Messages to Arabia: Al-Qaida Attacks MBS and the Saudi Monarchy

Since the early 1990s, al-Qaida has routinely vilified the Saudi royal family and its government for being un-Islamic and illegitimate, describing the monarchy and the princes as apostates who should be attacked and toppled from power. The gist of al-Qaida’s condemnation of the Saudi rulers is that they are lackeys of the West who only pretend to be Muslim and therefore need to be fought and deposed. The Saudi royals have consistently undermined Islam from within and are delivering Islam’s wealth to the West—Arabia’s vast oil and gas reserves—at well below market value. Because of this, the Saudi dynasty’s real nature has to be revealed and the Saudi state destroyed. Every al-Qaida leader has vilified the Saudis in this way, from Usama bin Ladin to his son and putative heir, Hamza. The latter, in 2016, launched a six-part audio series seeking to expose the Saudi royal family’s history of “betrayal.” Anti-Saudi messaging is indeed a central element of al-Qaida’s propaganda, and al-Qaida does not conceal its ambition to seize control of Arabia’s spiritual and material resources.

The rise to power since 2015 in Saudi Arabia of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) has presented jihadis with a new target of opportunity and additional material with which to attack the kingdom. His social reforms, especially the relaxation of strict norms on women’s public behavior, the mixing of the sexes, and promoting live musical concerts have elicited the ire and condemnation of traditional elements in Saudi society, and the jihadis aim to capitalize on these sentiments.

Two recent messages from al-Qaida illustrate how the group is attempting to exploit the potential for disaffection occasioned by the rise of MBS. The first is a two-page issue of the group’s occasional newsletter, al-Nafir (“The Battle Call”), titled “al-Dir‘iyya from the Mission of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab to Formula E”; the second is a 23-minute audio address by al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called “The Zionists of the Arabian Peninsula.” Both were distributed on December 24, 2018 via Telegram by the media company al-Sahab, the same outlet that has produced most of al-Qaida’s messages since 9/11. The two adopt somewhat distinct arguments. The first message makes the case for a religious and theological condemnation of MBS, whereas the second, by al-Zawahiri, is more openly political and strategic in its analysis and prescriptions. Let us take each of the messages separately and offer an examination of their respective contents.

Dancing in al-Dir‘iyya

The December 2018 issue of al-Nafir—which claims to be a “consciousness awakening” publication (nashra taw‘awiyya)—is not the first to focus on MBS and Saudi Arabia. Previous issues have attacked the kingdom’s new counterterrorism initiatives as part of the “war on Islam” and ridiculed MBS’s pronouncements in favor of “moderate Islam” as tantamount to endorsing “American Islam.” The latest issue, however, is the most detailed in its condemnation of MBS’s social policies and the most exhortatory yet, concluding with an appeal for action.

The publication depicts MBS as the devil incarnate, labeling him the “Awaited Corrupter” (al-mufsid al-muntazar) and the Abraha of the Saudi family. The first name is a play on the name of the prophesied Islamic messianic figure, al-mahdi al-muntazar (“the awaited redeemer”), who will appear before the end times. The second moniker is a reference to the pre-Islamic Abyssinian Christian viceroy of Yemen who is alleged to have led a military expedition with elephants against Mecca in the year 570 with the aim of destroying the Ka‘ba (cf. Q. 105). (An earlier issue described him as “the Arabs’ Ataturk.”)

Interestingly, and not entirely in keeping with al-Qaida’s ideology, the tone of the piece is apocalyptic, warning that MBS’s liberalizing reforms, aimed at destroying Islam, are perhaps a harbinger of doomsday. MBS, according to the piece, is “spreading the symbols of Westernization, the rituals of secularism, and liberal values” in a conservative Muslim society in order to promote social corruption, deviance, and debauchery, especially among the young men and women who hail from the pure Arabian tribes of the Peninsula. In a reference to the dancing at several recent musical concerts in al-Dir‘iyya, the capital of the first Saudi-Wahhabi state, the author asks rhetorically whether the gyrations of the women’s backsides are indeed a sign of the imminence of Judgment Day, as predicted in one of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. This is the hadith narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayra in which the Prophet says, “[One of the signs of] Judgment Day is the jiggling of the backsides of the women of the tribe of Daws around the shrine of Dhu al-Khalasa.”[1]

