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The Failure of Jihad in Saudi Arabia

by Thomas Hegghammer, 25 February 2010

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Executive Summary

This paper traces and assesses al-Qa’ida’’s efforts to launch an insurgency in Saudi Arabia from the mid-1990s until today. It examines the background of Usama bin Ladin’s 1996 declaration of jihad, al-Qa’ida’s activities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from 1996 to 2002, and the causes and evolution of the campaign waged by the group “al-Qa’ida on the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP) from 2003 to 2006.

The paper argues that despite the widespread view of Saudi Arabia as “al-Qa’ida country,” and despite the recent developments in Yemen, the jihad in Saudi Arabia has failed so far. The late 1990s saw no operations in the Kingdom because Bin Ladin’s infrastructure there was too weak. The AQAP campaign, made possible by the massive influx in 2002 of al-Qa’ida members from Afghanistan, petered out in 2006. Today, practically nothing remains of the original AQAP organization,. Nevertheless, its legacy and propaganda continues to inspire amateur cells, and al-Qa’ida in Yemen is actively planning operations in the Kingdom.

The Saudi jihad failed because it lacked popular support. From his exile in Sudan and Afghanistan, Bin Ladin overestimated popular resentment of the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and underestimated the Saudi public’s aversion to domestic unrest. The violence in 2003 and 2004 was the exception that proved the rule. AQAP represented an alien element on the Saudi Islamist scene. Most of its militants had gone through the peculiar socialization processes of al-Qa’ida’s Afghan training camps. The launch of the campaign in 2003 was the result of a momentary discrepancy between the very high organizational capability of returnees from Afghanistan, and the weakness of the Saudi intelligence apparatus. That gap has since been closed. Today, country-wide, organized political activism of any kind is more difficult than ever before.

In addition to the lack of popular support and the coercive power of the state, al-Qa’ida’s efforts suffered from an ideological split in the Kingdom’s militant Islamist community. The followers of Bin Ladin’s doctrine of “global jihad” were in constant competition for resources with the much more numerous supporters of ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s doctrine of “classical jihad.” Global jihadists approved of terrorist attacks against Western targets anywhere, including in Saudi Arabia, while classical jihadists preferred guerrilla warfare in clearly defined war zones, such as Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq. This internal conflict proved fatal for the AQAP campaign, which coincided with the Iraqi insurgency.

The current AQAP in Yemen represents a different organization from its Saudi namesake. The alleged merger between Yemeni and Saudi al-Qa’ida in January 2009 was a public relations ploy designed to gloss over the defeat of Saudi AQAP and create a false impression of organizational continuity. Still, Yemeni AQAP currently poses a greater terrorist threat to Saudi Arabia than any other network and, as demonstrated by the Christmas Day 2009 failed attack, a threat to the United States.


About Muhammad Haniff Hassan

Muhammad Haniff Bin Hassan is a Fellow. He holds a PhD and M.Sc. in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (previously known as the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies), Nanyang Technological University. He received his early education in Aljunied Islamic School. He then continued his tertiary education at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, National University of Malaysia, with honours in Syar`iah and Civil law. Mr. Haniff is also active in social activities as a member of the Islamic Religious Council Appeal Board, HSBC Insurance Islamic Advisory Board from 2000 to 2014, Association of Islamic Religious Teachers and Scholars of Singapore (PERGAS) and Management Committee of Al-Irsyad Islamic School. He writes extensively in Berita Harian (a local Malay newspaper) and has also published articles in The Straits Times. He has published six books in his name, co-authored a monograph and helped publish two books for PERGAS and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. His personal website in Malay is at


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