Religious Extremist or Force for Moderation? A Profile of Imprisoned Saudi Shaykh Salman bin Fahd al-Ouda

Andrew McGregor

March 8, 2018

Shaykh Salman bin Fahd al-Ouda (Sydsvanskan/Lars Brundin)

One of Saudi Arabia’s leading Salafist religious scholars, Shaykh Salman bin Fahd al-Ouda, is currently hospitalized under guard after spending nearly five months in isolation without charges in a Saudi prison. [1] Once a strong opponent of the American military presence in the Arabian peninsula and often described as an inspiration to leading jihadists such as Osama bin Laden, al-Ouda’s failure to endorse the Saudi rivalry with Qatar has brought a bitter end to years of cooperation with the Saudi regime. With millions of followers in the Saudi Kingdom and abroad, the shaykh’s death in custody would have a direct impact on Saudi stability and the long-term plans of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman al-Sa’ud to reform the nation according to his own vision and succeed his father as king.

Early Career

Shaykh al-Ouda is today a leading scholar of Salafist Islam, one of the most influential preachers in Saudi Arabia and a member of the influential International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a movement often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Ouda was born in 1955 in the village of al-Basr near the Saudi city of Burayda in Saudi Arabia’s al-Qassim Province, a relatively poor agricultural region in the center of the Kingdom known for its religious conservatism. The region is considered the heartland of Wahhabism, the 18th century Islamic reform movement that united with the al-Sa’ud royal family to form the Kingdom’s enduring power base. [2] By 2001, it was estimated that 80% of the Kingdom’s judges (experts in Shari’a, the nation’s sole system of jurisprudence) hailed from al-Qassim (Economist, June 16, 2001).

Al-Ouda  is a scholar of the Hanbali madhab, one of the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence (madahib), Hanbali is the dominant school in Saudi Arabia and is the one most commonly followed by Saudi Arabia’s conservative Salafis (“followers of the pious predecessors,” i.e. the first three generations of Islam). The shaykh carries a Ph.D. in Islamic jurisprudence from the prestigious Imam Muhammad bin Sa’ud. After completing his Islamic education, al-Ouda returned home to become a professor at the al-Qassim campus of the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Burayda. In those years, al-Ouda operated under the shadow of well-known Burayda-based Salafist scholar Shaykh Muhammad bin Salih al-Uthaymin, who was frequently critical of the young al-Ouda.

Osama Bin Laden and the Gulf War

The internal controversy over the Kingdom’s participation in the First Gulf War (1990-1991) provided al-Ouda with the opportunity to become internationally known in the Islamic world through a series of audiotapes critical of a fatwa (religious ruling) issued by Saudi Grand Mufti Abd al-Aziz bin Baz that permitted non-Muslim allies led by the United States to use Saudi Arabia as a base for the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Al-Ouda questioned why the Kingdom was still reliant on U.S. protection after billions of dollars of American arms purchases. The presence of kaffir (infidel) U.S. troops on the Kingdom’s sacred soil during the campaign was also used to propel the career of a supporter of the Islamic jihad in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden.

Al-Ouda was not alone in using cassette tapes to address Islamic issues; indeed, Shi’a Iran had been prepared for the return of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 by a series of audiotapes recorded by the Ayatollah in his Paris exile. With such tapes being collected like books by Saudi citizens, al-Ouda even addressed the importance of the phenomenon in a sermon entitled Al-sharit al-Islami ma lahu wa ma ‘alih (The Islamic Tape: An Assessment).

During the next three years, al-Ouda became a leading opposition figure and a signatory of the Khitab al-Matalib (Letter of Demands), a 1991 document requesting the king to open the political system to reforms and greater consultation (shura). It is al-Ouda’s belief that shura rather than democracy is the core of a successful Islamic state; those that relied on shura, such as the Ummayads, Abbasids and Ayubids survived, while those that rejected shura, such as the Ottoman Empire, ultimately disintegrated. [3] In September 1994 the regime asked him for a pledge to desist from preaching on politics. His refusal led to his arrest two days later. [4]

Imprisonment

Al-Ouda was arrested in September 1994 along with fellow Sahwa movement leader Shaykh Safar bin Abd al-Rahman al-Hawali. Bin Laden spoke approvingly of al-Ouda shortly after the latter’s arrest in his “Open Letter to Shaykh Bin Baz on the Invalidity of his Fatwa on Peace with the Jews.” [5] Two years later, Osama bin Laden would insist the arrests were made on the orders of the United States in his “Declaration of jihad on the Americans.” [6] The claim was repeated by al-Gama’a al-Islamiya leader Omar Abd al-Rahman while he was serving a life sentence in the U.S. for various terrorist activities, including the 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center. [7] While awaiting trial in 1995 for his role in the World Trade Center, imprisoned terrorist Ramzi Yusuf claimed his “Liberation Army” was preparing strikes in Saudi Arabia in retaliation for the arrests of al-Ouda and al-Hawali (al-Hayat, April 12, 1995).

Bin Laden’s biographer, Hamid Mir, recalled that Bin Laden had described al-Ouda as his “ideal personality, a savior who was the first to demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saudi.” According to Mir, Bin Laden claimed al-Ouda had written several pamphlets on jihad for al-Qaeda, though these had not been issued under his name. [8]

In 1998, former Bin Laden bodyguard Abu Jandal (a.k.a. Nassir al-Bahri) told an interviewer that Bin Laden had told him that he would never have entered into opposition to the Saudi government had al-Ouda and al-Hawali not been detained. [9] In his pre-9/11 communications, bin Laden frequently addressed themes contained in al-Ouda’s written works and taped messages. [10] Al-Ouda’s five-year imprisonment failed to silence the preacher, as he continued to record audiotapes smuggled out of prison and released for public consumption.

The Sahwa Movement

After his release, al-Ouda became an important member of the Saudi al–Sahwa al-Islamiya (Islamic Awakening) movement.  The group emerged when Muslim Brotherhood members fleeing repression in Egypt began to interact with normally hostile Saudi Salafists in the 1960s. A shared conservative approach to Islam was the foundation for greater cooperation, particularly in urging a greater political role for religious scholars in the state. The Sahwa movement was strongly opposed by the Kingdom’s Madkhalis, another Salafist faction that advocates an almost extreme form of loyalty to the state and its rulers. [11]

Letter to Bin Laden

Bin Laden’s admiration of al-Ouda does not appear to have been reciprocal; six years after the 9/11 attack, al-Ouda released an open letter to the al-Qaeda leader. [12] In the letter, al-Ouda accuses Bin Laden of tarnishing the image of Islam: “People around the world are saying how Islam teaches that those who do not accept it must be killed. They are also saying that the adherents of Salafi teachings kill Muslims who do not share their views.” Al-Ouda asks who benefits from turning Muslim nations into battlefields “where no one feels safe” and questions whether obstructing governments is a solution for anything: ‘Is this the plan – even if it is achieved by marching over the corpses of hundreds of thousands of people – police, soldiers, and civilians, even the common Muslims? Are their deaths to be shrugged off, saying: “They will be resurrected in the hereafter based on the state of their hearts?”

The shaykh also asked what violent extremists could contribute should they succeed in taking power: “What can people who have no life experience hope to achieve in the sphere of good governance? People who have no knowledge of Islamic law to support them and no understanding of domestic and foreign relations? Is Islam only about guns and ammunition? Have your means become the ends themselves?” Al-Ouda concluded with one last question for the al-Qaeda leader: “What have all these long years of suffering, tragedy, tears, and sacrifice actually achieved?” (Muslim Matters, September 18, 2007).

Overall, the letter falls short of being a clear denunciation of Bin Laden or his terrorist tactics. Instead, al-Ouda treats Bin Laden as a Muslim believer who has strayed from the path of Islam but still has the opportunity to review his approach much like the imprisoned jihadists occupied with compiling “revisions” of their past activities. The fact that it took six years for al-Ouda to compose his critique suggests a long period of either indecision or fear that such criticisms might alienate the shaykh’s following.

Becoming a Voice for Moderation?

Moving on from production of audiotapes, al-Ouda embraced the internet, becoming in 2001 a director of IslamToday.net, which carries content in Arabic, English and Chinese. Islam Today has become the shaykh’s most significant avenue for influence, supplemented by numerous YouTube videos and the publication of over 50 books on Islamic theology. Al-Ouda also realized the potential of Twitter and has today something between 11 to 14 million Twitter followers (The Peninsula [Doha]. January 26, 2017).  14.3 million (Al-Bawaba, October 7, 2017).