The piece goes on to criticize all of MBS’s social reforms, complaining of the appearance of uncovered women on Saudi television, mixed-sex singing parties, professional wrestling matches, and circus shows, as well as women’s driving and Formula E racing in al-Dir‘iyya, ground zero of the Wahhabi mission. All this is said to be intended by the government to spread depravity and vice and to cause people to abandon God’s religion. The public appearance and assertiveness of women are particularly galling for the author, as these echo the habits and practices of idolatrous and polytheistic pre-Islamic Arabia, the Jahiliyya. The document clearly intends to provoke the patriarchal and ultra-conservative attitudes of Arabian society in the hope of delegitimizing MBS’s regime, which is also described, for good measure, as inclined toward Zionism (mutasahyin). And while all this merriment and debauchery is taking place in Arabia, the piece adds, the innocent Muslims, whether in Syria, Myanmar, Xinjiang, or Gaza, are either being bombed by the Americans or Russians or being brutalized by autocrats like the Chinese or Burmese rulers.

The Saudi regime is also condemned for unjustly imprisoning and torturing Muslim scholars and preachers, a theme that al-Nafir has touched on before. In the September 2017 issue, for instance, which appeared shortly after the arrest of several high-profile Islamist scholars including Salman al-‘Awda, al-Qaida announced its support for the recently detained. Without mentioning any of them by name, it praised those scholars and preachers who have long operated in the “grey zones” of support for Islam. Similarly, nearly a year later, al-Nafir would laud the efforts of the Islamist scholar Safar al-Hawali, who was arrested in July 2018 following the release of his 3,000-page book that included stinging criticism of the Al Saud.

The prescription offered to al-Nafir’s readers is for the young men of belief to gather, plan, and organize to stop MBS’s “westernizing and liberalizing project,” which has established roots in the “land of faith and divine revelation.” They must also seek and engage the truthful scholars, who have not been imprisoned, as well as communicate with and solicit the advice of the global jihadi leadership. The recommendations are vague and most likely to be ineffectual, but at any rate the piece demonstrates a concerted effort by al-Qaida to stir the emotions of a religiously conservative society against MBS’s socially liberalizing policies, in particular those that accord greater agency to women as well as promote their increased visibility in public.

Zionists in Arabia

The second al-Qaida message, al-Zawahiri’s audio statement, aims to provide a more developed political and historical framing of MBS’s reforms, as well as to instruct Muslims in Arabia as to how to resist the Saudi government. In keeping with his roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Zawahiri offers a conspiratorial narrative to explain regional and global politics over the last century. His argument is that there is an unholy alliance that unites Crusaders (Britain and the United States), Zionists (Israel), and Safavid-Rejectionists (Iranians and Shiites) to destroy true Islam, by which he means Sunni Islam. This three-pronged alliance plots ceaselessly to weaken and attack Muslims and to pilfer their material resources. The Saudi ruling family, along with every other leader of a Sunni majority country (Egypt, the UAE, Yemen, etc.), are agents and enablers of this alliance. The message itself takes the form of a video featuring al-Zawahiri’s still image, with documentary-like clips that cut to highlight the points al-Zawahiri is making.

As the title of the message suggests, al-Zawahiri asserts that the Saudi ruling family, from the time of its founder King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud (r. 1902-1953) until MBS today, are concealed Zionists who pretend to be Muslims. They have ceaselessly plotted to destroy Islam in alliance, first with the British, and since WWII with the United States. Ibn Saud helped the British defeat the Ottoman caliphate, he says, which paved the way for the Zionists to establish the state of Israel in Palestine. Later, Ibn Saud’s children, as kings of Saudi Arabia, persisted in their betrayal by allowing America to steal Arabia’s wealth (i.e., the oil), establish military bases, and impose non-Islamic laws and rules. The late King Fahd, whom al-Zawahiri derisively nicknames Abu Rughal—an infamous traitor of pre-Islamic Arabia—not only offered Israel recognition with the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, but was also the one who invited the U.S. military into Arabia, where it remains t0 this day.

