Saudi Arabia’s Jihadi Jailbird: A Portrait of al-Shu’aybi Ideologue Nasir al-Fahd

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Jamestown Foundation: In the mid-1990s, Saudi authorities clamped down on the relatively centrist Islamist opposition led by two prominent sheikhs at the helm of the al-Sahwa (awakening) movement named Salman al-Ouda and Safar al-Hawali. The crackdown on al-Ouda and al-Hawali resulted in a gap in the religious leadership of Saudi Islamists. This space was then filled by sheikhs of a more radical strain based out of the ultra-conservative city of Buraydah, the capital of al-Qasim Province in the geographic center of the Arabian Peninsula. These extreme sheikhs later formed the “al-Shu’aybi school.” [1]

The so-called “al-Shu’aybi school” refers to the students of the late Hamoud al-Oqala al-Shu’aybi, who was, until his death in 2002, an extremist Salafi sheikh. He had issued several notable fatwas including one supporting the Afghan Taliban after they decimated the towering Buddha sculptures in Bamiyan in March 2001, as well as a cold statement endorsing the September 11 attacks, both highly controversial to Western sensitivities, if not to many in the Kingdom as well. Al-Shu’aybi’s followers began to propagate a retrograde, millenarian form of Islamism that was more notable for what it was against than what it actually stood for, and which was not in line with traditional Wahabbi thought in Saudi Arabia at the time.

Although the acolytes of the fanatical al-Shu’aybi were not as famous and influential as the comparatively modernizing sheikhs of the al-Sahwa movement, the jihadi movement which began to emerge in Saudi Arabia in late-1999 and early-2000 benefited from their support as the al-Shu’aybis legitimized the jihadis’ fight against the Saudi state and aided in the recruitment of new supporters. The most important of al-Shu’aybi students are Nasir al-Fahd, Ali al-Khudair, Hamoud al-Khaldi, and Suliman al-Elwan. These four have been in prison since 2003 and all but al-Elwan have appeared on Saudi state television denouncing the very jihadi ideology they had been promoting as well as their roles in the movement (Okaz, November 18, 2003; November 23, 2003). [2]

Al-Fahd later denounced his televised appearance. Decrying that Riyadh had deceived him, he stated that he still considered the Saudi state an apostate regime that was cooperating with “crusaders” in killing jihadis. He also endorsed the titular leader of al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden. [3] Al-Fahd and Suliman al-Elwan are among the most influential al-Shu’aybis figures.

Nasir al-Fahd was born in Riyadh in 1968 to a religious Saudi family. He originally studied engineering before transitioning to shari’a studies at Imam University’s College of Shari’a in Riyadh. In 1992, he was appointed as dean of the College of Da’wa and Usul ud-Din (Call to Islam and Religion’s Fundamentals) at Umm al-Qura University. It was at this same university where he was later arrested in 1994 and shipped off to al-Ha’ir prison, 25 miles south of Riyadh.

Al-Fahd was imprisoned on allegations of writing a poem deriding what he deemed the “loose morals” of Maha al-Sudayri, the shopaholic wife of Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz. Since al-Fahd was not imprisoned because of a direct ideological confrontation with the government, like the situation occurring at the time between Riyadh and the al-Sahwa sheiks (many of whom were later imprisoned), al-Fahd felt humiliated by his allegations. This embarrassment later fomented more animosity with the al-Sahwa sheikhs because while al-Fahd had been imprisoned, it was for a relatively petty charge compared to the outspoken al-Sahwa leaders who were jailed for confronting Saudi authority. Their confinement only lent them more validity in the eyes of their fellow travellers. Al-Fahd had vigorous arguments while incarcerated with Salman al-Ouda, a leading jailed al-Sahwa figure who was dismissive of al-Fahd, which bothered him a great deal. As Norwegian Islamist scholar Thomas Hegghammer correctly noted, this prison experience played an important role in radicalizing al-Fahd at the time when the al-Sahwa sheikhs, al-Ouda in particular, were moderating their positions. [4]