Shaykh al-Ouda was generally supportive of the Arab Spring uprisings as a much-needed corrective to Arab authoritarianism, but this did not play well with the Saudi regime. Al-Ouda’s relationship with the regime was further aggravated when he denounced the military overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government in 2011 as a “coup.” Nonetheless, al-Ouda rejected the absolutism that runs as a common thread through Islamist politics:

We have to remember that the Islamists’ program in any country should not be mistaken for Islam itself, nor that anyone who disagrees with it is a loser. It is the Islamists’ right, like anyone else, to practise what the others practise [i.e. politics], as long as it respects the limits of moderation, justice, and distance from the assumption that they have the absolute truth or that what they are calling for is sacred. [13]

In March 2013, al-Ouda took the bold step of issuing an open letter to the Kingdom’s rulers, warning of the danger posed by censorship and political repression: “[The people] will not remain silent forever if some or all of these things are constantly denied to them. When revolutions are suppressed, they turn into armed conflicts. If they are ignored, they grow in reach and breadth” (IBTimes, March 18, 2013).

No Place in the Crown Prince’s Reforms

Saudi Arabia’s political climate began to undergo major changes with the accession of King Salman to the throne in January 2015. Foreign policy in particular took on a much more aggressive edge as Crown Prince Muhammad assumed the defense, economic and foreign affairs portfolios in the Saudi government while the eighty-one-year-old King, possibly suffering from pre-dementia, began to prepare for an expected abdication in favor of the Crown Prince.

Crown Prince Muhammad is well aware of the tenuous nature of his status – his two predecessors as Crown Prince since King Salman took the throne in 2015 were both removed. In this tense atmosphere it can be risky just to withhold public approval of the regime’s activities (including the feud with Qatar), most of which are already controlled by the ambitious Crown Prince.

For al-Ouda, 2017 began with tragedy when his wife Haya al-Sayari and his son Hisham were killed when their car collided with a truck (The Peninsula [Doha], January 26, 2017). Accusations of extremism came next, as al-Ouda appeared on a list of six “hate preachers” who were banned from Denmark in 2017, with the Danish government describing the six (five Muslims plus evangelical American preacher Terry Jones) as “travelling fanatical preachers” who “indoctrinate listeners to commit violence against women and children, spread ideas of a caliphate and undermine founding values” (Jyllands Posten [Copenhagen], May 2, 2017).

Crown Prince Muhammad moved to consolidate his personal power in September 2017, when he ordered the arrest of over a score of religious scholars, businessmen, politicians, poets, academics and writers, including al-Ouda (Middle East Monitor, September 14, 2017).

After news spread of a U.S.-brokered phone call between the Saudi Crown Prince and Qatari amir Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani on September 9, 2017, al-Ouda tweeted “May God bring their hearts together for the good of their people.” [14] Al-Ouda’s arrest followed only hours later. Even the suggestion of support for a Saudi reconciliation with a Qatari regime the Saudi leaders describe as supporters of terrorism was evidently enough to remove al-Ouda from the public sphere. According to the shaykh’s family, al-Ouda had resisted previous pressure from the regime to support its feud with Qatar and his brother Khalid was imprisoned just for announcing news of Salman’s arrest (AFP, January 18).

Shaykh Awad al-Qarni

Al-Ouda and fellow Sahwa leader Shaykh Awad al-Qarni (reputed to have close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood) were among those accused by the Saudi Security Directorate of engaging in intelligence activities “for the benefit of foreign parties against the security of the Kingdom and its interests, methodology, capabilities and social peace in order to stir up sedition and prejudice national unity” (Saudi Press Agency, September 12, 2017).

Al-Ouda’s actual Twitter message may not have been as offensive as its demonstration of defiance of regime instructions to scholars to attack the role of the Qatari government in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. Al-Ouda’s international reach only helped make his recalcitrance impossible to ignore.

Al-Ouda’s greatest offense seems to have been his continued association with the IUMS and its leader, Egyptian-born Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, now living in exile in Qatar and viewed as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. This association appears to be at the core of Saudi contentions al-Ouda, al-Qarni and other religious figures were acting as agents of the Qatari regime, which has sheltered leading members of the Brotherhood (Arab Weekly, September 17, 2017; Gulf Digital News [Manama], September 11, 2017).

Return to Prison

Al-Ouda was sent to solitary confinement in the Dahaban Prison, north of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, where he quickly entered into a hunger strike to protest his detention, isolation and inability to secure legal assistance.

When rumors of al-Ouda’s death began to circulate after five months of solitary confinement, the shaykh’s son Abdullah demanded information on his condition. In frail health, al-Ouda was transferred to a hospital in Jeddah, but remained incommunicado until he was allowed to make a phone call to his son on February 6 of this year (Middle East Monitor, February 8).

Conclusion

Al-Ouda’s world-view is based on a kind of religious nationalism, in which Saudi Arabia remains the spiritual and physical homeland of an Islamic practise untainted by innovations or foreign influences (other than the Western experts who should be expelled and replaced by Islamic scholars). The shaykh melds this religious nationalism with a type of Arab supremacism in which Arabs are both intellectually and physically superior to other races and even non-Arab Muslims. [15] This sentiment is common in the Arab leadership of extremist movements such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Though some of his views (especially those presented in Western rather than domestic forums) appear to suggest a moderate approach to Islam, al-Ouda remains adamantly anti-Western and anti-Shi’a, including the Arab Shi’a in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich al-Sharqiyah Province, where they form as much as one-third of the population. [16]

Despite al-Ouda’s popularity in many quarters, he remains a polarizing figure in Saudi society, where some view him as a progressive voice while others remain convinced he is a conservative extremist. Unlike many Saudi imams, al-Ouda does not rely on a government salary and this makes him dangerously independent in the eyes of the regime. For now, the shaykh’s millions of followers await his fate, which depends largely on the political mood of the determined Crown Prince.

Notes

  1. Other common transliterations of the shaykh’s nisba include al-Awda, al-Odah, al-Udah and al-Auda.
  2. Founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the movement rejects the term “Wahhabism” as implying worship of its founder rather than God. Its followers prefer the terms “Salafi” or “al-Muwahidin” (Monotheists).
  3. Salman al-Ouda, Audiotape “Asbab Soqut al-Diwal,” (Why Do States Disintegrate), as cited in Mamoun Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, Palgrave, New York, 1999, p.97.
  4. Mamoun Fandy, Ibid, p.92.
  5. Osama bin Laden: “Open Letter to Shaykh Bin Baz on the Invalidity of his Fatwa on Peace with the Jews” (September 29, 1994), https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Open_Letter_to_Shaykh_Bin_Baz_on_the_Invalidity_of_his_Fatwa_on_Peace_with_the_Jews
  6. “Declaration of jihad against the Americans occupying the land of the two holiest sites: A message from Osama bin Muhammad bin Laden,” August 23, 1996, https://ctc.usma.edu/app/uploads/2013/10/Declaration-of-Jihad-against-the-Americans-Occupying-the-Land-of-the-Two-Holiest-Sites-Translation.pdf
  7. “Fatwa of the prisoner Shaykh Doctor Omar Abd al-Rahman,” May 26, 1998, cited in Peter L. Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader, Free Press, New York, 2006, p. 204.
  8. Peter Bergen interview of Hamid Mir, March 2005, in: Peter L. Bergen, op cit, p.149.
  9. Khalid al-Hammadi interview with Abu Jandal, al-Quds al-Arabi, August 1998, as cited in Peter L. Bergen, op cit, p. 149.
  10. Mamoun Fandy, op cit, pp. 186-192.
  11. For Madkhalism, see: “Radical Loyalty and the Libyan Crisis: A Profile of Salafist Shaykh Rabi’ Hadi al-Madkhali,” Militant Leadership Monitor, January 19, 2017.
  12. “A Ramadan Letter to Osama bin Laden from Salman al-Ouda,” delivered on Saudi Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), September 14, 2007, (Muslim Matters, September 18, 2007).
  13. Salman al-Ouda, “Al-Siyasa,” Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), April 6, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfKpSoccw5s
  14. https://twitter.com/salman_alodah/status/906280562956132352
  15. Salman al-Ouda, Audiotape “Jazirat al-Islam,” (The Island of Islam), as cited in Mamoun Fandy, op cit, p. 101.
  16. Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke, “The Arab Shi’a: The Forgotten Muslims,” St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999, p. 180.

