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From 9/11 to Iraq: The Long Arm of Saudi Arabia's Suliman al-Elwan

Publisher Jamestown Foundation
Publication Date 28 February 2011
Citation / Document Symbol Volume: 2 Issue: 2
Cite as Jamestown Foundation, From 9/11 to Iraq: The Long Arm of Saudi Arabia's Suliman al-Elwan, 28 February 2011, Volume: 2 Issue: 2, available at: [accessed 24 January 2019]
Comments Murad Batal al-Shishani
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Abdulaziz al-Omari, one of the five hijackers on board American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into the North Tower of New York's World Trade Center on 9/11, devoted part of his final will and testament to the sheikhs (religious scholars) who provided him rigid religious instruction. Al-Omari urged these sheikhs to continue to support the Saudi jihadi movement long after his death. One of several influential sheikhs among the current crop of Saudi Arabian jihadis has been a jailed scholar named Suliman al-Elwan. [1] Because al-Omari had been al-Elwan's student, his ‘martyrdom' in New York was widely used to demonstrate al-Elwan's influence in Salafi-jihadi circles in the Arabian Peninsula. As one the foremost intellectuals of an anti-modernist, ultra-socially conservative movement known as the al-Shu'aybi circle (see Militant Leadership Monitor, December, 2010), al-Elwan's actual influence on the Salafi-jihadi movement appeared later when Saudi jihadis banked on his righteous declarations in order to legitimize their war against the Saudi state and their infiltration into Iraq to wage war against foreign forces and the Shia in that country whom they consider apostates.

Like several other prominent jihadis in Saudi Arabia, al-Elwan's relationship to the late Yusuf al-Uyayri, the leader of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia who was killed by Saudi authorities in 2003 (see Terrorism Focus, March 9, 2007), played a role in elevating his profile as a vaunted sheikh among hardcore jihadi practitioners. The most extensive biography of al-Elwan was written by al-Uyayri in July 2000. It is important to note that al-Elwan's and al-Uyayri's wives are sisters and that kinship like theirs is an elemental factor in group cohesion among Saudi Arabia's hardcore Islamists. [2]


Suliman al-Elwan was born in the socially conservative city of Buraydah, the capital of al-Qasim Province in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, in either 1969 or 1970. He left his formal education in order to informally study Islamic law in study groups held by a number of famous sheikhs in Saudi Arabia.

Beginning in the 1990s, after studying under various sheikhs throughout the Saudi Kingdom, al-Elwan began to instruct students of his own in the same style in which he was taught. He was halted from his teaching activities in 1997 for reasons that remain unclear. Many of al-Elwan's religious interpretations and opinions were considered far too controversial among mainstream pro-Riyadh Salafi scholars. These opinions resulted in al-Elwan being sentenced to 18 days in prison after he criticized ceremonies held for students who had successfully memorized the Quran. Al-Elwan stated that these types of Quran memorizations and celebrations did not exist in the era of the Prophet Muhammad which means they are considered "bid'a" (post-Muhammad period innovations not permitted in Islam). However, these disagreements with the modernizing Sahwa Salafi scholars did not immediately lead to antagonism between the opposing sides as would occur later.


Suliman al-Elwan's emergence as a jihadi scholar, like most of the al-Shu'aybi school's ideologues, was linked to the polarization that gripped Saudi Arabia between jihadi polemicists and non-jihadi Salafi thinkers, known as the Sahwa, in the months before 9/11. The main issue over which the two schools of thought quarreled was Afghanistan and the refusal to impotently stand by and watch the American invasion there from afar. In this context, al-Elwan and his al-Shu'aybi colleagues issued several fatwas advocating on behalf of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban) and prohibiting any assistance to the United States with regard to its military and intelligence actions in Central and South Asia after 9/11. Following the tumult of 2001, al-Elwan and his colleagues Nasir al-Fahd, Ali al-Khudair, and Hamoud al-Khaldi became the most influential anti-Western sheiks for jihadis in the Kingdom.

Al-Elwan's prominence among jihadis was elevated further upon his issuing of a fatwa endorsing the use of suicide bombing among Palestinian resistance fighters as a legitimate tactic to be used against Zionist occupation forces in an increasingly Islamicized warfare theater in Israel and Palestine after the outbreak of the second intifada. This fatwa was sent out in 2000, when there were still serious reservations among many Muslim scholars on the religious implications of suicide bombings. Al-Elwan cited approximately 30 examples backing up his radical view that suicide bombing is indeed lawful under his interpretation of Islamic law. [3]

Like other scholars in the al-Shu'aybi school of thought, al-Elwan had issued a fatwa supporting the Afghan Taliban after they decimated the towering Buddha sculptures in central Afghanistan's Hazarajat region in March 2001. [4] Later that year, al-Elwan had issued two notable fatwas (September 21, 2001 and October 19, 2001, respectively) that prohibited any assistance to the Americans in Afghanistan, considered any Muslim who assists Americans in any manner an infidel, and broadly urged Muslims to assist the Afghan people and the Taliban by all means, including partaking in violent jihad. [5]

After his divisive stance on Afghanistan and 9/11 which ran against the current being propagated by Saudi moderates and modernizers, Al-Elwan's influence began to spread to a wider audience after the American-led invasion of Iraq. It seems his writings inspired a new generation of Saudi jihadis and helped lure them into both the confrontation with the Saudi state that took place from 2003-2007 and volunteering in the Iraq war.

The Iraq effect

Since the current Iraq war began, al-Elwan devoted his efforts to urging Muslims to fight the Anglo-American forces and issued several statements describing the invasion and subsequent occupation as a Crusade. On March 31, 2003, eleven days after American troops breached the massive sand berms separating Iraq from Kuwait, al-Elwan issued an open letter to the Iraqi people urging them to resist the invading forces and carry out suicide bombings to defeat them. [6] As his call to jihad in Iraq intensified and his justifications for jihad inside Saudi Arabia persisted, Saudi authorities arrested al-Elwan again on April 28, 2004 and have kept him imprisoned until the present, though the religious foundation he laid a decade ago has continued to nurture a new generation of jihadists.

Saudi fighters entering Iraq comprised the highest percentage among the non-indigenous Arab fighters for a time (see Terrorism Monitor, December 2, 2005), a fact that gives some indication of the influence that al-Elwan's fatwas and those issued by like-minded sheikhs played in the flow of jihadis to Iraq. The influence of al-Elwan surfaced again when the then leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the late Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, quoted al-Elwan in his response to his ideological mentor, a Palestinian scribe named Isam Mohammad Tahir al-Barqawi (a.k.a. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), in 2005. Al-Zarqawi challenged al-Maqdisi about the Shia being infidels. Al-Zarqawi cited a pro-takfiri fatwa that al-Elwan had issued on the subject justifying his nihilistic stance against the Iraqi Shia who he termed "despicable." [7]


Suliman al-Elwan's influence on jihadis in Saudi Arabia and Iraq appears to have started when his late brother-in-law, Yusuf al- Uyayri, presented him to jihadis in Saudi Arabia as a jihadi sheikh. As well as the dual occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan that have become natural recruitment drivers in and of themselves, an oft overlooked factor in the West is that that kinship has played major role in recruitment methods of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Aside from using familial ties to advance the cause of jihad, Suliman al-Elwan came to the fore of anti-Western Islamism at a time when the peninsula's Islamists were experiencing a vacuum in their religious leadership on which many have come to depend for theological succour. Suliman al-Elwan was foremost among the jihadi sheikhs filling this void and espousing jihad at a time when the ummah (the global Islamic community) viewed itself as being under immense outside threat from the West and becoming increasing radicalized.


1 To view a jihadi forum listing Abdulaziz al-Omari's ideological influences (in Arabic), see:
2. To view Suleiman al-Elwan's biography (in Arabic) authored by Yusuf al-Uyayri see;
3. To view Suliman al-Elwan's fatwa legitimating suicide attacks against Israelis (in Arabic), see:
4. To view Suliman al-Elwan's fatwa justifying the destruction of Afghanistan's Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 (in Arabic), see:
5. To view Suliman al-Elwan's fatwa urging Muslims to fight in Afghanistan (in Arabic), see:
6. To view the letter (in Arabic) from al-Elwan to the people of Iraq, see:
7. To view the letter (in Arabic) from al-Zarqawi to al-Maqdisi, see:

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