Following his release in 1997 from his initial 3-year stint in prison, al-Fahd’s name became more prominent among radical Islamists in the Kingdom who began consuming his hard-line views. Although al-Fahd was situated in Riyadh, his connection with the Buraydah-based al-Shu’aybis was subsequently strengthened. Though al-Fahd wrote several books and treatises, the two most important ones must be noted here. The first was a letter entitled “The position regarding the infidelity of those who assist the Americans.” This writing consisted of two parts, the first on the conflict in Afghanistan and the second on the war in Iraq. In these letters, al-Fahd labeled any Muslim, whether an individuals or as part of the state, as kaffir (unbelievers) if they aid the American war effort in any manner in Afghanistan or Iraq. The significance of this letter is that it was issued during a period of relative quiet within the Kingdom before the jihadis began their violent campaign clashing with Saudi security forces and attacking Western targets, which lasted from 2003 until 2007. Nasir al-Fahd’s writings provided the justification for jihadi claims that Saudi Arabia was helping the United States invade these two Muslim countries by way of military bases and logistical aid.

The second article of al-Fahd’s that caused a great stir was entitled the “The Legality of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD),” in which he listed what he considered “proofs” derived from the Quran and Sunnah that allowed for the use of WMD. The basic justification of this second diatribe was that the “infidels” al-Fahd so describes have killed millions of Muslims in various global conflicts, and therefore Muslims are allowed to kill millions of non-Muslims in retribution.  Al-Fahd’s rationale for the use of WMD was a gross perversion of the ancient Abrahamic lex talionis (the law of retaliation), commonly known as “an eye for an eye.” Significantly, al-Fahd developed his article based on a question of whether it is permitted for al-Qaeda specifically to start attacking enemies like the United States and the European Union with WMD in an offensive form. [5]

Conclusion

In the fourth issue of the electronic jihadi magazine al-Mushtaqun Ila al-Jannah (Those Yearning for Heaven), a two-page article was devoted to the “Scholars and Martyrs of al-Wahabbiya.” The article listed the ideas of those particular sheikhs who considered Saudi Arabia a kaffir state, even listing Islamist scholars that lived decades ago whose ideas are found useful for today’s purposes. Calling the Saudi state an infidel or apostate was unthinkable in previous years, but the evolution of radical al-Shu’abyi thought advocated by Nasir al-Fahd has made this possible. Al-Fahd’s name and ideas are listed in this Wahabbi ideological tract alongside well-known Saudi jihadis such as Yousef al-Ayyri, Faris al-Zahrani and Abdullah al-Rushud. [6]

The listing of al-Fahd’s name amongst a host of other prominent Saudi jihadi thinkers shows the influence he has had within the peninsular jihadi milieu. The publication of al-Mushtaqun Ila al-Jannah magazine online further emphasizes the importance of al-Fahd among active jihadis as well as sympathizers. Religious authority is an essential element in the structure of Salafi-jihadi groups, which now includes al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This theological rationale is a necessary component for legitimizing violence against perceived enemies and attracting fresh recruits. It clear that, though he remains imprisoned, Nasir al-Fahd has cleverly managed to advance the extremist objectives of the al-Shu’aybi Islamists.

Notes:

1. For further background on the importance of the al-Shu’aybi school, see Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979, (Cambridge: Cambridge Middle East Studies, 2010), pp. 83-97.
2. See the transcript (Arabic): www.elaph.com, November, 23, 2003.
3. See (Arabic): muslimonline.org/forum/index.php.
4. Hegghammer, Op. cit, p.88.
5. For Nasir al-Fahd’s first article, published in 2003, see (Arabic), www.muslm.net/vb/showthread.php.
6. Al-Mushtaqun Ila Al-Jannah, Issue 4, January 2010, published by “Sariyyat Al-Somood Al-‘Ilamiya” (The Media battalion of Steadfastness).