have not heard from many radical Saudi clerics in the past five years. This is also why I have been arguing in the past years that the golden age of Saudi Arabia as an exporter of pro-al-Qaida theological treatises is largely over. While I think the argument generally holds, Abd al-Aziz al-Julayyil is now forcing me to qualify this claim.

So who is this person? According to his website, Abd al-Aziz bin Nasir bin Sa’d al-Julayyil grew up in Riyadh and studied pharmacology. He directed an Islamist publishing house called Dar Tayba li’l-Nashr wa’l-Tawzi’ for twenty years before becoming the director of their department of religious knowledge (‘ilm). He does not seem to have a formal religious education, but has studied privately under Abdallah bin Jibrin and Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak. Al-Julayyil is the author of at least ten books and studies, as well as hundreds of articles and fatwas on a variety of theological and political issues.

Al-Julayyil was always a slightly more moderate figure than the abovementioned scholars that I have called “the Shu’aybi school”. Stephane Lacroix tells me al-Julayyil was closer to the Sahwa (the centrist mainstream of Saudi Islamism), more specifically its “Sururi“ branch (named after Muhammad Surur Zayn al-Abidin). Indeed al-Julayyil does not (yet) have his own entry on the online reference library for jihadi literature, Minbar al-Tawhid, which suggests he is not part of the canon of jihadi ideologues.

Still, his hardline views on international political issues place him on the radical end of the Sahwist spectrum. In the heated political atmosphere of 2002 Saudi Arabia, al-Julayyil displayed sympathies toward the Shu’aybi school. He notably endorsed a statement by Nasir al-Fahd in June 2002 which lambasted Sahwist icons Salman al-Awda and Safar al-Hawali for signing the declaration entitled “How we can coexist”, which had been the conciliatory gesture in response to the statement by US intellectuals entitled “What we are fighting for”.

Al-Julayyil became famous in the jihadi community with his 2005 book “Jihadi Education in the Light of the Qur’an and the Sunna”, which has been widely disseminated on the forums. More recently, Abd al-Aziz al-Julayyil’s writings have surfaced in online jihadi magazines. His Obama article in the Taliban-affiliated al-Sumud is the least noteworthy, given that support for the Taliban – as opposed to al-Qaida – is not very controversial in Saudi Arabia. (Stéphane told me mainstream Sahwhists such as Nasir al-Umar have publicly praised the Taliban in recent years). More interesting is al-Julayyil’s appearance in Sada al-Jihad, a magazine, which is ideologically much closer to al-Qaida’s anti-western global jihadism.

Admittedly, al-Julayyil probably does not take commissions directly from these magazines; instead he posts his articles on his website, and then magazine editors reproduce them.  Moreover, none of what al-Julayyil is saying is particularly radical by global jihadi standards or by the standards of the Shu’aybi school in 2002.

But in 2009 he stands out as perhaps the most radical voice in the non-clandestine Saudi Islamist movement. And even if he is not directly in touch with editors of Sada al-Jihad, he operates one of the most radical personal websites of any Saudi sheikh. Finally, the very fact that Sada al-Jihad is printing al-Julayyil’s work – and not that of other Saudi sheikhs – suggests his role differs from that of other Sahwists.

Importantly, there is uncertainty as to whether or not al-Julayyil is in prison. On the one hand, his website lists his Burayda office address and phone number, as well as his lecture schedule (every Friday evening in the Prince Nayif Mosque (!) in al-Suwaydi in Riyadh). On the other hand, forum messages strongly suggest he is, or recently was, in prison.  When some of his articles were posted on Faluja and on his website in May, many readers’ comments included the expression “May God secure his release”, which is the standard phrase used of imprisoned mujahidin or ulama.

All this leaves two crucial questions unanswered: Is al-Julayyil in prison? And how is he able to write what he writes when other Saudi sheikhs are not? If any of you (Saud? Nawaf? Bernard? Stephane?) have more insights on this, I would love to know.