How the Saudis (and the U.S.) have Perilously Exploited Radical Islam in their Pursuit of Power.
As the new war on ISIS widens, and the media war drums pick up the tempo, some nice breaks in the rhythm have been the few peeps made about the role of the U.S. and its allies (especially Saudi Arabia) in feeding the beast, by arming and training ISIS’s fellow travelers and prospective members in Syria.
Yet, this is no new phenomenon. Less-than-pious rulers (especially American presidents and decadent Saudi royals) have cynically harnessed radical Islam to fuel their worldly wars of conquest and dominance for centuries. And they have done so with the indispensable help of radical Islamic scholars, clerics, and preachers who formulate and communicate the doctrines that underpin that fanaticism.
This partnership is the most ancient variety of a more universal one: what Murray Rothbard called, “the State’s age-old alliance with the Court Intellectuals who weave the apologia for State rule.” Rothbard wrote:
“…since the early origins of the State, its rulers have always turned, as a necessary bolster to their rule, to an alliance with society’s class of intellectuals. (…) The alliance is based on a quid pro quo: on the one hand, the intellectuals spread among the masses the idea that the State and its rulers are wise, good, sometimes divine, and at the very least inevitable and better than any conceivable alternatives. In return for this panoply of ideology, the State incorporates the intellectuals as part of the ruling elite, granting them power, status, prestige, and material security.(…)
Before the modern era, particularly potent among the intellectual handmaidens of the State was the priestly caste, cementing the powerful and terrible alliance of warrior chief and medicine man, of Throne and Altar. The State “established” the Church and conferred upon it power, prestige, and wealth extracted from its subjects. In return, the Church anointed the State with divine sanction and inculcated this sanction into the populace.”
The ideological roots of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the current wave of Islamic fanaticism in general can be traced back to the 18th century, to one particular, “terrible alliance of warrior chief and medicine man, of Throne and Altar,” that serves as a textbook illustration of the explosive power of this kind of partnership.
Perfect Partners in Power
Before finding his “medicine man,” Muhammad ibn Saud, founder of the Saud dynasty that today reigns over Saudi Arabia, was nothing more than a petty marauding potentate ruling the town of Diriyah.
But his career took a turn when he offered asylum to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of Wahhabism, which is today the official religious doctrine of Saudi Arabia. al-Wahhab was an Islamic scholar and preacher who had been expelled from a neighboring town for stirring up trouble. Ibn Saud saw explosive martial potential in al-Wahhab’s teachings, and al-Wahhab saw in Ibn Saud a convenient vessel through which to spread his doctrine at the point of the sword. al-Wahhab allegedly told Ibn Saud:
“I want you to grant me an oath that you will perform jihad (Struggle to spread Islam) against the unbelievers. In return you will be imam, leader of the Muslim community and I will be leader in religious matters.”
They formalized the pact in 1744, and this power sharing arrangement between the Al Saud family, and the Al ash-Sheikh descendants of al-Wahhab has held to this day.
The two men discovered a particularly volatile blend of the defining chemical formula for state power: dogma-propagating violence mixed with violence-sanctifying dogma. The sword and the scepter had once again joined forces, and Araby would soon quake.
The more irreplaceable between the two contributions, however, was al-Wahhab’s. His doctrine was particularly suited to animate conquest. Its theocratic, intolerant, austere, puritanical zealotry stimulated both self-abasing sacrifice and self-righteous fury. And its sub-doctrine of takfir, which defines deviant Muslims as non-Muslims, and thereby overcomes the stigma attached to warring against co-religionists, was crucial in providing the Saudi conquest of Muslim peoples the animating fire of jihad.
More basically, if the faith of subjects can be manipulated to buttress state power, then it makes sense that fanatic faith, like that preached by al-Wahhab, can put state power into overdrive, fueling both absolutism and conquest.
