The Crown Prince of Riyadh vs. the Crown Prince of Jihad: Al-Qaeda Responds to Mohammed Bin Salman’s Reforms


Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia, recently wrapped up a highly touted and well-choreographed tour of the West, during which he appeared with prime-time television journalists, celebrities, business leaders, and presidents. Major media outlets seemed to unquestionably portray the royal descendant as a forward-looking reformer on a courageous crusade to “transform the Middle East.”

There was dissent, of course. MBS, as he has come to be called, was met by pockets of protestors from Washington, D.C., to London, Paris, and Madrid. Human rights activists and organizations expressed concern over issues such as the prince’s role in the Yemen conflict, which has been dubbed the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” and his repression of dissidence.

Yet a more dangerous reaction to Salman’s charm offensive has come from someone with a comparable pedigree. Al-Qaeda has been seeking to exploit domestic skepticism of the prince’s modernization efforts, which are aimed at changing the way the country engages with gender, culture, religion, and the economy. The jihadi organization hopes to foment a backlash that helps it to better position Hamza bin Laden, son of Osama, as heir to his father’s throne and to continue a longstanding feud between al-Qaeda and the House of Saud. These efforts, if successful, will pit the reformist ambitions of the crown prince of Riyadh against the revolutionary Salafi-jihadism promoted by the crown prince of jihad. This war of two princely visions may shape the future of the Middle East.

Al-Qaeda is positioning itself to reclaim the mantle of jihad from ISIL and to reassert itself through a more population-focused and long-term strategy. If Salman’s reforms fall short or fail, al-Qaeda will seek to fill the void with a jihadist alternative that will have greater resonance, just as it did after the failure of the Arab Spring. The United States should not be fooled by the cosmetic reforms that MBS is promoting. The roots of extremism in Saudi Arabia run deeper, and HBL and his associates in al-Qaeda have been able to target these points of weakness through their own counter-propaganda offensive. To ensure that history does not repeat itself, the United States must help to ensure that Salman’s reforms are substantive and address the economic and cultural grievances within Saudi Arabia that al-Qaeda may strive to exploit.

Paths to Princedom

MBS has been set for the kingship from the time his father took the throne in 2015. In April 2016, he announced his Vision 2030, aimed at diversifying and developing Saudi Arabia’s economy. After his coronation the following year, the prince delivered a speech on his economic vision, but added that, to fulfill it, he would have to transition Saudi society “back” to a “moderate, open Islam.” Soon thereafter, he arrested several of his fellow princes for corruption, earning the applause of figures from President Donald Trump to Thomas Friedman, who wrote in the New York Times that he found Salman’s “passion for reform authentic, his support from the youth in his country significant and his case for making radical change in Saudi Arabia compelling.”

The crown prince of jihad’s ascent has proven more complicated. After 9/11, Hamza bin Laden fled with other family members to Iran. There, he was eventually put under house arrest, but al-Qaeda operatives schooled him in religion and geopolitics at the request of his father. In HBL’s first speech after his 2014 release from Iran, he emphasized that his father’s request had been fulfilled.

The prince’s lineage is even more intriguing. Hamza is the son of Osama’s third wife, Khairah Sabar, a Saudi whose ancestry dates back to the Prophet Muhammad. This places Hamza in the same category of hereditary esteem held by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIL’s so-called caliph, granting him the ancestral qualifications a caliph requires under fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law.

Al-Qaeda’s Response

While MBS is an appealing figure, his proposed religious reforms risk creating a divide between the ruling family and the clergy, something that has held the Kingdom together from its inception. A large segment of Saudi society adheres faithfully to the strict interpretation of Saudi Salafism still endorsed by the clerical elite, but support for such fundamentalism breeds susceptibility to Salafi-jihadi interpretations. Zogby polling documents that 28 percent of millennials in Saudi Arabia claim that groups like ISIL and al-Qaeda are “mostly wrong, but sometimes raise issues I agree with,” while 10 percent do not feel that ISIL and al-Qaeda are perversions at all. These statistics are alarming, particularly in light of al-Qaeda’s efforts to capitalize on these latent sympathies.

