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Islamist violence and regime stability in Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia, homeland of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers of September 11, 2001, experienced low levels of internal violence until 2003, when a terrorist campaign by ‘Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula’ (QAP) shook the world's leading oil producer. Based on primary sources and extensive fieldwork in the Kingdom, this article traces the history of the Saudi jihadist movement and explains the outbreak and failure of the QAP campaign. It argues that jihadism in Saudi Arabia differs from jihadism in the Arab republics in being driven primarily by extreme pan-Islamism and not socio-revolutionary ideology, and that this helps to explain its peculiar trajectory. The article identifies two subcurrents of Saudi jihadism, ‘classical’ and ‘global’, and demonstrates that Al-Qaeda's global jihadism enjoyed very little support until 1999, when a number of factors coincided to boost dramatically Al-Qaeda recruitment. The article argues that the violence in 2003 was not the result of structural political or economic strains inside the Kingdom, but rather organizational developments within Al-Qaeda, notably the strategic decision taken by bin Laden in early 2002 to open a new front in Saudi Arabia. The QAP campaign was made possible by the presence in 2002 of a critical mass of returnees from Afghanistan, a clever two-track strategy by Al-Qaeda, and systemic weaknesses in the Saudi security apparatus. The campaign failed because the militants, radicalized in Afghan camps, represented an alien element on the local Islamist scene and lacked popular support. The near-absence of violence in the Kingdom before 2003 was due to Al-Qaeda's weak infrastructure in the early 1990s and bin Laden's 1998 decision to suspend operations to preserve local networks. The Saudi regime is currently more stable and self-confident—and therefore less inclined to democratic reform—than it has been in many years.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton University and a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo.

Publication date: July 1, 2008

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