Saudi Arabia: The Jihad Draws Near

Saudi Arabia’s rulers have a peculiar relationship with violent extremist groups and ideologues, simultaneously cultivating them in other countries while trying to minimize their influence domestically. But the Saud family’s two-front war in Yemen and Syria, fought with the aid of Sunni jihadi allies in both countries, might easily morph into a different kind of fight if their inconstant allies turn on them. In Al-Akhbar, Nour Ayoub studies the tea leaves of jihadi social media and internet posts for insight into the increasingly troubled Saudi war in Yemen.

As Ayoub and his jihadi sources make clear here, the Shi’ite Houthis have so far continued to gain territory in spite of murderous Saudi bombing and absurd demands that the civilian population evacuate entire regions of Yemen. They have begun launching attacks into Saudi Arabia itself, while in Yemen they appear to control the vast majority the country’s population centers.

Like the Saudi royal family, Sunni jihadis see Yemen as a new front in the war against Shi’ites and, indirectly, against the regional superpower, Iran, Ayoub writes. But their alliance with the Saud family against Shi’ites and Iranians is only instrumental, as Ayoub’s analysis here makes clear. The Saudis called the initial campaign of massive [and very imprecise] airstrikes on Shi’ite and Yemeni government targets Decisive Storm; the present phase, with continuing aerial bombing as well as deploying huge amounts of cash to buy local allies, they call Restoring Hope; both names have a distinctly American sound to them, even in Arabic.

When Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm against Yemen on March 26, none of al-Qaeda’s branches commented on the event: in fact neither of the most important international jihadi organizations-ISIS or al-Qaeda- openly expressed their official support for the attack [on Yemen’s Shi’ites].

This silence was broken as soon as the Saudis announced the end of the first stage of their war, Decisive Storm, and transitioning to something they called “Restoring Hope.” At that point, members and sympathizers of both organizations issued a flurry of social media statements and comments.

When Saudi Arabian military operations began, one of the key theorists of al-Qaeda, Abdullah bin Muhammad, was optimistic about the outcome, saying the Saudi airstrikes would merely need to destroy the Yemeni army’s aircraft and Scud missiles, thereby weakening deposed former president Ali Abdallah Saleh. Events have taken a different course than the al-Qaeda theorist predicted however. He blames international pressure for undermining the operation.

Bin Muhammad is author of the [jihadi]treatise The Yemen and Syria Two Fronts Theory for Encircling the Land of the Two Holy Places, in which he reinterprets the fighting in these two countries [with a view toward conquering Mecca and Medina]. Bin Muhammad says that the Saudi envoy to the UN Security Council recently threatened the Syrian envoy with bringing “Decisive Storm” to Syria, a “a clear overture toward the [Al-Qaeda affiliated] Nusra Front,” he writes.

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Jihadis in Syria, photo FB Al Mheisny.

The jihadi theorist also indicates that there are clear signs of an imminent [Saudi] escalation in Syria, pointing in particular at the recent meeting between former Lebanese Prime Minister [and close Saudi ally]Saad el Hariri and US Secretary of State John Kerry, in which the Lebanese political figure insisted vigorously that it is now time to put an end to Assad’s regime in Syria. Bin Mohammed’s observations coincide with other clear signs that direct military intervention in Syria may be on the way, notably the unification of numerous “Islamist” groups under the banner of the “Army of Conquest” [Jaysh al-Fath] in and around the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib.

The Al-Qaeda theorist recently published another essay entitled After Decisive Storm: a Discussion, in which he contends that Iran will almost certainly defeat the Saudis in the present struggle, an outcome for which he blames the Americans. In spite of US support for the Saudi war, the Americans have restrained them from sending a truly decisive storm through Yemen, he writes. The US embassy in Sanaa, Bin Muhammad writes, initially “oversaw a series of policies which opened Yemen to a condition of creative chaos, but came to see Decisive Storm as endangering its own efforts, so the embassy circumvented the operation and stopped it.” Thus Saudi Arabia has been unable to impose its favored outcome on Yemen, was forced to dial back the intensity of “Decisive Storm” and will equally be forced to decrease the impact of “Restoring Hope.”