Al-Qaeda and HBL have been running a counterpropaganda campaign parallel to Salman’s ascent and reform efforts. In August 2015, Ayman al-Zawahiri reintroduced Osama bin Laden’s son as a “lion of the den.” Speaking with his face covered, HBL signaled his long-term commitment to jihad in this first speech, stressing that followers should “declare it this time loud and clear, that there is no rule except that of Allah and no way to free al-Aqsa except jihad in the way of Allah.” It was an emulation of and homage to his father’s consistent utilization of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a tool for recruitment. After a few video releases vowing to avenge the death of his father and appealing to Palestine, the prince shifted focus with the first of what are now six releases that specifically target and call for revolt in Saudi Arabia. In the first video, HBL proclaimed Saudi society to be “in dire need of change,” classified the House of Saud as “agents of the Americans,” called on “honest, glorious scholars” and “preachers” to “participate in promoting change with their tongues, their pens, their media, and their tweets,” and instructed the “youth and those capable of fighting” to join the “mujahideen in Yemen.”

As MBS mingled with Western leaders, HBL released the sixth episode of his anti-Saudi series. He reiterated that Saudi Arabia would lead to a “return of the Islamic Ummah to its glory” and that it was “incumbent” on the youth to prepare for war against the Iranian Shia and confront the Saudi establishment. The video then elaborated on Abdulaziz ibn Saud’s relationship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, highlighting that the first Saudi monarch and ancestor of MBS considered Roosevelt “a twin brother and good friend,” while “his sons and grandchildren still walk on the same path as their father.” It was a move intended to discredit MBS and portray his efforts as similar to those of previous Saudi rulers who consorted with the West.

Soon after, al-Qaeda’s bulletin Al-Nafir published an edition that included an image of MBS sitting with Jared Kushner in front of a portrait of FDR’s meeting with Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. The bulletin cited interviews from the prince’s trip, stressed that MBS had failed to defeat a Shiite revolution in Yemen, called his religious reforms heretical, and concluded by calling for clerics to stand up to Salman’s “moderate, open Islam, which all onlookers know is American Islam.”

History Repeats Itself?

It is important to acknowledge that Salman’s supposedly pathbreaking reforms and Saudi Arabia’s Madison Avenue-style P.R. campaign are not altogether new – and neither is the idea of extremists exploiting those reforms to boost recruitment. A similar pattern helped Osama bin Laden rise to prominence in the 1990s, when he declared then-King Fahd a traitor for traveling with profligate wealth to the United Kingdom, wearing a cross around his neck while in the Queen’s palace, and advocating for reforms – such as women’s schooling and the addition of an elected consultative council (shura) – that never went through.

Al-Qaeda’s war with Saudi Arabia dates back to this time period. In 1991, Fahd authorized the presence of American troops on Saudi soil and introduced what was known as the “Sahwa,” a reformist Salafist movement that led to dissent from young Saudi Islamists, and one that still lies dormant in the underbelly of Saudi society. Apparently fearful of inducing a similar wave of opposition, MBS has arrested several prominent and popular Sahwa clerics since he announced his reforms.

In the midst of the “Sahwa,” the elder bin Laden declared, “Our country has become an American colony.” He scolded the Grand Mufti Bin Baaz for authorizing the presence of American troops and permitting trade with Israel, and then craftily succeeded in extracting a fatwa from a senior scholar saying that training and readiness was a religious duty. As a result, over 4,000 Saudis traveled to join bin Laden in the Afghan mountains. In 1995, bin Laden issued an open letter to Fahd, scolding him for failing to implement proposed economic reforms and declaring him an apostate. Soon thereafter, he declared war against America. This mirrors his son’s current calls for mobilization in Yemen and, more generally, his efforts to turn people against the House of Saud after the failure of proposed reforms.

MBS has promoted an overhaul of Islam, saying, “We will not waste 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas, we will destroy them today,” and responding incredulously to a question about the “Wahhabi” interpretation of Islam that has undergirded Saudi Arabia since its founding. When asked, he stated, “No one can define Wahhabism. There is no Wahhabism.”

