As the threat from Islamic State (also known as IS or ISIS or in Arabic as Daesh) continued to grow, US-led coalition forces intensified their aerial attacks on IS militants and strategic installations in Syria and Iraq, in an effort to destroy and degrade the self-styled caliphate. However, far from caving in, IS has expanded its territorial reach by moving across the Mediterranean Sea into Libya’s coastal region, the Sahel, and West Africa.
Some scholars argue that IS’s ability to attract Muslim fighters willing to undertake suicide missions make it dangerous to any government confronting it. These analysts say that the militants’ ideology has been fuelled by the austere and puritanical interpretation of Islam by Saudi Arabia, a country that has advanced Salafi-Wahhabi beliefs (a return to Islam as espoused by the first three generations of Muslims, who are collectively known as the salaf).
German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, in a rare attack by a Western official, accused Saudi Arabia recently of financing extremist mosques and communities in the West that constitute a security risk. He warned that it must stop. “We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over,” Gabriel said in a German newspaper interview. “Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia. Many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany.”
Algerian columnist Kamal Daoud wrote in The New York Times recently that the penchant of IS for beheading, killing, stoning, and amputating victims; and despising women and non-Muslims, mirrors the practice of Saudi Arabia. “The kingdom relied on an alliance with a religious clergy that produces, legitimises, spreads, preaches and defends Wahhabism, the ultra-puritanical form of Islam that Daesh feeds on,” Daoud declared.
The difference was that Saudi Arabia, governed by a labyrinthine ruling family-religious complex, was less crude in presenting itself to the global community. Daoud asserted that Saudi Arabia was what IS rule could look like, once it had settled in and discarded its jihadist and expansionist tendencies.
Mainstream Muslim scholars, including those in Southeast Asia, have long warned that Wahhabism threatens other versions of Islam in countries where the Muslims are either a majority or a minority. British author and former intelligence officer Alastair Crooke believes that IS has undermined the legitimacy of the Saudi ruling family by returning to rigors of the 18th century alliance between the founding fathers of modern Saudi Arabia and the fundamentalist Sunni preacher Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab. The sheik rejected as innovation everything that had been introduced after the salaf.
To be sure, IS in its present reiteration, was not created by Saudi Arabia; it was forged after the US toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 by, among others, members of Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army (their senior officers were mostly Sunnis with Islamist networks); the civil war between Iraqi Shias and Sunnis that continues to this day; and the morphing of Al-Qaeda in Iraq into ISIS, which, energized by civil strife in Syria, evolved into IS.
These militant groups consolidated under the umbrella of IS and declared a caliphate that covers Iraq and the Levant (Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria). IS challenges Saudi Arabia for the allegiance of Sunnis across the Middle East. The group’s ultimate objective is to set up the first major caliphate since the demise of the last caliph when the Western powers broke up the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. IS strives to spread Salafi-Islamic rule across the globe.
The Saudi government is conscious of the enormous political and strategic fallout from IS’s affinity with it, and its other associations with IS (such as IS’s use of Saudi secondary school books in Mosul, Iraq after conquering it in 2014). Gradually, the Saudi government has come to view the militants as a threat. It has condemned those led by Osama bin Laden and IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
In response to the November 2015 bloody rampage in Paris, the Saudi rulers have called on the international community to “eradicate this (referring to IS) dangerous and destructive plague.” Saudi Arabia clearly does not want the world to identify the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam with IS and jihadism, despite the fact that it has served as a breeding ground for ever more virulent strands of the faith.
That said, it was King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, (whose mother was a descendant of Abdul Wahhab), who advocated modernity in the conservative kingdom while at the same time launching Wahhabism’s global proselytization campaign with the huge cash revenues earned after the 1973 oil embargo sent oil prices skyrocketing. Some reasoned that Faisal’s campaign was initially payback for the support of the ulama (religious scholars) in a protracted power struggle with his brother, King Saud, which ultimately secured him the throne.
British author and religious scholar Karen Armstrong suggests that IS may have over-reached itself with its unsustainable policies and jihadist philosophy. A majority of Sunnis and Shias reject what IS stands for. Armstrong notes that Saudi Arabia, with its impressive counter-terrorist resources, has already thwarted IS attacks in the kingdom. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have made clear that dealing with IS does not top their priorities. The kingdom and its Gulf allies are bogged down in an intractable war in Yemen. The Saudis, viewing the Yemen war as a proxy war against Iran, have effectively withdrawn militarily from the US-led campaign against IS.
The key to removing the challenge from IS has to be the realization that the terror group’s appeal is not its alleged goal of an atavistic return to the glorious past of Islam, as Armstrong put it. Nor is Islam at the core of its multiple conflicts. The appeal of IS is that it offers an opportunity to the socially, economically, and ethnically disenfranchised to revolt. With the help of technological advances, it can take the battle to historically new levels. Military defeat of IS will not soothe the anger of the disenfranchised. Addressing their concerns will.
James M Dorsey is a Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, and Co-Director of the Institute of Wurzburg, Germany. Mushahid Ali is a Senior Fellow in RSIS.