Jihad Hits Home in Saudi Arabia
Abdelaziz Raikhan was fuming Saturday, standing alongside his pickup and surveying the abandoned shops and blasted apartment buildings of downtown, a zone still littered with twisted cars and chunks of rubble from the suicide bombing of a police headquarters.
“They’re mentally ill, this crowd,” he said of the Islamic militants who killed at least five people and wounded 148 on Wednesday. Raikhan, 30, works as a maintenance man for the Saudi security forces; luckily, he was on the other side of town when his office was blown up.
“There’s not one American in this entire area,” he said, sweeping an arm to take in a neighborhood eerily still, its streets laced with police tape. “Not one! What kind of jihad is this?”
Throughout the Saudi mainstream, the call has risen: This insurgency is not a jihad, because a jihad, or sacred struggle, does not kill fellow Muslims, let alone Saudis. Wednesday’s attack, plainly meant to kill Saudi police and civilians milling through the tightly wound streets of downtown at rush hour, has infuriated Saudis.
This ascetic, oil-rich kingdom is stuck between the religious ideal of jihad, still widely embraced, and the bloody, nerve-wracked reality of a nation targeted by militants. Saudis curse the U.S. troops in Fallouja, Iraq, and praise Hamas suicide bombings in Israel even as they pass through metal detectors and steer their cars through the checkpoints that choke Riyadh’s traffic to a standstill.
Many people here who have praised and supported jihad around the world are shocked to find themselves on the receiving end of a violence fueled by religious extremism.
“This is not against invading armies like Afghanistan or Iraq. This is against a legitimate system, against civilians and traffic officers,” said Khaled Batarfi, an analyst at Saudi Arabia’s Arab News and a childhood friend of Osama bin Laden. “We don’t see this as jihad. We have the ability to differentiate between what’s jihad and what’s not.”
Popular culture here is rife with the lore of holy warriors, and the last two decades have been punctuated by holy war: There was the fight against the Russians in Afghanistan. There was Chechnya, and now Iraq. Thousands of eager Saudi men streamed out of their homeland to fight in those distant battles. All of those causes, and especially the Palestinian intifada, are seen by many Saudis as righteous and, more important, tied to Islamic duty.
The Riyadh attack, they say, doesn’t fit the bill, and many people bristle at the comparison. Jihad is waged against an invading army or an occupying force, they point out. It does not apply to Muslim-on-Muslim terrorism, they say.
Saudis are particularly bewildered by the most recent attack, and complain that the bloodshed is nothing but aimless, reckless attempts to destabilize their government.
“It doesn’t make sense; they’re losing popularity and credibility, if they ever had any,” Batarfi said. “The [American] troops have left, so what are you doing?”
Islamic militants, notably Saudi-born Bin Laden, complained bitterly about the presence of U.S. troops on the sacred ground of Saudi Arabia, and derided the unfaithful government that allowed the soldiers to stay. During the invasion of Iraq last year, 10,000 troops were stationed at the vast Prince Sultan Air Base in the desert south of Riyadh.
But most of the equipment and staff at the sprawling air base were packed up and moved to Qatar shortly after Baghdad fell. Quietly, the number of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia has dwindled into the hundreds.
“It was a big relief when the Americans left,” Abdullah Bejad, a former Saudi jihadi who is now among the reformers fighting for political liberalization, said in a recent interview. “By getting the American bases out of here the government has pulled a very strong excuse away from Al Qaeda.”
But postings on websites associated with Islamic radicals warned that word of a troop withdrawal was a lie. The infidel soldiers weren’t going anywhere, the websites argued -- it was just government propaganda.
Members of the network of Islamists waging an increasingly intense battle against the Saudi regime insist that they are fighting a holy war. A group called Al Haramain Brigades, named after the holy mosques at Mecca and Medina, took credit for last week’s blast. The cell is probably only ideologically linked to Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, analysts say.
But foreign soldiers are only one among many of the militants’ grievances against the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia runs on the rhythms of daily prayer, but that’s not enough for radicals who want to create a pure Muslim society in the land of the Prophet Muhammad. Islamic fundamentalists disapprove of everything from the spread of satellite dishes to the presence of foreign oil workers to the private church services secretly held by Christians.
“It is some form of jihad, because they see the Saudi state as apostate,” said Jamal Khashoggi, an expert on radical Islam and an advisor to Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in London. “That’s how they justify going after Muslim Saudi security forces.”
The first explosion came last May: suicide bombings at three gated Riyadh compounds. But the housing areas were thick with Western tenants, so many Saudis chose to view the bombings as unfortunate attacks against the United States. The next blast came in November and rattled the society more deeply -- this time, the targeted compound was home to many foreign Arabs.
“The immediate reaction is, ‘Oh, they’re trying to get rid of the foreigners,’ but it’s not that at all,” said a Western diplomat. “It’s much more challenging. It’s an attack against the regime.”
Angry, even violent, rhetoric against the United States is common in the mosques and parlors of Saudi Arabia, and to kill an American in Iraq is often considered a justifiable act of self-defense.
“After Sept. 11 they allowed radicals to speak about the destruction of America on Saudi television,” said Adel al-Toraifi, a secular Saudi analyst who specializes in radical Islam.
“Within two years Saudi society was exploding from the amount of hatred inside,” he said. “They put the hand on the gun and waited for young people to pull the trigger.”
But some analysts argue that rhetoric against America has turned into a sort of fig leaf for all manner of political rage. The real struggle, they say, was always against the royal family.
“They just use the word ‘America’ as a good cause, but really they want to destroy this country,” said Nourra Youssef, a U.S.-educated economist who is active in the push for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
“They hate the people of this country,” she said. “They want them to be like the Taliban.”