Recently in The Huffington Post, British diplomat and former intelligence officer Alastaire Crooke told the story of this dynamic duo’s fanaticism-fueled march through the Middle East.
Ibn Saud’s clan, seizing on Abd al-Wahhab’s doctrine, now could do what they always did, which was raiding neighboring villages and robbing them of their possessions. Only now they were doing it not within the ambit of Arab tradition, but rather under the banner of jihad. Ibn Saud and Abd al-Wahhab also reintroduced the idea of martyrdom in the name of jihad, as it granted those martyred immediate entry into paradise.
In the beginning, they conquered a few local communities and imposed their rule over them. (The conquered inhabitants were given a limited choice: conversion to Wahhabism or death.) By 1790, the Alliance controlled most of the Arabian Peninsula and repeatedly raided Medina, Syria and Iraq.
Their strategy — like that of ISIS today — was to bring the peoples whom they conquered into submission. They aimed to instill fear. In 1801, the Allies attacked the Holy City of Karbala in Iraq. They massacred thousands of Shiites, including women and children. Many Shiite shrines were destroyed, including the shrine of Imam Hussein, the murdered grandson of Prophet Muhammad.
A British official, Lieutenant Francis Warden, observing the situation at the time, wrote: “They pillaged the whole of it [Karbala], and plundered the Tomb of Hussein… slaying in the course of the day, with circumstances of peculiar cruelty, above five thousand of the inhabitants …”
Osman Ibn Bishr Najdi, the historian of the first Saudi state, wrote that Ibn Saud committed a massacre in Karbala in 1801. He proudly documented that massacre saying, “we took Karbala and slaughtered and took its people (as slaves), then praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds, and we do not apologize for that and say: ‘And to the unbelievers: the same treatment.’”
Eventually the Ottoman Empire pushed back, gruesomely executing one of Ibn Saud’s heirs and then decisively crushing the First Saudi State in 1818, leaving only a rump Second State in Nejd, where the Wahabbi gene lay dormant, but not eradicated, for a century.
The Fanatic Fire Reignites
World War I, that greatest of calamities, was to make it active and pestilential again, as that war did with so many other virulent strains of statist fanaticism, including Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. Even before the war, when the Ottoman Empire was the declining “sick man of Europe,” the Saudis were able to make substantial gains, led by Saudi ruler Abdulaziz (known to the west as Ibn Saud, but not be confused with the founder of the dynasty). But the War, which fatally destabilized the Saudi state’s foremost enemy, the Ottoman Empire, and brought into the region what would become its foremost allies, Britain and America, is what led to it becoming firmly entrenched in power.
The second great Saudi conquest of Arabia was chiefly manned by the Ikhwan, a militia of zealously Wahhabist bedouins. According to Wikipedia:
The Ikhwan first appeared around 1913. They were the product of Wahhabi clergy who aimed to break up the Bedu tribes and settle them around the wells and oases, on the grounds that nomadic life was incompatible with strict conformity with Islam. The newly Islamicized Bedouin would be converted from nomad raiders to soldiers for Islam (i.e. Wahhabi Islam). The cleric/teachers of the Ikhwan were dedicated to the purification and the unification of Islam…
And Crooke wrote of them:
The Ikhwan was a reincarnation of the early, fierce, semi-independent vanguard movement of committed armed Wahhabist “moralists” who almost had succeeded in seizing Arabia by the early 1800s. In the same manner as earlier, the Ikhwan again succeeded in capturing Mecca, Medina and Jeddah between 1914 and 1926.
This second Saudi-led, Wahhabism-fueled tidal wave was as ruthless and bloody as the first, involving, according to some estimates, 40,000 public executions and 350,000 amputations.
