March 22, 2012
In an audiotape address entitled “Do Not Lead toward the Wicked,” the naib (deputy leader) of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) called for a jihad against the Saudi royal family as the best way of addressing the threat posed by a united front of Israel, the United States and Iran (UmmaNews.com, March 13; Ansar1.info, March 13).. Sa’id al-Shihri (a.k.a. Abu Sufyan al-Azdi) focused his attack on the Saudis and the “scholars of sin” of the religious establishment that support them. Al-Shihri especially condemned the royal family for permitting Shiites to live in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province (al-Sharqiyah). The AQAP commander has appealed in the past to the Saudi military to mutiny against the Saudis and usher in an Islamist regime (see Terrorism Monitor, September 9, 2010). Shortly after al-Shihri’s statement was released, the Saudi Embassy in Sana’a warned its staff that al-Qaeda was planning to strike the facility with car bombs (Yemen Post, March 15).
The AQAP naib suggested that Americans and Zionists were combatting Sunni Islam in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan, while Iran was pursuing an aggressive policy in those areas inhabited by their fellow Shiites. Al-Shihri pointed to a recent clash in the largely Shiite city of Qatif as an example of the failure of the Saudis and the “royal scholars” to reveal the nature of the threat posed to Sunni Islam by the “Iranian-armed Rafidites” of Saudi Arabia. “Rafidites” or “Rawafidh” (rejectionists, i.e. of Islam) is a pejorative term used by Salafists or other anti-Shi’a Sunnis. In the past, al-Shihri has indicated he believes the Zaydi Shiites of Yemen are Iranian-controlled “Rafidites” even though their form of Islam is closer to the Shafi’i Sunnism practiced elsewhere in Yemen than to the dominant form of “Twelver” Shi’ism practiced in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Southern Lebanon, eastern Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East (Sada al-Malahim, Issue 12, February 2010; Aljazeeratalk.net, February 18, 2010).
An extreme view of Shi’ism commonly held by Salafists holds that the Shi’a are polytheists and outside of Islam, though the view of Cairo’s al-Azhar University and the Saudi government (at least officially) is that Shi’ism is a legitimate variation of Islam, thus allowing Shiites to perform the pilgrimage to the Holy Cities of the Hijaz. With Saudi Arabia’s international reputation as the homeland of Sunni Islam, it remains little known that some 10 to 15%of the nation’s population follows the Shi’i school, these being concentrated in the oil-producing Eastern Province. Al-Shihri urges “the men of Islam” to gather at the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia to defend the Shari’a of Allah from the Americans and their “puppet henchmen.” He also warns Iran has rallied its own followers “from Bahrain to Syria, and from Qatif to Sa’ada [the north Yemen capital of the Shiite Houthist movement) for a war against Islam.”
Al-Shihri cites a takfiri fatwa from the late Saudi Shaykh Abdallah ibn Jibrin that declared the Kingdom’s Shi’a population had been exposed to the truth of Sunni Islam but had rejected it, thus making them heretics subject to the penalty of death. Ibn Jibrin also declared it was inappropriate to pray for the success of Lebanon’s Hezbollah in its struggle with Israel. (IHT August 3, 2006; see also ibn-jebreen.com). Typical of such Salafist exhortations is al-Shihri’s emphasis on the principle of al-wala’ wa’l-bara, or “loyalty (towards the believers) and disavowal (of the disbelievers).” In this case Muslims are obliged to combat the Saudis as they “have left Islam,” according to the naib.
The city of Qatif and surrounding governorate of Qatif referred to by al-Shihri is almost exclusively Shiite and has been the site of numerous disturbances in the last year involving clashes between protesters angered by the Saudi government’s allegedly anti-Shi’a policies and the inequitable distribution of oil wealth in the Qatif region, which lacks schools and health facilities. Saudi Ministry of the Interior spokesman Major General Mansour al-Turki says there can be no comparison made between the “legitimate self-defense” practiced by Saudi security forces under attack from protesters and the political violence taking place in neighboring nations (Saudi Gazette, February 20; Arab News, February 20). Shaykh Sayyid Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, recently offered his support to the Shiite protesters in the Eastern Province, noting the inequitable distribution of energy revenues: “Protesters there are not calling for toppling the regime, they are rather demanding some reforms, rights and developments in one of the poorest areas in Saudi Arabia, knowing that it is one of the richest areas in oil.” In response, the protesters are met only with “bullets and tanks” (al-Manar TV, February 24; AP, February 25).
A prominent Shiite cleric in Qatif, Shaykh Ghazi al-Shabib, has called for legislation against those who willfully spread sedition by promoting sectarianism and takfir in the Kingdom (Rasid.com, March 12). Similar calls were made last October by Shaykh Faisal al-Awami, who suggested the root of sectarianism was the “misinterpretation of religion and misuse of the manuscripts” in some religious communities (Rasid.com, October 22, 2011).
Yemen’s President Abd Rabbu Mansur al-Hadi has sworn to restructure the army and intensify the fight against al-Qaeda in the midst of allegations that General Ali Muhsin and members of the ex-president’s family are supplying weapons and munitions to AQAP and related Islamist militias (al-Mu’tamar [Sana’a], March 13; al-Mithaq.net [Sana’a], March 12; Jordan Times, March 14).
This article first appeared in the March 22, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.