Totally cognizant of this, al-Qaeda issued a bulletin during MBS’ tour of the West that declared “Muhammad bin Salman was working in every way on behalf of and in dependence of the Crusader West,” and that surprisingly expressed support for Saudi clerics, calling for them to stand up and “speak the truth to the tyrannical oppressor.” Additionally, the most recent edition of al-Nafir, released as MBS’ tour drew to a close, called on “true scholars” to stand up to the Saudi crown prince’s “moderate, open Islam, which all onlookers know is American Islam.” Al-Qaeda knows it will not gain the clerics’ outright support, but it nonetheless seeks to pressure them. In the event they remain passive, HBL and al-Zawahiri will criticize them, much as Osama did to bin Baaz. Al-Qaeda believes that if they can persuade even a few younger radical clerics to accept the call, a break between the clergy and the House of Saud could pave the way for the regime’s collapse.

What’s Next

The key question, of course, is whether al-Qaeda’s calls are resonating – which is impossible to determine at this time. Measuring the effectiveness of al-Qaeda’s propaganda campaign will be especially difficult because the group calls for clandestine, rather than open, contestation. In contrast to ISIL’s more overt approach, HBL calls for patience and the formulation of clandestine cells in Saudi Arabia, with the option of emigration to safe haven in Yemen. However, there is reason to believe the group is enjoying some initial success: In March, al-Qaeda operatives killed four Saudi security forces when stopped at a checkpoint, thus indicating the existence of such underground cells. On a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that the “security vacuum” and “deteriorating humanitarian conditions” in Yemen have helped boost al-Qaeda’s numbers and relationship with the tribes it fights alongside there. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was nearly decimated during the Arab Spring, now numbers over 4,000 fighters – despite a five-fold increase in airstrikes against them in 2017. The organization remains well funded and is one of the leading threats to U.S. homeland security.        

The United States and its allies will not assist Saudi reform with mere carte blanche support for monarchy and top-down social transformation. If the effects of the proposed reforms do not reach the general citizenry, al-Qaeda’s propaganda will have a greater impact. HBL and other al-Qaeda ideologues may cite the alterations of textbooks, women’s driving, mixed gender classrooms, and the insertion of cinema as evidence that MBS is an American agent, while highlighting that the promises of structural alterations at an economic and political level were guises to keep the populace complacent.

The global Salafi-jihadi threat cannot be defeated militarily, nor by simply arguing against its message. As Katherine Zimmerman at the American Enterprise Institute stresses, “To win, the United States must also focus on the people in order to break the existing ties between the Sunni populations and the Salafi-jihadi base.” Thus, the United States should work to guarantee that MBS’ proposed reforms are carried forward in a meaningful way and that they truly help the Saudi citizenry.

There are already indications that the government’s austerity policies and privatization scheme are not working as planned. This, coupled with the prince’s aggressive push to curb Saudi’s austere religious leanings, creates conditions that al-Qaeda will be all too happy to exploit. If even a small number of popular preachers turn against MBS, ties between the Salafi-jihadi base and conservative Saudi society will strengthen. Thus, MBS and HBL seem poised for a proper princely war – not unlike the period when Osama bin Laden criticized King Fahd, eventually placing ultimate blame on the United States and becoming the godfather of Jihad.

For now, it seems time, resources, and momentum are on the crown prince of Riyadh’s side. As Norah O’Donnell told Salman during his primetime interview on 60 Minutes, “You’re 32 years old. You could rule this country for the next 50 years…Can anything stop you?” In the immediate term it seems that the answer is “no.” But if al-Qaeda has anything to say about it, its own 30-something crown prince will try to stand in the way.


Jesse Morton is CEO and founder of Parallel Networks, a non-profit organization dedicated to combating hate and extremism. Follow him on Twitter @_JesseMorton. Amarnath Amarasingam is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and Co-Director of a study of Western foreign fighters based at the University of Waterloo. Follow him on Twitter @AmarAmarasingam

Image: James N. Mattis/Flickr