The fire of Wahhabism provided the thrust for the second Ibn Saud’s rise. But, like every fire, fanaticism can become a wildfire, dangerous to its wielder and difficult to tame, as Ibn Saud was soon to discover. Crooke wrote (and quoted author Stephen Schwartz):
When the expansion of control by the Ikhwan reached the border of territories controlled by Britain, Abd al-Aziz tried to restrain his militia (Philby was urging him to seek British patronage), but the Ikwhan, already critical of his use of modern technology (the telephone, telegraph and the machine gun), “were outraged by the abandonment of jihad for reasons of worldly realpolitik … They refused to lay down their weapons; and instead rebelled against their king … After a series of bloody clashes, they were crushed in 1929. Ikhwan members who had remained loyal, were later absorbed into the [Saudi] National Guard.”
Ibn Saud managed to strike a balance between riding the Wahhabist wave of fervor and cultivating British support, both of which were crucial to his success. His land became a British protectorate in 1915. British sponsorship of the 1916–1918 Arab Revolt shattered Ottoman power in the region. And in 1922 Britain handed over to Ibn Saud two-thirds of Kuwait’s territory.
But starting in the 1930s, the Americans would come to displace the British as the chief ally of the Saudis, especially after the American-aided discovery of vast reserves of oil in Saudi lands. Rothbard spelled out the military and crony connections involved:
The Rockefeller interest and other Western Big Oil companies have had intimate ties with the absolute royalties of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia ever since the 1930s. During that decade and World War II, King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia granted a monopoly concession on all oil under his domain to the Rockefeller-control-led Aramco, while the $30 million in royalty payments for the concession was paid by the U.S. taxpayer.
The Rockefeller-influenced U.S. Export-Import Bank obligingly paid another $25 million to Ibn Saud to construct a pleasure railroad from his main palace, and President Roosevelt made a secret appropriation out of war funds of $165 million to Aramco for pipeline construction across Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the U.S. Army was obligingly assigned to build an airfield and military base at Dhahran, near the Aramco Oilfields, after which the multi-million dollar base was turned over, gratis, to Ibn Saud.
The new spigot of oil wealth helped smooth over the tensions between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi clerics, and thereby preserved the ancient quid pro quo between the descendants of the first Ibn Saud and al-Wahhab. While state oil wealth funded luxury and ostentation among the Saudi royalty, much of it also went into religious activity, including the indoctrination of Saudi subjects in Wahhabi Islam from childhood on, in madrasas and other institutions. The Saudis continued to fulfill the first Ibn Saud’s oath to “perform jihad (Struggle to spread Islam) against the unbelievers,” but it did so no longer through conquest, but through the use of oil-money-funded “soft power” to combat rival ideologies in the Muslim World. According to Wikipedia:
In May 1962, a conference in Mecca organized by Saudis discussed ways to combat secularism and socialism. In its wake, the World Muslim League was established. To propagate Islam and “repel inimical trends and dogmas”, the League opened branch offices around the globe. It developed closer association between Wahhabis and leading Salafis, and made common cause with the Islamic revivalist Muslim Brotherhood, Ahl al-Hadith and the Jamaat-i Islami, combating Sufism and “innovative” popular religious practices and rejecting the West and Western “ways which were so deleterious of Muslim piety and values.” Missionaries were sent to West Africa, where the League funded schools, distributed religious literature, and gave scholarships to attend Saudi religious universities. One result was the Izala Society which fought Sufism in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon.
(Of course, the U.S. found the Saudis’ Wahhabism-fueled hostility to Soviet-allied secular Muslim regimes very useful during the Cold War.)
And the Wahhabi clerics had long ago been given control over law and public morality, which they have long used to afflict the populace with a horribly oppressive theocratic rule.
In exchange for all this, the clerics continued to inculcate in the public the belief in the House of Saud’s divine right to rule, even in the face of the often glaring fact that the decadent Saudi royals hardly practiced what Wahhabism preached.