Al-Zawahiri’s condemnation of the Saudi rulers continues unabated and reaches a crescendo with his treatment of MBS, whom he accuses of fully revealing the “Zionist face” of the government in Riyadh. MBS, according to al-Zawahiri, not only spreads sin and debauchery, but also executes and imprisons religious scholars, whether they be openly sympathetic to al-Qaida or sycophants of his rule. More pernicious yet, MBS openly avers that Israel has the right to exist and that cooperation with it is necessary. Al-Zawahiri’s conspiratorial narrative, however, stretches credulity when he then asserts, without adducing any evidence, that the Americans have plotted with the Houthi rebels to achieve control over the government in Sanaa. This plotting, which also includes the United States conspiring with Iran, now means that Arabia has become completely dominated by America and “the Muslims in Arabia are besieged by the Shiites (al-hisar al-Rafidi) from the north, east and south.”

Given this parlous state of affairs, al-Zawahiri turns to his recommendations for the Muslims of Arabia. They must, according to him, do three things: emigrate (hijra), conduct jihad, and unite (ittihad). In terms of emigration, al-Zawahiri recommends that those who oppose the Saudi and American-Iranian conspiracy leave Arabia for the outposts of warfare (thughur al-jihad), likely meaning the areas under the control of al-Qaida, such as the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. (In an earlier address, Hamza mentioned Yemen as an ideal destination for hijra.) It is only in such “free” regions that Muslims can properly confer, plan, and organize, whereas this is not possible under the tyrannical pressure of autocratic “idols” (tawaghit) such as MBS in Arabia, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid in the UAE, and President Sisi in Egypt. Emigration furnishes the Muslim with the ability to imagine, the practical experience to learn, and the mobility to wage proper resistance, all of which are otherwise impossible. Al-Zawahiri proudly asserts that it was such advantages that permitted the “high state” of planning for the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaida. As for jihad, it begins with educating and speaking the truth about the battle that the Muslim community is waging and the threats it faces. Jihad, however, must ultimately lead to warfare and martyrdom operations against God’s enemies: the Americans and the Zionists. Such attacks will be the downfall of the Saudis and the Emiratis. Unity, the final recommendation, is briefly mentioned as being necessary because all Muslims are being targeted and only if they are united can they hope to repel the aggression.

Al-Zawahiri ends his message with an aesthetically second-rate poem that recapitulates some of his main points and aims to spur his followers to action in defense of Islam. He appears to add this flourish to keep up with the tradition followed by Usama bin Ladin and other jihadis who often embellish their oratory with verse. Yet, as with so many of al-Zawahiri’s other messages, the effect is diminished by his lack of personal charisma and rhetorical skill.

Two audiences

It appears that there are two different audiences being addressed by al-Qaida’s recent releases. The first message seems to be aimed at Saudi Arabia’s conservative Salafis, or Wahhabis. The references to hadith, ritual purity, and the violation of Islamic morality, particularly in al-Dir‘iyya, are all intended to raise the ire of devout Wahhabis by highlighting the chasm that now separates MBS’s policies from the message of principled enmity toward practices of unbelief that characterized original Wahhabism. This is an audience that the propaganda of the Islamic State has often sought to target. Al-Zawahiri’s speech, by contrast, does not invoke creedal matters that would necessarily arouse the sentiments of Wahhabis. His conspiratorial analysis about global affairs, rooted in a view of the United States and Israel as the eternal enemies of the Islamic world, is meant to have pan-Islamic appeal.

In the final analysis, these messages should be seen as part of al-Qaida’s attempt to recapture a constituency for itself in Saudi Arabia, where it has not carried out an attack in years, as well as to stake its claim as the standard bearer of the Jihadi Salafi movement in light of the Islamic State’s rapid decline. That al-Qaida can project its message on multiple registers, creedal as well as geopolitical, is a testament to the protean nature of its ideology.


[1] The Dhu al-Khalasa was a Ka‘ba-like structure in which an idol was worshipped in pre-Islamic times, and is located in the region of Tabala in Asir in southwest Arabia. The Wahhabis are alleged to have destroyed what remained of this structure during the reign of King Abdulaziz (r. 1902-1953).

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Bernard Haykel

Bernard Haykel is Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and Director of the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East.

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