This article first appeared in the March 8, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor. 

Radical Loyalty and the Libyan Crisis: A Profile of Salafist Shaykh Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali

Andrew McGregor

January 19, 2017

Advocating loyalty to the regime may seem a rather uncontroversial and unprovocative stance in most instances. However, one influential Saudi shaykh, Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali, has taken this position to such extremes that many of his fellow Salafists regard him as a radical dangerously out of touch with the practice of the Salafist manhaj (method). Though his importance has declined in his homeland, his message of eternal loyalty to the ruler has gained him the support of individuals and certain governments throughout the Islamic world and beyond. In Libya, especially, we may be witnessing the militarization of a movement once best known for its quietist approach to politics.

Early Years and Education

The future preacher was born in the village of Jaradiya in Saudi Arabia’s southwestern Jazan region in 1931. His birth made him a member of the Mudakhala tribe, part of the larger Banu Shabil confederation. The boy’s father died before Rabi’ was two and a paternal uncle gave the boy guidance. From the age of eight, al-Madkhali studied Islam locally before attending the newly-opened Islamic University of Madina in 1960. Graduating in 1964, al-Madkhali then pursued a Master’s degree in hadith studies (1977), followed by a doctorate at the University of Umm al-Qurra in Mecca (1980) that allowed him to take up a full professorship at the Islamic University of Madina. [1]

The Birth of Madkhalism

Al-Madkhali’s strong opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood emerged in 1984 at a time when Egypt’s Brothers were beginning to engage in parliamentary politics by running candidates under the banner of the centrist and secular New Wafd Party (the experiment was largely rejected by the voters and was not repeated). Initially, al-Madkhali was also reluctant to embrace the Saudi rulers, but by the early 1990s he became a firm exponent of the Islamic legitimacy of the Wali al-Amr (“Guardian,” or “One vested with authority,” i.e. the ruler). In practice this meant he and his followers were stepping back from political engagement in favor of improving Islamic observance amongst the people.

Madkhalism as it has evolved calls for unquestioning loyalty to governments, even those that use extreme and unjustified violence against their subjects so long as they do not commit clear acts of infidelity. This extreme position separates the group from other Salafist movements who draw line at unjustified violence inflicted upon Muslims. However, like most Salafist movements, Madkhalism rejects participation in multi-party democracy on the grounds that it inspires loyalty to individuals and organizations rather than to God.

The Saudi royal family took notice, and in the years following the First Gulf War, al-Madkhali’s doctrine brought him financial support from the Saudi government, which wished to use his movement to weaken the growing Sahwa movement (opposed to the American military presence in the Kingdom, which al-Madkhali defended) and to discredit the emerging Salafi-Jihadist movement. [2]

Al-Madkhali was among half a dozen religious scholars who were asked to supply fatwa-s in support of the Muslim Jihad in eastern Indonesia’s Maluku Province (1999-2002). The scholar ruled that the jihad was individually obligatory for Muslims as they were allegedly under attack by Christians. [3]

Al-Madkhali’s movement takes an aggressive ideological stance towards other interpretations of Salafism. Al-Madkhali’s following has been described as similar to a cult in its demands for members to offer unquestioning obedience to its clerics. Similar to certain religious cults, al-Madkhali’s followers spend a disproportionate amount of time refuting criticisms of their leader or his more controversial works, usually by deploying a broad collection of positive remarks or reviews from members of the Saudi religious establishment as evidence of his legitimacy. [4]

Shaykh Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani

Most of the scholar’s 30+ books concern hadith studies and have been received favorably by much of Saudi Arabia’s Salafist establishment, including hadith specialist Shaykh Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani. [5] Al-Madkhali studied under al-Albani in the 1980s but in recent years the latter has displayed a preference for Salafi scholars more radical than al-Madkhali. [6] Other leading members of the Saudi religious establishment have backed away from support of the preacher in recent years, contributing to the decline of the movement within the Kingdom.

The Spread of Madkhalism

Even as Madkhalism declined in influence in Saudi Arabia, the movement began to spread to Europe (particularly the Netherlands), Southeast Asia, Kuwait, Kazakhstan. Libya and Egypt (where the government promotes it as a Salafist alternative to Salafi-Jihadism). In Europe, the Madkhalists have little interaction with their host communities, preferring to avoid the temptations of Western life or attempts to convert European Christians. Followers are closely monitored for ideological conformity and are encouraged to read only pre-approved texts. Ideological competitors are likewise watched so that any refutation of Madkhalism on theological grounds can be quickly addressed by the scholar’s followers. Members of the movement typically refer to their Muslim opponents as Kharajites (Arabic: khawarij, “outsiders,” a seventh century Islamic movement that opposed the manner of succession in the early Caliphate and were known for their habit of declaring their opponents apostates to Islam, the practice of takfir).

Al-Madkhali has a habit of referring to Salafi-Jihadists solely as “Qutbists” to deny their legitimacy as Salafists. The term refers to the late Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid al-Qutb, who was executed in 1966 for plotting the assassination of General Gamal Abd al-Nasser and the Islamist overthrow of the Egyptian government. Al-Madkhali has repeatedly targeted Qutbist ideology in sermons and books such as Spreading the Light on the Creed and Ideology of Sayyid Qutb, The Abuses of Sayyid Qutb against the Companions of the Messenger of Allah and Protection from the Dangers that are found in the Books of Sayyid Qutb. [7] Unsurprisingly, the jihadists regard the preacher as an enemy. Al-Madkhali has been attacked repeatedly by Abu Qatada al-Filistini, an important al-Qaeda leader now resident in Jordan. Abu Qatada accuses the “so-called Salafi” of spying on jihadis for the Saudi government. [8]

To promote his message, al-Madkhali maintains a website that deals with a range of Islamic issues, ranging from tricky theological debates to rulings on whether it is permissible to take one’s maid on pilgrimage. [9] He and his followers are also active in social media. [10]

The Salafi community in Kuwait began to split in the 1980s when Salafists belonging to Jamaiat Ihya al-Turath al-Islami (Revival of Islamic Heritage Society – RIHS, a Kuwaiti Salafi umbrella group) began to participate in the political process. Madkhalism, with its strict opposition to political participation, offered an acceptable ideology for these Salafists and has grown in popularity. [11] Madkhalism is one of several Salafist sects to take root in western Kazakhstan in recent years, though wary authorities tend to lump it together with more radical Salafist groups. [12]

Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Raslan

In Egypt, al-Madkhali’s most prominent follower is Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Raslan, a well-known former Muslim Brother who is now an opponent of the Brotherhood and party politics in general. Armed with a Ph.D. in hadith studies and strongly influenced by the controversial teachings of mediaeval preacher Ibn Taymiya (a staple for non-political Salafists and Salafi-Jihadists alike), Raslan  has devoted himself, like al-Madkhali, to refuting the works of Sayyid Qutb. Raslan advocates political quietism within Egypt, though he may be taking a more aggressive approach in neighboring Libya (as seen below).

The Shaykh’s opponents are many however, and typically describe Madkhalism as “mental illness,” “fake Salafism” or bid’ah (innovation in religion, a serious transgression in Salafist Islam). [13] Detractors claim that submissiveness to the Wali al-Amr as prescribed by the Madkhalists produces passivity, submission to injustice and indifference to the suffering of fellow Muslims.

The Madkhalists in Libya

One common practice in man’s attempts to manipulate nature is to introduce a non-native species to control the proliferation of a native species or an undesirable intrusive species. In this spirit, the Madkhali movement was invited to Libya in the 1990s by Mu’ammar Qaddafi to offset the Salafi-Jihadism of al-Jama’a al-Islamiya al-Muqatila bi-Libya (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – LIFG), which was threatening to overthrow Qaddafi’s regime at the time. [14] However, just as introduced species may proliferate and become an even greater problem than the one they were intended to solve, Madkhalism has taken root in Libya and has even infiltrated government-allied security services years after the disappearance of the LIFG as a coherent group.