Yet the fires of fanaticism still periodically threatened to burn down the House of Saud. One of the most ominous incidents was the 1970 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by 400–500 members of a revived Ikhwan under Juhayman al-Otaybi, calling for the overthrow of the House of Saud. What made this episode so foreboding was that it revealed a widespread sympathy, even among the elite, with the Ikhwan’s Wahhabist challenge to Saudi rule. As Crooke explained:
Even when the mosque seizure was defeated and over, a certain level of forbearance by the ulema for the rebels remained. (…)
The group that Juhayman led was far from marginalized from important sources of power and wealth. In a sense, it swam in friendly, receptive waters. Juhayman’s grandfather had been one of the leaders of the the original Ikhwan, and after the rebellion against Abdel Aziz, many of his grandfather’s comrades in arms were absorbed into the National Guard — indeed Juhayman himself had served within the Guard — thus Juhayman was able to obtain weapons and military expertise from sympathizers in the National Guard, and the necessary arms and food to sustain the siege were pre-positioned, and hidden, within the Grand Mosque. Juhayman was also able to call on wealthy individuals to fund the enterprise.
But the 1970s increase in the flow of Saudi oil wealth once again helped to smooth things over with the Wahhabists. According to Wikipedia:
Tens of billions of dollars of this money were spent on books, media, schools, scholarships for students (from primary to post-graduate), fellowships and subsidies to reward journalists, academics and Islamic scholars, the building of hundreds of Islamic centers and universities, and over one thousand schools and one thousand mosques. During this time Wahhabism attained what Gilles Kepel called a “preeminent position of strength in the global expression of Islam.”
Covert Hard-Power Jihad
Another huge vent for Wahhabi fervor was the anti-Soviet Afghanistan Jihad. The participation of Saudi subjects in this war was given the explicit sanction of the Wahhabi Grand Mufti. According to Wikipedia:
Between 1982 and 1992 an estimated 35,000 individual Muslim volunteers went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and their Afghan regime. Thousands more attended frontier schools teeming with former and future fighters. Somewhere between 12,000 and 25,000 of these volunteers came from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and the other conservative Gulf monarchies also provided considerable financial support to the jihad — $600 million a year by 1982.
One of these volunteers from Saudi Arabia was Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national raised as a Wahhabist from childhood. And one Jordanian volunteer (who arrived just too late to fight) was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, future founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which would later evolve into ISIS.
But Saudi-Wahabbi tensions renewed with the 1991 Gulf War, during which the Saudis allowed the U.S. to stage airstrikes on Iraq from Saudi soil. (This also is what led Osama bin Laden to come out in favor of the overthrow of the House of Saud.) Subsequent Saudi efforts to appease the clerics led to even greater propagation of fanatical Islam. As Lawrence Wright recently wrote in The New Yorker:
The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia was a shattering event in the country’s history, calling into question the ancient bargain between the royal family and the Wahhabi clerics, whose blessing allows the Saud family to rule. In 1992, a group of the country’s most prominent religious leaders issued the Memorandum of Advice, which implicitly threatened a clerical coup. The royal family, shaken by the threat to its rule, accommodated most of the clerics’ demands, giving them more control over Saudi society. One of their directives called for the creation of a Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which would be given offices in Saudi embassies and consulates. As the journalist Philip Shenon writes, citing John Lehman, the former Secretary of the Navy and a 9/11 commissioner, “it was well-known in intelligence circles that the Islamic affairs office functioned as the Saudis’ ‘fifth column’ in support of Muslim extremists.”
Many, including many 9/11 families, think the Ministry of Islamic Affairs may have been directly involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that further evidence of that involvement might be found in the 28 pages excised from the report of the Joint Congressional Inquiry into those attacks. Even if this is not the case, the post-Gulf-War Wahabbi push certainly contributed to the radicalization that provided recruits for terrorist organizations.
However, the 9/11 attacks led to the Iraq War, which the Saudis opposed, and which proved to be inimical to Sunni Wahhabist interests by installing a government in Baghdad dominated by the hated Shias, creating what many Saudi elites considered to be a threatening “Shia Crescent” extending from Iran, through Iraq, through Syria, and into Hezbollah’s turf in Lebanon.
