Quick thoughts on anti-Shi'ism and the future of jihadism in Saudi Arabia
I’ve been waiting for those who know more about jihadism in Saudi Arabia to discuss this, but since I can’t spot much of a discussion going on, I’ll take a hesitant dip.
The ‘General Deputy’ (alnaib al-‘am) for ‘Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’, Abu Sufyan al-Azdi, released a 16 minute audiotape a couple of days ago.
Two things struck me about what he said:
-He addressed Mullah Omar as ‘Prince of the Faithful’, he did not address his salutations to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
-He cited two local issues that incensed him: recent Shi’a uppityness, and women’s rights. The House of Saud is being depicted as powerless or unwilling to put Shi’as and women in their place.
Al-Azdi provides the first jihadist response to the events of February 20 in the Baqee’a cemetery of Medina, when Shi’a kids tried to ‘steal’ the soil from the grave of Umm al-Baneen (one of Ali’s wives, the mother of Abbas who died alongside his half-brother Hussein in Karbala) in order to be blessed by the soil, the 'odiousness' of which the Wahhabis built their whole ideology upon. Among other things that happened on that day (or series of days…someone please correct my timeline), this led to a crackdown by the Saudi ‘Religious Police’ on Shi’a pilgrims in Medina (which al-Azdi lauds), and it then set off confrontations in the Shi’a strongholds of the Eastern Province.
The Wahhabi establishment is indignant at what seems to be a sudden spike of Shi’a assertiveness, coming as it does with a backdrop of officially sanctioned anti-Shi’a agitation as relates to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
The jihadists will seize upon this sentiment to attack Shi’as, for them to attack women will not go down as well with popular opinion.
Without going into all the analysis, I’d like to posit two possible scenarios:
-There will be two ‘Al-Qaeda’ affiliates operating in Saudi Arabia over the next couple of years: one following Al-Qaeda-HQ (Mullah Omar, Bin Laden and Zawahiri), and another following the strain of jihadism unleashed by Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi. They will have two varying (but not exclusive) operating styles: al-Azdi’s guys operating along classic Taliban-like guerrilla lines from rugged terrain where there is sympathy for the fighters, such as the mountains of ‘Asir. Al-Azdi is from ‘Asir (name: Sa’id Ali Jabir al-Ikhtheim al-Shehri, from the Mdaneh village near Al-Namass), and I believe he was picked for a top role specifically to give the people of ‘Asir a feeling that one of their own is in command. They will use anti-Shi’a agitation to their advantage, but it will be expressed by assassinating Shi’a luminaries; old-style jihadists are still queazy about slaughtering Shi'a laypersons.
-The Zarqawist strain, which pioneered the use of sectarianism as a quick burning fuel to power the engine of jihad, will go for mass killings of Shi’as: bombings, random beheadings, …etc. The Zarqawists will follow their successful model (in Iraq) for urban insurgency, using anti-Shi’a violence to open up margins of chaos in which they can outmaneuver the Saudi security forces. Their loyalty will be to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and the Iraqi jihad, which puts them at a ‘populist’ disadvantage because al-Azdi’s outfit has many more Saudi luminaries (such as Bin Laden) in its hierarchy, earning more popular sympathy. But that will be a regional issue: I see the Zarqawists making more inroads with the proto-jihadists of Nejd, and the small towns there, while the al-Azdi types will be more comfortable in ‘Asir and near the border areas with Yemen. Which means that the Zarqawists will have easier access to Shi’a targets, whereas the al-Azdi’s may turn their energies against the Ismailis of Najran and the border areas, who won’t resonate as much with a public that wants to see reprisal attacks on Shi’as (…the Ismailis aren’t that compelling of an enemy, since the Shi’as can always be tied to Iranian hegemony across the Gulf).
Final note: I really hope that intelligence agencies are making use of wikimapia.org because it is full of useful info that only locals would know, for example, if one sniffs around the entries (made by whoever wishes to do so) in the villages around al-Shehri's home, one can spot lots of military titles preceding the personal names. Such info raises interesting questions: why is a cluster of villages that evidently benefits from the largesse and patronage of the Saudi state producing jihadists?