During the 2011 revolution, al-Madkhali called on his Libyan followers to remain home, declaring participation to be fitnah, creating sedition against a lawful ruler (amongst other connotations that include falling into sin and hypocrisy). [15] The charge had an especially loaded meaning, having been used to describe the bitter civil wars that tore apart the early Muslim community in the 7th to 9th centuries C.E. The Madkhalis also opposed the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria on the usual grounds and disparaged those Salafists who supported it. [16]

Destruction of a Sufi Shrine in Zlitan

In 2012 Rabi’s brother Muhammad (a professor at the Islamic University of Madinah) led the demolition of Sufi shrines in Libya. Sufism is despised by Salafists on the grounds that it promotes the idea of an intermediary (or “saint,” usually a deceased Sufi leader known for exceptional piety and knowledge) who intercedes between man and God. On August 24, 2012 Muhammad directed the demolition of a Sufi shrine in Zlitan (Murqub district on the Mediterranean, west of Misrata) using bulldozers, jackhammers and explosives.  The Madkhalists went on to destroy the neighboring mosque and a library containing 700-year-old documents (France24.com, August 29, 2012). The demolition of the tomb of Abd al-Salam al-Asmar, a 15th-century Muslim scholar, followed by the demolition of the historic Sha’ab mosque in Tripoli while security forces looked on led to the resignation of the Interior Minister (al-Jazeera, August 26. 2016). [17]

In February 2015, al-Madkhali issued a fatwa issued forbidding participation in the battle between the largely Islamist and Tripolitanian Dawn coalition and the largely secular and Cyrenaïcan Operation Dignity forces led by General (now Field Marshal) Khalifa Haftar. [18] This was in keeping with Madkhalist principles, but in July 2016, al-Madkhali issued another fatwa urging all Libyan Salafists to join Haftar’s forces in fighting against the Benghazi Defense Brigade (BDB) led by Misrata’s Brigadier Mustafa al-Sharkasi and loyal to Libyan Chief Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani. [19] The fatwa’s justification was that the BDB’s real objective was not to relieve Islamist fighters besieged in Benghazi, but to destroy Benghazi’s Salafist community.   Perhaps influenced by the presence of Ismail al-Salabi (brother of prominent Libyan Muslim Brotherhood member Ali Muhammad al-Salabi) among the BDB commanders, al-Madkhali insisted the group was simply another manifestation of the Muslim Brothers, whom he described as more dangerous than Christians and Jews (Libya Observer, July 14, 2016). [20] In the process al-Madkhali ignited a feud with al-Ghariani, who accuses the Madkhalists of acting as spies and assassins for unnamed Gulf nations (Digital Journal, November 24, 2016).

Madkahli’s Libyan supporters use an estimated 30 FM radio stations to make their opposition known to al-Ghariani and the militias loyal to him (Digital Journal, November 24, 2016). In July 2016, the Shura Council of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood denounced al-Madkhali’s attacks on the Grand Mufti (who they generally support) and called for Libya’s government to stop the Saudi government’s “blatant interference” in Libyan affairs (Ikhwanweb.com, July 19, 2016).

The adherence of Madkhalists in eastern Libya to Haftar’s camp since 2014 has created suspicion amongst those Libyans who view the Field Marshal as an ambitious interloper at best or an American intelligence asset at worst. Most of the armed Madkhalists supporting Haftar initially did so as part of the Salafist Tawhid Brigade commanded by the late Izz al-Din al-Tarhuni. After al-Tarhuni’s death in February 2015, the Tawhid Brigade broke up and its members joined various other units of Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). [21] Madkhalists also joined in the successful offensive by the al-Bunyan al-Marsous coalition against Islamic State terrorists in Sirte, where their message may find some support after years of fighting have nearly destroyed the city, a former Qaddafi-era showpiece.

The Omrani Affair

Among those militias in which Madkhalist influence is strongest is the RADA Special Deterrence Force. RADA is a Tripoli-based militia that maintains security and operates smaller units elsewhere in Libya. Islamist in nature and led by Abd al-Rauf Kara, the unit is an independent formation under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior. Working out of a base at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, the unit mounts operations against terrorists, criminal gangs, drug traffickers, kidnapping rings and arms smugglers, maintaining its own private prison at Mitiga. RADA opposes al-Ghariani’s influence and, following the principle of Wali al-Amr, is a strong backer of the Tripoli-based Presidency Council, the latest attempt to impose a united administration on fractured Libya.

Abd al-Rauf Kara

In November 2016, an individual named Haitham al-Zintani confessed to being the assassin of Shaykh Nadir al-Omrani, a member of al-Ghariani’s Dar al-Ifta Islamic Research and Studies Council who was kidnapped in Tripoli on October 6, 2016 (the shaykh’s body has not been found, but he is presumed dead on the basis of the confession).

According to the suspect, the kidnapping was carried out by a RADA sub-group called the Crime Fighting Apparatus (CFA), a Tripoli-based unit strongly tied to Madkhalism: “We wanted to kill the shaykh because he presented an ideology different from Salafi scholars and clerics, especially that of Rabi’ al-Madkhali” (Libya Observer, November 21, 2016). Al-Omrani was also known to have been critical of specific fatwa-s issued by al-Madkhali. The murder was allegedly carried out by the CFA leader Abd al-Hakim Emgaidish and the CFA mufti Ahmad al-Safi on the order of leading Egyptian Madkhalist Muhammad Sa’id Raslan. Al-Zintani added that RADA holds regular meetings to plot the death of clerics they consider tied to the Muslim Brotherhood or other radical Islamist groups (Libya Herald, November 21, 2016; Libya Observer, November 21, 2016). RADA disclaimed any responsibility for the alleged assassin in a November 21, 2016 statement: “The force condemns strongly this crime but also condemns suggestions that it was involved in it” (Libya Observer, November 21, 2016).

Amidst popular outrage over the (presumed) murder, al-Ghariani took to Dar al-Ifta’s Tanasuh TV to denounce Saudi interference in Libya: “We want the Saudi Madkhali ideology to take its hands off the Libyan crisis, we know that the Salafis and Madkhalis here in Libya are the ones who killed Al-Omrani because he is moderate in Islam and they are radicals… These people [i.e. RADA] are receiving instructions from some Arab Gulf states to kill Libyan clerics” (Libyan Express, November 26, 2016; Libya Herald, November 23, 2016). Tripoli’s Awqaf and Islamic Affairs Authority banned 15 Madkhalist imams from preaching in Tripoli mosques as well as banning works by al-Madkhali, Raslan and their followers (Libya Herald, November 23, 2016; Libya Observer, November 24, 2016).

Conclusion

The fact that al-Madkhali’s fatwa-s on Libyan affairs have been contradictory has not added to his credibility in Libya. The question is why al-Madkhali should be issuing contradictory rulings; is the Madkhalist ideology in a state of flux? Or do these fluctuations represent, as some have suggested, fluctuations in Saudi foreign policy? [22] In Saudi Arabia’s religiously backed monarchy, the line between supporting the system and being an agent of the system is often blurred.

The declining importance of the doctrine of Wali al-Amr in 21st century Islam is partly due to growing international radicalization that ironically owes much to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to promote and finance the worldwide expansion of Salafism. While the secular and reformist wave of Arab Spring protest movements has been largely driven back by more traditional sources of authority (monarchies, militaries and political/economic elites), public distrust of such sources of authority remains high in the Islamic world. The politically quietist approach of Madkhalism is in danger of losing relevance under these conditions, though we may be witnessing a shift in the movement’s doctrinal approach in Libya intended to further embed Madkhali influence. Al-Madkhali’s regular (if inconsistent) proclamations on Libyan affairs may suggest the radically loyal scholar may be eying the nation as a future base of operations and expansion into the Maghreb.

