Why al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia ‘prefers ISIS’

Saudi Arabia has been suffering from al-Qaeda since 2003

Jamal Khashoggi

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Saudi Arabia has been suffering from al-Qaeda since 2003. So, what’s new and important about the information ministry’s statement on dismantling a terror group last Tuesday? First of all, it’s an “organization” and not just a sleeper cell. Al-Qaeda first struck Riyadh 11 years ago, it then resumed its activity of murder and violence few years later and went on until 2006 until its activity in the kingdom regressed. It then attempted to prove its existence by planning assassinations and explosions. Most of these plans failed and its cells were dismantled to the extent that some supporters had to flee the kingdom, mostly to Yemen.

Second of all, the dismantled organization has an emir who has received his supporters’ oath of allegiance. The interior ministry however did not reveal the identity of the emir who did not fight back as he was being arrested. But, is he a “cleric” who enjoys a legitimate background or just an anonymous young fighter? What we know about this organization is that it is linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Therefore, it’s a takfiri extremist organization. It’s a form of al-Qaeda that has transformed for the worst, and it’s different from the original al-Qaeda as the latter is less extremist. This is not a compliment and it doesn’t aim to underestimate its evil nature but it is a necessary explanation to distinguish between them so one day, we can eliminate them - as groups and ideologies - from the Arab and Muslim world.

The logical question

The logical question now is: why did this rising organization choose to be linked to the ISIS considering the existence of the al-Nusra Front which is also affiliated with al-Qaeda and which is also an extremist organization that has gained Ayman al-Zawhiri’s approval? Is it because the ISIS is a better organization which is more active on the local and international levels and which has a better infrastructure capable of recruiting and transferring volunteers to Syria and Iraq? Or is the takfiri approach of al-Qaeda’s Saudi school closer to al-Nusra which is gradually transforming into a jihadist organization focused on fighting the Syrian regime and willing to cooperate with other resistance factions, particularly Islamic ones? It seems that this, along with suicide bombings, are the last characteristics that link it with al-Qaeda.

Why did this rising organization choose to be linked to the ISIS considering the existence of the al-Nusra Front which is also affiliated with al-Qaeda and which is also an extremist organization?

Jamal Kashoggi

At the beginning of al-Qaeda’s activity in the Saudi kingdom, it was noticed that the group only targeted residential compounds inhabited by foreigners. Some thought the group did not target all Muslims and that its acts were political terrorism aimed at pressuring the government. However, it later began to target security forces, and its “clerics” issued fatwas (religious edicts) allowing this. In April 2004, a suicide bombing attack targeted a traffic police building in Riyadh and killed five Saudis. Several months later, there was a failed attempt to raid the Ministry of Interior. This shows that the organization’s “takfiri” mentality was solid as they sought to kill Muslim Saudis like themselves. This is the exact mentality that the ISIS has as it fights “sahwa” forces in Iraq and as it fights and executes other fighters - even if they belong to its sister al-Nusra Front – operating in Syria.

Interesting move

Saudi al-Qaeda’s insistence on preferring the ISIS over others, despite all suspicions surrounding it and though it has been penetrated and does not fight the Syrian regime, is interesting. These doubts are not only voiced by Saudi officials and media figures who consider the ISIS to be affiliated with the Syrian regime and serving its aims, but they are also voiced by jihadists and preachers like themselves.

A quick tour of social media networks, “which facilitated the interior ministry’s hunt down of the organization,” reveals a debate among “comrades-in-arms and brothers-in-doctrine.” It also exposes an escalated exchange of accusations of treason, apostasy and murder. Perhaps this explains the interior ministry’s statement that the organization was planning to assassinate “figures who work in the field of daawa.” Who are these figures? Knowing who these figures are allows us to decide whether there’s an upcoming war of elimination among extremist organizations or whether there’s an extremist war against centrism which helps against the spread of this epidemic.

The last and important note is that the organization has only collected 900,000 riyals. This is good news compared with the previous bad pieces of news. This amount of money is very humble to carry out tasks of an organization that wants to declare jihad on the state and society and aims to join hands with the ISIS. This means that the interior ministry’s measures are useful and that citizens’ awareness has increased. During its first years of confronting al-Qaeda, the interior ministry revealed it has seized over 70 million riyals from them. This proves we have achieved some victories against them but we are still losing our intellectual battle with them.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on May 10, 2014.


Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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