By Asaf Day
Recent increase of al-Qaeda’s anti-Saudi rhetoric is likely aimed at exploiting the deteriorating status of MbS, possibly attempt to attract support
Over the past few weeks, al-Qaeda has stepped up its anti-Saudi rhetoric in its publications. While throughout the years, Zawahiri’s organization released multiple audiovisuals condemning the al-Saud family, they had been largely periodic, reaffirming the Sunni jihadist group’s stance towards the kingdom, as part of its perceived illegitimate control over the holy places.
Most recently, on December 24, in al-Qaeda’s 27th edition of its al-Nafir Bulletin, the main focus was denouncing Riyadh’s alleged Westernization process, led by the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS). In the article, the author condemns the social reforms of MbS, such as allowing women to drive and permitting them to watch sports and entertainment events in alongside men. The writer even goes further to describe the Saudi government as liberal.
Moreover, a day earlier, al-Qaeda central published a video narrated by its leader Ayman Zawahiri, dubbed “the Zionist Peninsula.” In the video, Zawahiri recounts the historical connections between the al-Saud family and the West, and particularly with past US administrations. In addition, the video depicts the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a speech, during which, he stresses the importance of Saudi’s stability to the region, in light of the international uproar in the wake of the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Interestingly, the video also brings interviews with GCC officials discussing their relations with Israel.
Additionally, in late November, in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) 58th edition of its al-Masra magazine, the group publishes an article about the murder of Khashoggi, describing in details the alleged cover-up efforts by the Saudi authorities. In another piece, the magazine quotes a report from the British Guardian concerning Saudi Arabia’s paying of millions of USD to British public relations companies in an attempt to improve Riyadh’s image and hide its alleged human rights violations. These violations include war crimes in Yemen in the form of reportedly targeting civilians and crackdown on opposition elements in the kingdom.
This increasing effort to defame Saudi Arabia highlights al-Qaeda’s ability to identify and capitalize on sensitive political developments. The jihadist organization is likely taking advantage of the decreasing image of the kingdom, and in particular of MbS. Naturally, the global uproar surrounding the Khashoggi case is a golden opportunity for the jihadist organization to question the leader of the Sunni world’s morality, especially in the eyes of Sunni Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa. In this context, Riyadh’s posture as the leader of the Sunni-Arab states (and their protector from the perceived Iranian expansion) may be undermined.
Meanwhile, recent years’ Riyadh’s rapprochement with Israel likely remains a point of contention among many Saudis, as well as other Sunni-Arabs across the region, as the Jewish State is certainly still widely resented given its perceived oppressive policies towards the Palestinians. As for the al-Nafir article, the argued Westernization of Saudi Arabia is likely aimed at slandering the kingdom and undermine its image in the eyes of more conservative Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East and North Africa. By tapping on such anti-Western and anti-Israeli sentiments, Zawahiri’s organization likely seeks to attract the support of such elements.
More specifically, the anti-Saudi rhetoric comes amidst a decline in AQAP activity in Yemen, one of al-Qaeda’s most prominent affiliates, over the past year, partially due to the Saudi-led coalition’s operations in the country. By slandering Riyadh, the jihadist group likely strives to alienate Yemen’s population in regards to the Saudi-led coalition operations in the country, thus diminishing the locals’ support for Riyadh’s presence and even possibly gain their support.
Moreover, such anti-Saud family propaganda is a potential attempt to attract and recruit radicalized Saudi individuals, with the goal of such elements joining the group in Yemen or even conducting acts of militancy within the kingdom itself.
Furthermore, al-Qaeda’s recent publications are plausibly an attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Sunni-Arabs in other areas across the Middle East and North Africa outside of the Arabian Peninsula. For instance, as Riyadh has increased its support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia over the past months, it is possible that these measures are perceived negatively by the local Syrian-Arabs who carry a strong sense of marginalization towards the de-facto Kurdish-led government in northeastern and eastern Syria. These conditions likely make these elements more susceptible to sympathize with the group’s relatively successful affiliates in Syria.
Over the coming weeks and months, as the MbS-led Saudi government is liable to remain under constant fire by external elements, including from Muslim communities around the world, Zawahiri’s organization will likely continue to issue audiovisuals attacking the Saudi royal family. While the group’s aims to attract the support of radicalized Sunnis may be successful in some areas across the region, such as Syria, in light of the overall dire conditions of the organization’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula, a significant increase in number of recruits in Yemen and Saudi Arabia remains questionable.
Asaf Day is a Middle East and North Africa geopolitical analyst at a private security-consultancy firm. His areas of expertise include Syria, Israel, and the Palestinians, as well as global jihad organizations. Asaf holds an MA Degree in Arabic Studies from the University of Bar Ilan and a BA from Ben Gurion University, both in Israel. In addition to English, Asaf speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic, as well as Turkish and French to a lesser degree.