Notes

  1. “Biographie de Cheikh Rabi’ Ibn Hadi Al Madkhali,” Rabee.net, August 1, 2012, http://www.3ilmchar3i.net/article-biographie-de-cheikh-rabi-ibn-hadi-al-madkhali-110174180.html
  2. Jarret M. Bachman and William F. McCants, “Stealing Al-Qa’ida’s Playbook,” CTC Report, February 2006, pp.13-14, https://www.ctc.usma.edu//wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Stealing-Al-Qaidas-Playbook.pdf
  3. Sumanto al-Qurtuby: Religious Violence and Conciliation in Indonesia: Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas, London, 2016, p.66; Muhammad Najib Azza, “Communal Violence in Indonesia and the Role of Foreign and Domestic Networks,“ In Arnaud De Borchgrave, Thomas M. Sanderson and David Gordon (eds.) Conflict, Community, and Criminality in Southeast Asia and Australia, Washington D.C., 2009, p.25.
  4. Rabi’ al-Madkhali’s followers are often referred to as “Madkhalis” or the “Madkhaliya,”though they reject this usage much as other Saudi Salafists reject the terms “Wahhabi” or “Wahhabism” as they imply devotion to a man rather than God (in the latter case, the 18th century Najdi reformer Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab).
  5. A hadith (Arabic – “report”) is a report of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings or actions as transmitted through reliable religious authorities.
  6. Roel Meijer, “Politicizing al-jarh wa-l-ta’di: Rabi b. Hadi al-Madkhali and the Transnational Battle for Religious Authority,” In Nicolet Boekhoff van der Voort, Kees Versteegh and Joas Wagemakers: The Transmission and Dynamics of the Textual Sources of Islam: Essays in Honour of Harald Motzki, Leiden, 2011, pp.380-81; Jarret M. Brachman, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, London, 2008, p.29.
  7. “Biographie de Cheikh Rabi’ Ibn Hadi Al Madkhali,” op cit.
  8. Abu Qatada, Bayn al-manhajayn (Between Two Methods),” articles 8 and 9, al-Nur, Denmark, 1994.
  9. http://www.rabee.net/ar/.
  10. An example of the type of hagiographical material produced by al-Madkhali’s followers can be found in Abu Khadeejah Abdul-Walid, “Is Shaikh Rabee’ Ibn Haadee a great scholar of this era?” http://www.abukhadeejah.com/is-shaikh-rabee-ibn-haadee-a-great-scholar-of-this-era/
  11. Zoltan Pall, “Kuwaiti Salafism and its Growing Influence in the Levant,” Carnegie Endowment Paper, May 7, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/05/07/kuwaiti-salafism-and-its-growing-influence-in-levant-pub-55514
  12. Almaz Rysaliev, “West Kazakhstan under Growing Islamic Influence,” IWPR Reporting Central Asia no.653, July 21, 2011, https://wikileaks.org/gifiles/docs/54/5427694_reporting-central-asia-no-653-.html
  13. See for example: “Madkhalism (Madkhiliyyah) – A mental illness,” Islam is Sunnah, October 28, 2014, https://islamissunnah.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/madkhalism-madkhliyyah-a-mental-illness/, or Abu Hafs ash-Shamee, “Deviations of the Madakhilah!!!,” The Ghurabah, October 18, 2013, http://theghurabah.blogspot.ca/2013/10/who-are-madkhalis.html .
  14. Frederic Wehrey, “The Authoritarian Resurgence: Saudi Arabia’s Anxious Autocrats,” Journal of Democracy, April 15, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/04/15/authoritarian-resurgence-saudi-arabia-s-anxious-autocrats-pub-59790
  15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sriMveeY9vA
  16. Zoltan Pall, op cit.
  17. Rabi’ al-Madkhali’s views on Sufism are available in: Shaykh Muhammad Ibn Rabee’ Ibn Haadee Al-Madkhalee, The Reality of Sufism in Light of the Qur’aan and Sunnah, 1404 H. http://www.slideshare.net/Truths33k3r/the-reality-of-sufism-by-shaykh-rabi-bin-hadi-al-madkhali
  18. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOyYSJnLuaA
  19. The YouTube video announcing this fatwa is no longer available.
  20. For a profile of al-Ghariani, see Andrew McGregor, “Shaykh Sadiq al-Ghariani: A Profile of Libya’s Grand Mufti,” Militant Leadership Monitor, December 2014.
  21. Frederic Wehrey, “’Madkhali’ Salafists in Libya are active in the battle against the Islamic State, and in factional conflicts,” Carnegie Middle East Center, October 13, 2016, http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/64846
  22. For the Saudi possibility, see Frederic Wehrey, ibid.

This article first appeared in the January 19, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor. 

Islamic Kingdom vs. Islamic State: Assessing the Effectiveness of a Saudi-led Counter-Terrorist Army

Andrew McGregor

April 16, 2016

After taking the throne in January, the new Saudi regime of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud seems determined to shake off the perceived lethargy of the Saudi royals, presenting a more vigorous front against a perceived Shi’a threat in the Gulf with the appointment of former Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef as Crown Prince and Salman’s son Muhammad as Minister of Defense and second in line to the throne. To contain Shiite expansion in the Gulf region, the Saudis created a coalition of Muslim countries last year to combat Yemen’s Zaydi Shiite Houthi movement, which had displaced the existing government and occupied Yemen’s capital in 2014. Assessing the military performance of this coalition is useful in projecting the performance of an even larger Saudi-led “counter-terrorist” coalition designed to intervene in Syria and elsewhere.

Saudi Border PostSaudi Border Post Overlooking Yemen

As a demonstration of the united military will of 20 majority Sunni nations (excluding Bahrain, which has a Shi’a majority but a Sunni royal family), the Saudi-led Operation Northern Thunder military exercise gained wide attention during its run from February 14 to March 10 (Middle East Monitor, March 3, 2016).[1] The massive exercise involved the greatest concentration of troops and military equipment in the Middle East since the Gulf War. However, Saudi ambitions run further to the creation of an anti-terrorism (read anti-Shi’a) coalition of 35 Muslim nations that is unlikely to ever see the light of day as conceived. Questions were raised regarding the true intent of this coalition when it became clear Shi’a-majority Iran and Iraq were deliberately excluded, as was Lebanon’s Shi’a Hezbollah movement.

Coalition Operations in Yemen

A Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen on March 26, 2015 as a means of reversing recent territorial gains by the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi movement, securing the common border and restoring the government of internationally recognized president Abd Rabu Mansur al-Hadi, primarily by means of aerial bombardment.

Nine other nations joined the Saudi-coalition; the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Senegal, the latter being the only non-Arab League member. Senegal’s surprising participation was likely the result of promises of financial aid; Senegal’s parliament was told the 2,100 man mission was aimed at “protecting and securing the holy sites of Islam,” Mecca and Madinah (RFI, March 12, 2015).

Despite having the largest army in the coalition, Egypt’s ground contributions appear to have been minimal, with the nation still wary of entanglement in Yemen after the drubbing its expeditionary force took from Royalist guerrillas in Yemen’s mountains during the 1962-1970 civil war, a campaign that indirectly damaged Egypt’s performance in the 1973 Ramadan War against Israel. The Egyptians have instead focused on contributing naval ships to secure the Bab al-Mandab southern entrance to the Red Sea, a strategic priority for both Egypt and the United States.

With support from the UK and the United States, the Saudi-led intervention was seen by Iran, Russia and Gulf Shiite leaders as a violation of international law; more important, from an operational perspective, was the decision of long-time military ally Pakistan to take a pass on a Saudi invitation to join the conflict (Reuters, April 10, 2015).

Operation Decisive Storm was declared over on April 21, 2015, to be replaced the next day with Operation Restoring Hope. Though the new operation was intended to have a greater political focus and a larger ground component, the aerial and naval bombing campaign and U.S.-supported blockade of rebel-held ports continued.

The failure of airstrikes alone to make significant changes in military facts on the ground was displayed once again in the Saudi-led air campaign. A general unconcern for collateral damage, poor ground-air coordination (despite Western assistance in targeting) and a tendency to strike any movement of armed groups managed to alienate the civilian population as well as keep Yemeni government troops in their barracks rather than risk exposure to friendly fire in the field (BuzzFeed, April 2, 2015).  At times, the airstrikes have dealt massive casualties to non-military targets, including 119 people killed in an attack on a market in Hajja province in March 2016 and a raid on a wedding party in September 2015 that killed 131 people (Guardian, March 17, 2016).

While coalition operations have killed some 3,000 militants, the death of an equal number of civilians, the use of cluster munitions and the destruction of infrastructure, mosques, markets, heritage buildings, residential neighborhoods, health facilities, schools and other non-military targets constitute a serious mistake in counter-insurgency operations. Interruptions to the delivery of food, fuel, water and medical services have left many Yemenis prepared to support whomever is able to provide essential services and a modicum of security.

A Muslim Army or an Army of Mercenaries?

When the population of Germany’s small states began to grow in the late 18th century, the rulers of duchies and principalities such as Hesse, Hanover, Brunswick found it both expedient and profitable to rent out their small but highly-trained armies to Great Britain (whose own army was extremely small) for service in America, India, Austria, Scotland, and Ireland. Similarly, a number of Muslim-majority nations appear to be contributing troops to the Saudi-led coalition in return for substantial financial favors from the Saudi Kingdom.

Khartoum’s severance of long-established military and economic relations with Iran has been followed by a much cozier and financially beneficial relationship with Saudi Arabia (much needed after the loss of South Sudan’s oilfields). Sudan committed 850 troops (out of a pledged 6,000) and four warplanes to the fighting in Yemen; like the leaders of other coalition states, President Omar al-Bashir justified the deployment in locally unchallengeable terms of religious necessity – the need to protect the holy places of Mecca and Madinah, which are nonetheless not under any realistic threat from Houthi forces (Sudan Tribune, March 15, 2016).

