The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)

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The bi-monthly International Affairs journal published by Chatham House always includes a featured article which is made available to non-members. In the recently released July-August issue, the featured article is an excellent piece by Thomas Hegghammer, entitled ‘Islamist Violence and Regime Stability in Saudi Arabia‘. In his paper, Hegghammer provides a well-informed analysis of the underlying dynamics that explain one of the more puzzling conundrums in contemporary jihadi studies: the sudden and somewhat belated rise of AQAP in 2003, and its equally sudden collapse as an operational force by late 2004 / early 2005.

As Hegghammer explains:

Apart from isolated incidents, such as the 1979 Mecca mosque siege, the 1995 Riyadh bombing and the 1996 Khobar bombing, the Kingdom had largely been spared the Islamist violence which had ravaged Egypt and Algeria in previous decades. What, then, caused the sudden outbreak of violence? Even more interestingly: why did it happen in 2003 and not before? The near-absence of violence before 2003 is, after all, quite paradoxical in the light of the fact that Saudi militants were so active abroad in the 1990s, either as guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, or as members of Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda organization. These questions highlight a deeper problem, namely that we do not really understand what determines the comings and goings of Islamist violence in Saudi Arabia. This is hardly a purely academic issue—it directly concerns our ability to assess the stability of the world’s leading oil producer and a pillar of US strategy in the Middle East.

Hegghammer discounts a number of popular theories, including ideology-based explanations ‘which see the violence as a product of the religiosity of Saudi society or the inherent extremism of the Wahhabi religious tradition’; and structural approaches that blame strains ‘of a political (e.g. regime oppression), economic (e.g. unemployment) or social (e.g. westernization) kind.’

Drawing upon his analysis of Saudi jihadist texts and videos, and on extensive field work in the Kingdom, Hegghammer argues instead that:

…Saudi Arabia experienced relatively low levels of Sunni Islamist violence in the 1980s and 1990s because, unlike the Arab republics, Saudi Arabia has never been home to a strong socio-revolutionary Islamist community. Saudi jihadism has been driven primarily not by regime discontent but by extreme pan-Islamism, and has thus been geared towards fighting non-Muslims. I further argue that the violence in 2003 was the result not of structural political or economic strain inside the Kingdom, but rather of a momentary conjunction between high operational capability on the part of the local Al-Qaeda network, boosted in numbers and skills by post-2001 returnees from Afghanistan, and a weak Saudi security apparatus. That gap in capability has now closed, and the QAP campaign has petered out.

Read the paper here.

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