In an effort to counter this “Shiite resurgence,” the Saudis once again began sponsoring Sunni radicals (again, many from Saudi Arabia itself) in Lebanon, starting in 2007, and then in Syria, especially starting in 2011, in an attempt to overthrow the secular-oriented ruler, Bashar al-Assad. Saudi intervention played a key role in plunging Syria into a bloody “civil” war that rages to this day in which the “rebels” are largely international radical Sunni fighters. Among the radical Sunni groups that received support from the Saudi state and from wealthy Wahhabi elites in Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, are the Al Nusra Front (a branch of Al Qaeda) and ISIS itself.
Previously, ISIS had been at a nadir, having been trounced when the Sunni tribes in Iraq turned on them during the “Sunni Awakening.” But thanks in part to Saudi aid, ISIS was able to bounce back, and use their conquests in eastern Syria to stage their conquest of western Iraq.
The “caliph” of ISIS’s newly proclaimed “caliphate” is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A scholar with a PhD in Islamic studies, al-Baghdadi issues public statements, which, according to Crooke, directly harkens to Wahhabi doctrine.
The clue to [ISIS’s] truly explosive potential, as Saudi scholar Fouad Ibrahim has pointed out (but which has passed, almost wholly overlooked, or its significance has gone unnoticed), is ISIS’ deliberate and intentional use in its doctrine — of the language of Abd-al Wahhab, the 18th century founder, together with Ibn Saud, of Wahhabism and the Saudi project:
‘Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the first “prince of the faithful” in the Islamic State of Iraq, in 2006 formulated, for instance, the principles of his prospective state … Among its goals is disseminating monotheism “which is the purpose [for which humans were created] and [for which purpose they must be called] to Islam…’ This language replicates exactly Abd-al Wahhab’s formulation. And, not surprisingly, the latter’s writings and Wahhabi commentaries on his works are widely distributed in the areas under ISIS’ control and are made the subject of study sessions. Baghdadi subsequently was to note approvingly, ‘a generation of young men [have been] trained based on the forgotten doctrine of loyalty and disavowal.’”
And what is this “forgotten” tradition of “loyalty and disavowal?” It is Abd al-Wahhab’s doctrine that belief in a sole (for him an anthropomorphic) God — who was alone worthy of worship — was in itself insufficient to render man or woman a Muslim.
What makes this so explosive, is that ISIS’s Wahhabi-friendly message, combined with its startling conquests and struggles with the hated “Crusaders,” could conceivably ignite a new Ikhwan movement within Saudi Arabia that could once and for all end the corrupt, decadent, and U.S.-friendly Saudi dynasty, as previous Ikhwan movements almost did. Again, when you play with fanaticism, you are playing with fire.
And the U.S. has been playing with that same fire all along. It allied with the Saudis in their Afghan proxy war against the Soviets, funding, supplying, and CIA-training a Mujahadeen movement that included Al Qaeda founder bin Laden and ISIS godfather Zarqawi. This led to that country, which had been secularizing, falling into the hands of the puritanical Taliban.
And, after the Bush administration’s 2007 Middle East pivot away from the Shias and toward the Sunnis that Seymour Hersh termed “the Redirection,” the U.S. joined the Saudis in its proxy wars on Hezbollah and Assad, funding, supplying, and CIA-training Sunni Islamist fighters in Lebanon and Syria.
Under Obama, Washington also aided Islamist rebels in Libya, helping them overthrow that country’s secular ruler Moammar Gaddafi, which turned that country too into a chaotic “jihadist wonderland,” to use Rand Paul’s term. (Also, in 2011, Reuters reported that, “U.S. officials also have said that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whose leaders despise Gaddafi, have indicated a willingness to supply Libyan rebels with weapons.”)
And Obama recently announced that part of his grand strategy in the new war on ISIS is to double-down on U.S. support for the Syrian “rebels,” the very policy that helped lead to ISIS’s rise in the first place.