Khartoum was reported to have received a $1 billion deposit from Qatar in April 2015 and another billion in August 2015 from Saudi Arabia, followed by pledges of Saudi financing for a number of massive Sudanese infrastructure projects (Gulf News, August 13, 2015; East African [Nairobi], October 31, 2015; Radio Dabanga, October 4, 2015). Sudanese commitment to the Yemen campaign was also rewarded with $5 billion worth of military assistance from Riyadh in February, much of which will be turned against Sudan’s rebel movements and help ensure the survival of President Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity (Sudan Tribune, February 24, 2016). Some Sudanese troops appear to have been deployed against Houthi forces in the highlands of Ta’iz province, presumably using experience gained in fighting rebel movements in Sudan’s Nuba Hills region (South Kordofan) and Darfur’s Jabal Marra mountain range.

The UN’s Somalia-Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) cited “credible information” this year that Eritrean troops were embedded in UAE formations in Yemen, though this was denied by Eritrea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Geeska Afrika Online [Asmara], February 23). The SEMG also reported that Eritrea was allowing the Arab coalition to use its airspace, land territory and waters in the anti-Houthi campaign in return for fuel and financial compensation. [2] Somalia accepted a similar deal in April 2015 (Guardian, April 7, 2015).

UAE troops, mostly from the elite Republican Guard (commanded by Austrian Mike Hindmarsh) have performed well in Yemen, particularly in last summer’s battle for Aden; according to Brigadier General Ahmad Abdullah Turki, commander of Yemen’s Third Brigade: “Our Emirati brothers surprised us with their high morale and unique combat skills,” (Gulf News, December 5, 2015). The UAE’s military relies on a large number of foreign advisers at senior levels, mostly Australians (Middle East Eye, December 23, 2015). Hundreds of Colombian mercenaries have been reported fighting under UAE command, with the Houthis reporting the death of six plus their Australian commander (Saba News Agency [Sana’a], December 8, 2015; Colombia Reports [Medellin], October 26, 2015; Australian Associated Press, December 8, 2015).

There is actually little to be surprised about in the coalition’s use of mercenaries, a common practice in the post-independence Gulf region. A large portion of Saudi Arabia’s combat strength and officer corps consists of Sunni Pakistanis, while Pakistani pilots play important roles in the air forces of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As well as the Emirates, Oman and Qatar have both relied heavily on mercenaries in their defense forces and European mercenaries played a large role in Royalist operations during North Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war.

Insurgent Tactics

The Houthis have mounted near-daily attacks on Saudi border defenses, using mortars, Katyusha and SCUD rockets to strike Saudi positions in Najran and Jizan despite Saudi reinforcements of armor, attack helicopters and National Guard units. Little attempt has been made by the Houthis to hold ground on the Saudi side of the border, which would only feed Saudi propaganda that the Shiites are intent on seizing the holy cities of the Hijaz.

When Republican Guard forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh joined the Houthi rebellion, they brought firepower previously unavailable to the Houthis, including the Russian-made OTR-21 mobile missile system. OTR-21 missiles have been used in at least five major strikes on Saudi or coalition bases, causing hundreds of deaths and many more wounded.

Saudi ArtillerySaudi Artillery Fires on Houthi Positions (Faisal al-Nasser, Reuters)

The Islamic State (IS) has been active in Yemen since its local formation in November 2014. Initially active in Sana’a, the movement has switched its focus to Aden and Hadramawt. IS has used familiar asymmetric tactics in Yemen, assassinating security figures and deploying suicide bombers in bomb-laden vehicles against soft targets such as mosques (which AQAP now refrains from) as well as suicide attacks on military checkpoints that are followed by assaults with small arms. With its small numbers, the group has been most effective in urban areas that offer concealment and dispersal opportunities. Nonetheless, part of its inability to expand appears to lie in the carelessness with which Islamic State handles the lives of its own fighters and the wide dislike of the movement’s foreign (largely Saudi) leadership.

War on al-Qaeda

With control of nearly four governorates, a major port (Mukalla, capital of Hadramawt province) and 373 miles of coastline, al-Qaeda has created a financial basis for its administration by looting banks, collecting taxes on trade and selling oil to other parts of fuel-starved Yemen (an unforeseen benefit to AQAP of the naval blockade). The group displayed its new-found confidence by trying (unsuccessfully) to negotiate an oil export deal with Hadi’s government last October (Reuters, April 8, 2016).

Eliminating al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen was not a military priority in the Saudi-led campaign until recently, with an attack by Saudi Apache attack helicopters on AQAP positions near Aden on March 13 and airstrikes against AQAP-held military bases near Mukalla that failed to dislodge the group (Reuters, March 13; Xinhua, April 3, 2016).

Perhaps drawing on lessons learned from al-Qaeda’s failed attempt to hold territory in Mali in 2012-2013, AQAP in Yemen has focused less on draconian punishments and the destruction of Islamic heritage sites than the creation of a working administration that provides new infrastructure, humanitarian assistance, health services and a degree of security not found elsewhere in Yemen (International Business Times, April 7, 2016).

Conclusion: A Saudi-led Coalition in Syria?

The Saudis are now intent on drawing down coalition ground operations while initiating new training programs for Yemeni government troops and engaging in “rebuilding and reconstruction” activities (al-Arabiya, March 17, 2016). A ceasefire took hold in Yemen on April 10 in advance of UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait to begin on April 18.  Signs that a political solution may be at hand in Yemen include Hadi’s appointment of a new vice-president and prime minister, the presence of a Houthi negotiating team in Riyadh and the exclusion of ex-president Saleh from the process, a signal his future holds political isolation rather than a return to leadership (Ahram Online, April 7, 2016).

If peace negotiations succeed in drawing the Houthis into the Saudi camp the Kingdom will emerge with a significant political, if not military, victory, though the royal family will still have an even stronger AQAP to contend with.  Like the Great War, the end of the current war in Yemen appears to be setting the conditions for a new conflict so long as it remains politically impossible to negotiate with AQAP. However, AQAP is taking the initiative to gain legitimacy by testing new names and consolidating a popular administration in regions under its control. Unless current trends are reversed, AQAP may eventually be the first al-Qaeda affiliate to successfully make the shift from terrorist organization to political party.

The cost to the Saudis in terms of cash and their international reputation has been considerable in Yemen, yet Hadi, recently fled to Riyadh, is no closer to ruling than when the campaign began. Sana’a remains under Houthi control and radical Islamists have taken advantage of the intervention to expand their influence. Perhaps in light of this failure, Saudi foreign minister Adl al-Jubayr has suggested the Kingdom now intends only a smaller Special Forces contribution to the fighting in Syria that would focus not on replacing the Syrian regime but rather on destroying Islamic State forces “in the framework of the international coalition” (Gulf News, February 23, 2016). Introducing a larger Saudi-led coalition to the anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria/Iraq without a clear understanding and set of protocols with other parties involved (Iran, Iraq, Russia, Hezbollah, the Syrian Army) could easily ignite a greater conflict rather than contribute to the elimination of the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia is not a disinterested party in the Syrian struggle; it has been deeply involved in providing financial, military and intelligence support to various religiously-oriented militias that operate at odds with groups supported by other interested parties.

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen has left one of the poorest nations on earth in crisis, with 2.5 million displaced and millions more without access to basic necessities. With Yemen’s infrastructure and heritage left in ruins and none of the coalition’s strategic objectives achieved, it seems difficult to imagine that the insertion into Syria of another Saudi-led coalition would make any meaningful contribution to bringing that conflict to a successful or sustainable end.

Notes

  1. Besides Saudi Arabia, the other nations involved in the exercise included Egypt, Jordan, Senegal, Sudan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Pakistan, Chad, Tunisia, Djibouti, Comoro Islands and Peninsula Shield Force partners Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
  2. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2182 (2014): Eritrea, October 19, 2015, 3/93, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2015/802

 

An edited version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor under the title: “Saudi Arabia’s Intervention in Yemen Suggests a Troubled Future for the Kingdom’s Anti-Terror Coalition,” http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=45324&tx_ttnews[backPid]=26&cHash=e2d5de949e926ff3b5d9228dc4b96af7#.VxfvSkdqnIU

 

Islam’s Leading Muftis Condemn the “Islamic State”

Andrew McGregor
September 4, 2014

Egypt’s Grand Mufti (chief Islamic jurist), Shaykh Shawqi Ibrahim Abd al-Karim Allam, has opened a new campaign to combat Islamist militancy of the type promoted by the Islamic State through electronic means such as internet sites, videos and Twitter accounts. The campaign, which will involve Islamic scholars from across the world, aims to: “correct the image of Islam that has been tarnished in the West because of these criminal acts, and to exonerate humanity from such crimes that defy natural instincts and spread hate between people” (Middle East News Agency [Cairo], August 31; September 1; AP, August 25). There were 37 million internet users in Egypt as of September 2013 (Ahram Online, September 1).