Bin Muhammad points out significant similarities between the political dialogue taking place in Yemen, and the ongoing political dialogue between the various factions in Lebanon. For [jihadi Sunnis], he says, “the dialogue between the Houthis and their allies has basically no value, since its only aim is to ultimately put the Houthis in the same role [as armed kingmakers]in Yemen as Hezbollah plays in Lebanon. That would be the worst of all outcomes for us.”

“Nasrallah’s speeches in which he addresses Abdullah al-Houthi are aimed at keeping his morale up, in the same way that the victories of the [Sunni jihadi] mujahidin lift the morale of the mujahidin in Yemen: these are two battles being fought in the same war.” Al Qaeda, he concludes, is engaged in a vast struggle against Iran and its allies in a war with many fronts, and he calls for launching “a campaign of donations to support the jihad in Syrian and Yemen.” The peoples of the Gulf region, he says “feel more threatened by the danger from Iran than from any internal danger,” in a clear riposte to comments by the American president that internal threats are more dangerous to the Gulf countries than external ones.

For followers of both jihadi organizations [Al Qaeda and ISIS], it is clear that Saudi Arabia and its allies have failed in Yemen because they insisted on going their own way. The Saudi preacher Abdallah al Muhaisany [alt. Mheisny], one of the leaders of the Nusra Front who was wounded last week in combat with the Syrian armies in Jisr al-Shughur in Syria’s Idlib province, issued a statement declaring that Decisive Storm has clearly failed to end the threat of the Houthis, and addressing the “Muslim” people, said that their “only true protectors are the mujahidin who have crushed the Russians and the Crusaders.”

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Al Mheisny giving a “dars”, photo from his FB page.

Even as they continue fighting each other on the ground in Syria, the “brothers of Jihad” all agree that the al-Sauds have failed. One DAESH [ISIS] Sheikh made light of the Saudi campaign on twitter recently. “Decisive Storm has blown itself out, decisively drifting back home now,” and called for the victory of the “True mujahidin.” Another ideologue, Abdallah al-Rashidi, expressed his astonishment that “the Houthis are still able to fight on the battlefield.”

DAESH-affiliated media outlets have expressed their own points of view on the war, arguing from a perspective of “ongoing attacks on Sunnis.” For example the “Media Front for the Victory of the Islamic State” published an essay by Abu Khattab al-Yemeni entitled Illusion Storm, in which the author argues that the Saudi “Storm” will do little to stop the Houthis, who continue to gain territory day by day. The actual aim of the operation, he says, is to prevent “the Sunnis” from flocking to the “Islamic State,” as well as destroying Yemen’s arsenals of missiles in order to prevent them from “falling into the hands of the mujahidin.”

Alone among the jihadis, the followers of Zahran Alloush, leader of the “Army of Islam,” and Saudi Arabia’s man among the armed groups, as Saudi Foreign Ministry officials like to call him, have declared their satisfaction with what they call the “Kingdom’s victory.” One of Alloush’s followers, who calls himself “The Syrian Scholar” [Mujtahid al-Sham] went as far to describe “Decisive Storm” as the open door for an attack on DAESH[ISIS] and Al-Qaeda, and called on Saudi leaders to sentence to death anyone who displays support for the two important jihadi organizations. The Scholar, who follows numerous jihadi accounts on social networks, spends his time criticizing “Saudi bashers” whether they be ‘Rejectors’ [a pejorative for Shi’ites], Al Qaeda or DAESH: the Kingdom, he says, will emerge victorious.

In sum then, the ideologues of organizations that move in the orbit of Al Qaeda and its ilk are generally convinced that the Al-Saud military operation in Yemen is a failure. They acknowledge that both the Houthis and their patrons, Iran, are making progress in Yemen, while the commanders of Decisive Storm have displayed total incompetence. For the jihadis, the Houthi expansion in Yemen, and the failure of the Syrian opposition to bring down the Assad regime, mean it is now imperative for the mujahidin and their sympathizers to close ranks and follow the banner of the “Army of Conquest.” Al Qaeda’s supporters are essentially telling the Al-Sauds: leave it to us now.

Nour Ayoub Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard