Wahhabism, Terrorism, and Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is the primary target of both ISIS and al-Qaeda. Jihadists, coveting control of the Islamic world, know that their ultimate platform is the Saudi kingdom with its holy places and its wealth. They realize they will never win any “market share” outside the Muslim world. As such, organized jihadi terrorism directed at the United States has been aimed squarely at provoking America to sever its relations with the Saudi kingdom. Once this is achieved, jihadists hope they can isolate their prey and then go in for the kill.

Bearing this in mind, the Saudi government has since the late 1990s focused on reforming its reactionary religious establishment into a force that, while still light years away from California liberalism, is now utilizing its considerable stature and influence throughout the Muslim world to outlaw all forms of terrorism and sanction the punishment of clerics who promote it directly or indirectly. The government is also gradually working to temper the intolerance and rigidity of its clerics, an inevitably slow process, and one not without political risk, that will only be durable if implemented gradually.

In parallel to this effort, the Saudi government now ensures that any outreach by its clerical establishment to “spread the faith” to any corner of the world has to be formally approved by the government of the respective host country. This includes any building of mosques or madrassas, and even any lectures by Saudi clerics. Given the heightened awareness of this issue by every government and security service in the world, this policy ensures that any such activity is strictly vetted and supervised by host country authorities. The failure to vet and supervise this type of activity then naturally becomes the responsibility of the host government.

This policy allows the Saudi government to continue to uphold its duty, as is expected by a significant element of its people (and much of the Muslim world), to promote Islam, yet ensures that any proselytization is absolutely benign. Anything less would seriously weaken the legitimacy of the Saudi state, which serves as the custodian of Islam’s holy places.

In terms of police work, the Saudis have over the past decade built a world-class antiterrorism capability. Through increasingly effective intelligence, community outreach and rehabilitation, and when necessary, the use of force, the kingdom has virtually crushed al-Qaeda and ISIS in the country. In addition, Saudi Arabia was recognized last year by Daniel Glaser, assistant secretary of the US Treasury, as a “world leader” in fighting terrorist financing.

And yet the accusation that Saudi Arabia “exports Wahhabism, which fuels terrorism” continues unabated, even though ISIS now thrives in areas where Wahhabist proselytization has historically been virtually nonexistent. While it is true that what Westerners call “Wahhabism” is an intolerant strain of Islam that certainly needs substantive reform to bring it into the modern era, it is at the same time overly simplistic to argue that this intolerance, however odious it may be, is a material driver of today’s terrorism.

In Syria, for example, we see the tragic result of years of jihadist activity, yet Wahhabism has never had more than a negligible presence in the country. The Assad regime, closely allied to Soviet-era Moscow, and militantly secular and socialist, never allowed any form of Wahhabist outreach. The same goes for the equally secular regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which ruled the country ruthlessly for decades—and yet Iraq is the birthplace of ISIS. Another example is Tunisia. While continuing its political transformation to become a democratic nation, Tunisia now supplies the largest number of recruits, per capita, to ISIS, although it too has never permitted any Wahhabi outreach on its soil. The list goes on.

This is not to deny that political Islam has provided a foundational tool for those looking to develop a radical jihadist ideology. But then again, the use of Islam as an “ideology” to fight other ideologies is nothing new. It was the United States and Saudi Arabia who first partnered during the Cold War to use Islam as a political counterweight to communism in the Muslim world.

It was a partnership that was slow to take off. When President Eisenhower first proposed the idea in a letter to the Saudi king in 1957, the immediate reaction was rejection. Historian Salim Yaqub, quoted in Mike Doran’s recent book Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East, describes the king as having had little interest in “Eisenhower’s jihad.” But over time, the Saudi government, encouraged by the United States, quickly built an infrastructure promoting Islam to fight both communism and Arab nationalism, the latter of which it saw as an ideology being endorsed by its nemesis President Nasser of Egypt to bring down the monarchy and diminish US influence in the Middle East.

The use of political Islam as a policy instrument in the US–Saudi toolbox reached its height in the 1980s in Afghanistan, where Saudi-funded, US-equipped, and US-trained jihadists were recruited from around the Muslim world and deployed to bleed the Soviets. Hailed as freedom fighters by everybody (except of course the Soviets), the jihadists and their Afghan allies were lionized in Western media and feted by congressmen, as celebrated in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War.

Had Saudi and US officials sat down to contemplate their joint effort in Afghanistan against the Soviets, they would have congratulated themselves on a plan brilliantly executed. That being said, something Western commentators willfully tend to forget is that one of those who helped recruit and train foreign fighters for the Afghan war was Osama bin Laden.

That particular Afghan war ended, but tragically the virus of radical jihad, now unleashed, did not disappear. When al-Qaeda came crashing through the door in the 1990s, it dawned on Saudi Arabia that a monster had inadvertently been created. The Saudi government then acted promptly and aggressively against bin Laden, stripping him of his citizenship, impounding his wealth, and pursuing him and his cohorts across the region. Long before the planes hit the Twin Towers, the kingdom had been at war with al-Qaeda.

In the confusion following 9/11, as many searched for the motive behind the attacks, a narrative developed in the United States: the terrorists had attacked America because they wanted to change the American “way of life.” That sound bite resonated and was adopted across the political spectrum. It resonates to this day.

But in fact, al-Qaeda, as is the case now with ISIS, had no illusions about their inability to spread their ideology in the United States. They knew, and still know, that they have no real capacity to make inroads in America, and that any talk about spreading their radical strain of Islam to the USA is just that: empty talk. What they do want, however, is to sever the Saudi–US alliance and push the United States to withdraw from the region, a goal shared by both Iran and Russia. By provoking a US withdrawal, they believe they can then bring about the demise of the Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia. Groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS all have as their main goal the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. The aspiration to become the leader of Islam, coupled with the desire to acquire Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, is the dream of every jihadist group. They make no secret of it, and their propaganda on the internet is full of exhortations to their followers to that effect.

A caliphate proclaimed from Mecca, with a few trillion dollars of oil wealth thrown in, would be far more credible than one proclaimed from a place like Mosul or Raqqa. That was the ultimate objective of 9/11—to destroy the US–Saudi alliance and gain control of Saudi Arabia’s wealth and holy places. It is also the goal of ISIS today. And that is why al-Qaeda chose fifteen Saudis to include among the 9/11 hijackers.

Published on the Arabia Foundation website in May 2017.