Grand Mufti EgyptGrand Mufti Shaykh Shawqi Ibrahim Abd al-Karim Allam

Egypt’s Grand Mufti has also been pulled into the controversial death sentences issued against leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their followers in connection with a series of violent incidents that followed last year’s popular rising/military coup that toppled the rule of Muhammad Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Brotherhood). The specific case in which the Grand Mufti was invited to give his opinion involved death sentences handed down to Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad al-Badi’e and seven other Brotherhood leaders in June (six others were sentenced to death in absentia, but have the right to new trials if they return) in connection with murder charges related to the clashes at the Istiqama mosque in Giza on July 23, 2013 that left nine people dead.

Egyptian legal procedure calls for all death sentences to be confirmed by a non-binding decision of the Grand Mufti, though in practice such decisions are nearly always followed. Unusually, in this case, the Mufti’s original decision to commute the June death sentences to life imprisonment was returned by the court for reconsideration (Ahram Online [Cairo], August 30; al-Jazeera, August 8). Shawqi Allam declined to take the hint and instead reaffirmed his position that the death penalties were inappropriate given that the evidence consisted solely of unsupported testimony from a police operative (Deutsche Welle, August 30). The Grand Mufti’s actions have been interpreted as a rebuke to the judicial process that has delivered hundreds of death sentences to Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters this year following the group’s official designation as a “terrorist” organization. Muhammad al-Badi’e still faces another death sentence in relation to a separate case regarding the Brothers’ alleged armed response to a July 2014 demonstration at their al-Muqattam headquarters in eastern Cairo.

The decisions of Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta (House of Religious Edicts) are typically closely aligned to official government policy, leading many observers to consider it a quasi-governmental agency. Nonetheless, the office and Egypt’s Grand Mufti remain important sources of spiritual direction throughout the Sunni Islamic world, with thousands of fatwa-s being issued every month in response to questions of faith and practice from around the Islamic world. Compared to institutions such as Cairo’s 10th century al-Azhar Islamic University (also brought under government control in 1961), Dar al-Ifta is a comparatively modern institution, having been created at the order of Khedive Abbas al-Hilmi in 1895.

Grand Mufti Saudi ArabiaGrand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz al-Ashaykh

In Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz al-Ashaykh, chairman of the Council of Senior Ulema and the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta (the Kingdom’s fatwa-issuing office), used an August 28 radio interview to respond to the arrest of eight men charged with recruiting fighters for the Islamic State by urging young Saudis to resist calls for jihad “under unknown banners and perverted principles” (Nida al-Islam Radio [Mecca], August 28).

The interview followed a statement entitled “Foresight and Remembrance” made several days earlier in which the Saudi Grand Mufti described members of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as “Kharijites, the first group that deviated from the religion because they accused Muslims of disbelief due to their sins and allowed killing them and taking their money,” a reference to an early and traditionally much despised early Islamic movement whose advocacy of jihad against rulers they deemed insufficiently Islamic (similar to the takfiri pose adopted by the modern Islamist extremists) led to nearly two centuries of conflict in the Islamic world: “Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on earth, destroying human civilization, are not in any way part of Islam, but are rather Islam’s number one enemy, and Muslims are their first victims…” (Saudi Press Agency, August 19).

The Grand Mufti’s comments reflect a growing concern in Saudi Arabia that the Kingdom will inevitably be targeted by the so-called Islamic State, a development that could shatter the partnership between Wahhabi clerics and the al-Sa’ud royal family that dominates the Kingdom both politically and spiritually. Thousands of Saudis are believed to have left to join Islamic State and al-Nusra Front forces in Iraq and Syria in recent months (Reuters, August 25). The Islamic State poses a direct challenge to the religious legitimacy of the al-Sa’ud monarchy and their rule of the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah by presenting the creation of a caliphate as the true fulfillment the Wahhabist “project” while simultaneously undercutting the authority of Wahhabist clerics such as Shaykh Abd al-Aziz, whom the movement views as having been co-opted by their partnership with a “corrupt and un-Islamic” royal family.

This article first appeared in the September 4, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Will ISIS Spur New Strategic Directions for Saudi Arabia?

Andrew McGregor

June 26, 2014

In some ways, the recent triumphs of the radical Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) inside Iraq have alarmed Riyadh as much as Tehran. While the Saudis are still willing to support less radical Islamist movements in Syria and Iraq as part of a proxy war against Shiite Iran, there are fears in Riyadh that ISIS extremists, many of whom were recruited in Saudi Arabia, may eventually turn their attention to the Kingdom itself, threatening its hereditary rulers and the stability of the Gulf region.  Iraq and Iran, meanwhile, accuse the Saudis of sponsoring terrorism and religious extremism throughout the Middle East.

Iraqi president Nuri al-Maliki first accused Saudi Arabia of financing Iraqi terrorists in March. Echoing al-Maliki, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi cabinet issued a statement on June 17 in which they held the Saudis “responsible for supporting these [militant] groups financially and morally… [and for] crimes that may qualify as genocide: the spilling of Iraqi blood and the destruction of Iraqi state institutions and religious sites” (Arabianbusiness.com, June 17). Saudi Arabia reacted to the allegations by releasing a statement condemning ISIS as well as the Iraqi government:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wishes to see the defeat and destruction of all al-Qaeda networks and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) operating in Iraq. Saudi Arabia does not provide either moral or financial support to ISIS or any terrorist networks. Any suggestion to the contrary, is a malicious falsehood. Despite the false allegations of the Iraqi Ministerial Cabinet, whose exclusionary policies have fomented this current crisis, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supports the preservation of Iraq’s sovereignty, its unity and territorial integrity (Arab News [Jeddah], June 19).

The Iranian press has clearly stated the Kingdom is the largest sponsor of terrorism in the region (Javan [Tehran], June 14). Tehran considers Riyadh to be in complete support of efforts to drive Iraq’s Shi’a majority from the central government in Baghdad. After Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani announced Iran’s readiness to defend Shi’a holy sites in Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal, warned against foreign interference in Iraq. While also pledging fighters to defend the Shi’a shrines of Iraq, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah was less eager to accuse the Saudis of directly sponsoring the radical Salafist ISIS movement, saying only: “It is uncertain that Saudi Arabia had a role” (Ra’y al-Yawm, June 17).

Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal  (Reuters)

Syria has also pointed to Saudi Arabian responsibility for arming and funding ISIS operations in that country at the behest of Israel and the United States and in cooperation with Qatar and Turkey. According to Syrian state media: “No Western country is unaware of the role Saudi Arabia is playing in supporting terrorism and funding and arming different fronts and battles, both inside and outside Iraq and Syria” (al-Thawra [Damascus], June 12).

Saudi Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz Al al-Shaykh denounced ISIS on May 27, condemning their recruitment of Saudi youth for the war in Syria (al-Riyadh, May 27). The Kingdom has also stepped up its terrorist prosecutions, diving into a backlog of hundreds of cases mainly related to the 2003-2006 Islamist insurgency. Sentences of up to 30 years in prison are being issued in cases where there once seemed little inclination to prosecute (Saudi Press Agency, June 10). Earlier this year, King Abdullah issued decrees prohibiting Saudi citizens from joining the jihad in Syria or providing financial support to extremists.

Saudi foreign minister Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal recently told an Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) gathering in Jeddah that Iraqi claims of Saudi support for terrorism were “baseless,” but warned there were signs of an impending civil war in Iraq, a war whose implications for the region “cannot be fathomed” (Arabianbusiness.com, June 18; al-Arabiya, June 19). The Saudi government has blamed “the sectarian and exclusionary policies implemented in Iraq over the past years that threatened its stability and sovereignty” (al-Akhbar [Beirut], June 10). Officially, Saudi Arabia disavows sectarianism in Iraq and calls for a unified Iraqi nation with all citizens on an equal basis without distinction or discrimination (al-Riyadh, June 18).