And these are only incidents in which the U.S. partnered with the Saudis. For a more complete rundown of the U.S. government’s history of playing with fanatic fire, bookmark to read later Robert Barsocchini’s recent post on Washington’s Blog, “How and Why the USA Has Sponsored Terrorism in the Mid East Since at Least 1948.”
The U.S. also sponsors Islamic fanaticism simply by virtue of its propping up, through military and financial aid, the Saudi monarchy, whose very existence hinges on fostering fanaticism, due to its centuries-old dependence on the Wahhabi clerics for public legitimacy. While the U.S. government is indignantly launching a war over ISIS’s beheading of two journalists, it simultaneously continues to prop up a theocracy that beheads scores of people every year for such crimes as “apostasy” and “sorcery.” And while the U.S. assassinated one of its own citizens for preaching jihad, it continued to sponsor a state whose founding and very existence are predicated on preaching, sponsoring, and manning world jihad. If the baleful regime in Washington cared more about world peace and domestic security than it did about enriching its cronies and trying to more fully conquer the world, it would cease support for this other baleful regime entirely and immediately.
This is not to say that the U.S. should take on an adversarial stance toward Saudi Arabia. Doing so to Iran has only tightened that besieged theocracy’s grip on power, and it would likely do the same for this theocracy as well. It is highly doubtful that such an oppressive and contentious regime as the Saudi/Wahhabi machine would persist with neither a foreign bogeyman to rally the people against, nor a foreign hegemon militarily securing the state and its grip on the country’s oil wealth. Just take out the props and watch the thing fall, to the great benefit of the Arabian people.
And oil is no excuse not to. U.S. support for Saudi Arabia may be necessary to preserve the exclusive concessions to favored American oil companies. But it is not necessary to preserve Americans’ access to oil. Worrywarts raise the 1970s oil crisis, but as Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren argued, the impact of the 1973 Saudi oil embargo has been completely overblown. The crisis, as they say, was chiefly due to U.S. price controls.
Did the subsequent embargo stoke the crisis further? No — it was an economically meaningless gesture. That’s because the embargo had no effect on imports. Once oil is in a tanker, neither Petroleum Exporting Countries nor OPEC nor Knick-Knack-Paddywack can control where it goes. Oil that was exported to Europe during the embargo was simply resold to the United States or ended up displacing non-OPEC oil that was diverted to the U.S. market. Supply routes were shuffled but import volumes remained steady.
The Backdraft Era
The fires of fanaticism have not yet burned down the House of Saud or the White House, but they’ve already burned down our tallest skyscrapers, consuming 3,000 lives, and triggering a foreign policy revolution that has claimed over a million lives, billions of dollars, and much American liberty. That was blowback from decades-old U.S./Saudi foreign policy blunders. But the 2014 rise of ISIS, spawned by the 2011–2014 U.S./Saudi blunder in Syria, was too immediate and predictable to be called “blowback.” For this reason, the great antiwar radio host Scott Horton has coined a new term for this kind of development: “backdraft.”
Backdraft, a phenomenon that firefighters must be wary of, is, according to Wikipedia, “an explosive event caused by a fire, resulting from rapid re-introduction of oxygen to combustion in an oxygen-depleted environment, for example, the breaking of a window or opening of a door to an enclosed space.” This is a perfect analogy for the rise of ISIS. The U.S. and the Saudis chose a foolish interventionist option (opened a door) in Syria, which fed the fires of fanaticism with its own kind of “oxygen” (arms, money, and the opportunity to fight), and those fires almost immediately blew up in their faces (and unfortunately ours as well).
The deadly dangers of intervention are mounting fast, as we transition from the Blowback Era to the Backdraft Era. We cannot hope that our rulers will stop playing with fanatic fire, so it is imperative that we disentangle ourselves from the pyromaniacs in power.