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Did Mohammed bin Salman Just Give Jihadis the World’s Greatest Terrorist Recruiting Tool?
Anger at the presence of U.S. troops on sacred Saudi soil led Osama bin Laden to found al Qaeda and wage jihad on the West. The crown prince’s decision to welcome them back could light the fuse again.
On July 11, 1995, an open letter was faxed to the king of Saudi Arabia denouncing him as an infidel. The public accusation was shocking enough, but what made this event particularly stunning was the author’s status as the scion of a major Saudi family and, until recently, a member of the Saudi inner circle.
“Your alleged kingdom in reality is nothing else but an American protectorate governed by the American Constitution,” Osama bin Laden wrote to King Fahd. Your infidelity and apostasy, he continued, “is as clear as sunlight at high noon.”
Bin Laden went on to wage global jihad under the banner of al Qaeda. The first line of his first fatwa in 1996 beseeched Muslims to “expel the polytheists from the Arabian Peninsula,” whose troops were, in his view, defiling sacred soil.
Those soldiers eventually departed in 2003, after Saddam Hussein was removed in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy defense secretary at the time, spoke of “a huge recruiting device for al Qaeda” and “lifting that burden” for the Saudis.
Sixteen years later, on July 19, as military tensions with Iran intensified, the Saudi Press Agency announced that U.S. combat troops were returning to the kingdom. The Prince Sultan Air Base will soon host an estimated 500 U.S. soldiers, fighter jets, and patriot missiles.
That Riyadh would reopen this controversial file is yet another reflection of the risk appetite of its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The prince is essentially wagering that, among his people and the clerical establishment, current hostility toward Iran will overshadow any lingering anti-U.S. sentiment. It’s a risky bet.
Allowing the return of U.S. troops is part of a pattern of high-stakes gambles by the crown prince. This includes the war in Yemen, which his ally, the United Arab Emirates, has now backed away from and which has carried with it a series of scarcely justifiable costs—from diplomatic and security difficulties to reputational damage to, above all, humanitarian devastation. Other gambles include the mass detention of Saudi tycoons and royals on corruption charges and the brutal slaying of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year.
Most recently, Mohammed bin Salman has sought to transform Saudi society from above, by curbing the morality police, overhauling female guardianship laws, allowing concerts and cinemas, and permitting women to drive—while arresting activists who have long pushed for the very same liberties.
Saudi relations with Israel have also rapidly warmed, powered by mutual hostility toward Iran. In February, the Saudi state minister for foreign affairs attended the U.S.-led Warsaw summit alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last month, a Saudi influencer, Mohammed Saud, took part in a state-sponsored visit to Jerusalem—where he was heckled as a “traitor” by Palestinian children—and performed a song in Hebrew for Netanyahu. The Saudi government is at pains to deny that diplomatic normalization has taken place, knowing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains an emotionally charged issue across the region and within Saudi Arabia itself.
With this changing strategic behavior, the Saudi leadership is confronting a number of different groups at the very same time, from the religious old guard to young activists. The decision to overtly host U.S. troops once again may inadvertently throw down the gauntlet to jihadis as well. The Saudi authorities understand better than most how, last time around, the invitation to foreign troops fueled the rise of a lethal movement.
The estrangement between al Qaeda’s founder and the Saudi monarchy, some 30 years ago, was triggered by bin Laden’s return to Jeddah after leading the Arab jihadis fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He immediately signaled his entrepreneurial political ambitions by trying to destabilize the reunification of Yemen. Alarmed, the Saudis confiscated his passport.
A few months later, in early 1990, bin Laden began publicly warning of the dangers to the kingdom and the region posed by Saddam Hussein and his godless Baath Party in Iraq. Mind your own business, came the Saudi government’s response.
Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 unleashed a series of uncomfortable surprises in a newly vulnerable Saudi Arabia: The Saudi people were taken aback by their government’s inability to defend them, despite the country’s oil wealth and billion-dollar contracts with the U.S. defense industry. One common criticism from bin Laden and conservative clerics linked the kingdom’s powerlessness with its alleged renunciation of “true” Islam.
For its part, the Saudi government was startled by bin Laden’s presumptuous offer, complete with maps and war plans, to mobilize his own army of 100,000 mujahideen to protect the country from Saddam. Needless to say, the proposal was turned down, and Riyadh pivoted to Washington instead. Bin Laden was outraged by the Saudi government’s request to the U.S. military to defend the kingdom and use its sacred territories as a base from which to liberate Kuwait. This decision, bin Laden later told a journalist, “was the biggest shock of his entire life.”
Bin Laden was also incensed by the government’s crackdown on the Sahwa movement. Teaching a hybrid of Wahhabism and the radical Islamist thought of Sayyid Qutb, preachers such as Safar al-Hawali and Salman al-Odah were lionized by bin Laden. Having been granted a long leash during the Afghan jihad, from 1994 they were thrown into jail for demanding the eviction of U.S. troops and an end to the corrupt practices of the monarchy.
Some, such as Odah, were released and reintegrated in 1999 and, incidentally, published powerful critiques of bin Laden and al Qaeda. But a group of them, including Odah, were rearrested for “spreading discord and incitement against the ruler” in 2017 and 2018—because they called for rapprochement with Qatar and criticized human rights abuses—and now face the death penalty.
When it became clear, following the Gulf War, that U.S. troops would remain on Saudi soil, bin Laden began to knit together his grudge match with the Saudi monarchy and his deep personal resentment of the United States for supporting Israel. This process culminated in his declarations of war in 1996 and 1998, which argued that the U.S. government was using holy Saudi territory as a base from which to fight Muslims.
The official return of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia could very well be seized on by al Qaeda, which is today desperately seeking to differentiate itself from the sectarianism of the Islamic State. Bin Laden’s son, Hamza, who is now presumed dead, had since 2015 revived his father’s criticism of the kingdom’s alliance with the United States and explicitly demanded the overthrow of the House of Saud.
On July 23, a Saudi state-linked newspaper, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, published an editorial arguing that no criticism arose from the announcement that U.S. troops would return and that “Saudi citizens are no longer sensitive toward such military relations.” Attitudes do shift, certainly, and this may well turn out to be an era in which long-standing taboos disappear.
Yet counterterrorism officials around the world should be on alert. What is happening in Saudi Arabia may not be the absence of opposition but rather the monarchy’s stage-managed calm before a reenergized storm.