Prince Turki al-Faisal

Saudi authorities hold the Maliki government responsible for the present crisis and its sometimes bewildering implications, a stance summed up by former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal:

Baghdad has failed to stop the closing of ranks of extremists and Ba’thists from the era of Saddam Hussein… The situation in al-Anbar in Iraq has been boiling for some time. It seemed that the Iraqi government not only failed to do enough to calm this situation, but that it pushed things towards an explosion in some cases… One of the possible ironies is to see the Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighting alongside U.S. drones to kill Iraqis. This is something that makes a person lose his mind and makes one wonder: Where are we headed? (al-Quds al-Arabi, June 15; Arab News, June 14).

When Prince Bandar bin Sultan was removed from his post in April and replaced by Prince Muhammad bin Nayef it was interpreted as a sign Riyadh was prepared to vary from the hardline approach to Iran taken by the ex-intelligence chief (Gulf News [Dubai], May 21). The change reflects the Saudi government’s appreciation of the strategic situation it finds itself in as Washington shows greater reluctance to intervene directly in the affairs of the region. The lack of American consultation with the Kingdom during initial U.S.-Iranian discussions has convinced many in Riyadh that their nation must forge its own relationship with Iran to avoid a wave of conflict that could threaten the traditional Arab kingdoms of the Gulf region. The election of new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has presented new possibilities in the Saudi-Iranian relationship, including a common approach to Turkey, whose Islamist government has supported the Muslim Brotherhood, now defined as a destabilizing threat in both Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, this remains conjecture at this point, as Riyadh follows a cautious approach to an Iranian rapprochement. While improved relations might prove beneficial, the Kingdom cannot afford to risk its self-adopted role as the guardian of Sunni Islam.

The rapprochement with Iran began tentatively earlier this year, with a series of secret meetings in Muscat and Kuwait followed by more official encounters between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers (National [Abu Dhabi], May 19). Diplomacy between the two nations appears to have been spurred by American urgings and the Kingdom’s realization that a reactive rather than pro-active foreign policy could leave the Saudis outside of a recalibrated power structure in the Middle East. There are fears in Riyadh that ISIS offensive may result in Iranian troops joining the fight against Sunni extremists in Iraq, followed by the breakup of the country (al-Quds al-Arabi, June 15).

While Saudi Arabia appears to have backed off from its covert financial support of ISIS, private donations likely continue to flow from donors in the Kingdom and other Gulf states, though the recent looting of bank vaults and consolidation of oil-producing regions in Syria and Iraq mean that ISIS will be largely self-supporting from this point. Saudi anxieties over political change in the Middle East are reflected in the Kingdom’s growing defense budget, which now makes the nation of under 30 million people one of the world’s top six military spenders (Arabianbusiness.com, June 14).

This article was first published in the June 26, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Gulf Co-Operation Council Threatens to Split over Qatar’s Support for the Muslim Brotherhood

Andrew McGregor

March 20, 2014

Changing political alignments in the Gulf region now appear to threaten the continued existence of the Gulf Co-Operation Council (GCC), an important six-nation organization designed to further the political interests of the Gulf’s conservative monarchies with an eye to eventual unification. Though tensions have been growing within the GCC for some time, the dramatic rupture in diplomatic relations between Qatar and three other members of the GCC (Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain) over the former’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood has the potential of dealing a fatal blow to the Council. GCC members include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. Rather than a simple alliance, the GCC is better thought of as a complex network of relationships in which common goals such as security and prosperity are intended to override competing interests.

Gulf Co-operation Council Nations

On March 7, Saudi Arabia declared the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria’s al-Nusra Front, the Houthists of north Yemen, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a little-known group the edict called “Hezbollah within the Kingdom” to be terrorist organizations. A Brotherhood front organization in Egypt expressed “surprise” at Riyadh’s choice to “continue support for the coup” and to “criminalize opposition to the unjust coup” (Ahram Online [Cairo], March 10). Riyadh also gave 15 days for all Saudi citizens engaged in fighting abroad to return home without penalty. Under a decree issued by King Abdullah on February 3, Saudi citizens fighting in conflicts outside the kingdom will face imprisonment for a term of three to 20 years, with members of extremist or terrorist groups facing even harsher penalties (Ahram Online [Cairo], March 7).

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in early March in an unusual show of dissatisfaction with the policies of a fellow GCC member.  Qatar’s foreign minister, Khalid al-Attiya, responded to the moves by asserting that: “The independence of Qatar’s foreign policy is simply non-negotiable” (al-Jazeera, March 18). Qatar was a strong financial supporter of the short-lived Mursi regime in Egypt, but now has nothing to show for its investment other than growing diplomatic isolation. The Saudis and the UAE, on the other hand, have backed the military government of Field Marshal Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi with massive financial support to keep the regime afloat in a difficult period and can expect their political influence to grow if al-Sisi becomes the next president of Egypt, as expected.

Saudi Arabia is reported to have warned Qatar that it would be “punished” unless it met three demands; the closure of al-Jazeera (accused by Egypt of backing the Muslim Brotherhood), the severance of all ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and the expulsion of two U.S. institutes from Qatar, the Brookings Doha Centre and the Rand Qatar Policy Institute (Qatar News, March 15; AFP, March 15). The promised alternative is a Saudi air and land blockade of Qatar, which not only relies heavily on imports of food and other goods, but is also an important regional transportation hub. The Saudi and Qatari militaries last clashed along their mutual border in 1992.  The UAE has been somewhat less bellicose than the Saudis, given that the Emirates depend on Qatari natural gas for power generation (Financial Times, March 14). Otherwise, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will find it difficult to apply economic pressure on Qatar, which has broad overseas investments, Asian markets hungry for its natural gas production and does only five percent of its trade with the three GCC partners opposing its policies (Bloomberg, March 13).

Qatar continues to host the Brotherhood’s unofficial leader, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential preacher with considerable media skills. Qatar’s ambassador to the UAE was summoned to the foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi in February to explain a sermon broadcast from Qatar by al-Qaradawi in which the shaykh condemned the UAE as a nation that opposes Islamic rule. The remarks came a day after UAE authorities imprisoned 30 Emiratis and Egyptians accused of forming a Brotherhood cell in Abu Dhabi (al-Jazeera, February 2). Qatar has offered refuge to fugitive members of the Brotherhood, while the UAE has imprisoned scores of members of the Brotherhood and its UAE affiliate, the Islah Party (al-Jazeera, March 18).

In recent years, Qatar has grown closer to Iran and Turkey, the latter’s ruling Justice and Development Party also being a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s ties to Shi’a Iran in the midst of an ongoing regional Sunni-Shi’a power struggle are particularly alarming to the Saudis (whose oil-rich Eastern Province has a Shi’a majority) and the Sunni rulers of Bahrain, who are trying to repress simmering discontent in Bahrain’s Shi’a majority.  Kuwait appears to be dismayed by the whole dispute and has offered to act as a mediator. The last member of the GCC, Oman, has an Ibadite majority and has traditionally close ties to Iran as part of a resolutely independent foreign policy. Oman is a strong opponent of Saudi-led efforts to create an economic, customs and defense union within the GCC. Egyptian officials announced Cairo had decided not to close its embassy in Doha because of the large number of Egyptian nationals working in Qatar but would not send a new ambassador (Al-Monitor, March 12).

Qatar’s active role in the Syrian and Libyan rebellions has been a leading element of an increasingly aggressive Qatari foreign policy that has at times alarmed its conservative neighbors. Despite this, there is a tremendous incentive to cooperation within the GCC as its members will all suffer economically if political disputes lead to blockades, closed borders or confrontations in an already compact and volatile region.

This article first appeared in the March 20, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Iraqi President Accuses Qatar and Saudi Arabia of Waging War against the Iraqi Government

Andrew McGregor

March 20, 2014

As Iraq descends further into a pattern of intensive sectarian violence and terrorist attacks, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has accused Qatar and Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorist groups active in his country, likening this support to a declaration of war:

They are attacking Iraq, through Syria and in a direct way, and they announced war on Iraq, as they announced it on Syria, and unfortunately it is on a sectarian and political basis… I accuse them of inciting and encouraging the terrorist movements. I accuse them of supporting them politically and in the media, of supporting them with money and by buying weapons for them. I accuse them of leading an open war against the Iraqi government… These two countries are primarily responsible for the sectarian and terrorist and security crisis of Iraq (France 24, March 9).