Top 5 Ways Saudi Arabia really could fight Terrorism, & not by a Vague Coalition

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Over the past three days, Saudi Arabia has abruptly put together a 35-nation Muslim coalition to fight terrorism.

Saudi interest in this fight is not new, and the kingdom itself has suffered from armed non-governmental groups targeting innocent non-combatants. In 2003-2006, al-Qaeda and other extremist cells in Saudi Arabia launched numerous attacks in Riyadh, Jedda and elsewhere.

It is not the case that Saudi’s distinctive and puritanical Wahhabi Islam underlies terrorism. It is often intolerant, but its 20 million adherents usually don’t go around attacking people. Sunnis who adopt the Wahhabi style of Islam, called Salafis, are often peaceful and/or non-political. The Saudis of Wahhabi background whom you meet abroad are often warm, nice people.

It could be argued that Sunnis are relatively unlikely to turn to terrorism but Salafis and Wahhabis more likely to, because the latter see the world as black and white, and have a conviction that only they have the truth and the rest of the Muslims have fallen into the snares of the devil. But then a lot (not all) of evangelical Christians have that mindset, as well, and few are violent. I’m not aware of studies that show Salafis as more violent than other Sunnis. In Syria, the two major terrorist/ insurgent groups, al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), are Salafi of sorts, but most of their members started out as Sunnis and went straight to joining those groups under the pressure of Syrian regime attacks. You could argue that the ideology is optional, and that tyrannical and violent oppression drives people to terrorism regardless of their religious ideology.

Nor is it the case that Saudi Arabia formed, funded or promoted Daesh/ ISIL, as is often alleged. Nor is mainstream Wahhabism as practiced every day in Saudi Arabia very much like Daesh. There are tens of thousands of non-Muslims working in the oil industry at Dahran and none has been kidnapped and beheaded. They are allowed to have their own swimming pools and McDonalds. There may have been Saudi businessmen who funneled money to Iraqi Sunnis to strengthen them against the American-installed Shiite religious government of Baghdad, or to fight against their being ethnically cleansed from the Iraqi capital back in 2006-2007, and some of that money may have made its way to what became Daesh. But it was not likely direct support for that group (in 2003-2006 the Kingdom was in a life and death struggle against al-Qaeda, of which Daesh is a branch).

I say all this because there a wealth of misinformation, sloppy thinking, and poorly sourced allegations about Saudi Arabia and terrorism. And I’m going to go on to offer a harsh critique of Riyadh’s announcement of a 35-nation Muslim coalition to fight terrorism. This is not hypocritical on Saudi Arabia’s part for the reasons many will think.

The problem is that, somewhat like the United States, Saudi Arabia’s recent history of aggressive foreign intervention is causing terrorism inadvertently. So here are some steps they could take instead of, or at least beyond coalition-building:

1. Stop recklessly and indiscriminately bombing Yemen. The Saudi campaign has allowed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the organization behind the underwear bomber of 2009, to expand its territory in the south. That scares me more than the Houthis do. Half the country is food insecure, large numbers are being displaced, and hundreds of thousands of armed homeless people (Yemenis, like Americans, all have guns) are terrorism waiting to happen. The Saudi goal of defeating the Houthi guerrilla insurgency mainly from the air is misguided and will only cause more instability.

2. Make their clients, the Syrian guerrilla groups in the Army of Conquest, including the Free Men of Syria, break with al-Qaeda in Syria (the Nusra Front) with which they are formally allied. Saudi Arabia can’t fight terrorism if it is backing a coalition allied with al-Qaeda.

3. Speaking of Syria, stop insisting that it become Saudi Arabia’s mini-me and help all Syrians come to a political settlement of the civil war. Saudi Arabia keeps issuing ultimatums about what must happen. Syria is 14% Alawite Shiite, 5% Christian, 3% Druze, 1% Twelver Shiite, 10% leftist Kurds, and probably 40% leftist or secular Sunnis. The small, armed, Salafi minority can’t impose itself on the country as Riyadh seems to want. Riyadh’s hard line is prolonging the civil war and that is causing regional terrorism and giving groups like Daesh an opportunity.

4. Stop denying peaceful members of the Muslim Brotherhood their basic human rights. If Muslim Brothers aren’t violent and aren’t actually doing anything illegal, they should be left alone. Saudi Arabia has spearheaded a region-wide harsh crackdown on the group that has actually pushed some formerly peaceful members to turn to terrorism.

5. Step up and play a more forceful role (since you like forceful roles nowadays) in insisting that the Israelis withdraw from the Occupied Palestinian territories captured in 1967. Even the San Bernardino duo were driven in part by anger over the plight of the stateless Palestinians. Saudi Arabia only talks a good game on Palestine. Their real investment is in bombing Yemen. The latter isn’t even practical.

Saudi Arabia for the first time since the 1920s has been flexing its muscles. Some of that flexing is producing or is likely to produce the blowback of terrorism. The kingdom needs to reassess.


Related video:

CCTV News: “Saudi Arabia forms 34-state anti-terrorist alliance”

25 Responses

  1. Thank you for explaining the Saudi role in the chaos over there in the Middle East.

    This new alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia (hidden from the masses one article says) is also very interesting. What kind of devious plots do they hatch together?

    It is time the Sunni and Shiite realized they are basically all Muslims, and accept whatever differences there may be.
    Turning against each other is only helping the extremists achieve their goals, and the Islamaphobes a reason to keep saying that Islam is a violent religion. Enough.

    • “It is time the Sunni and Shiite realized they are basically all Muslims, and accept whatever differences there may be.” Yeah, just like the Christians where Protestants and Catholics always got along, err, oops.

  2. It’s incorrect to say that Saudis are peaceful when they finance terrorism abroad, particularly in Syria. All this situation means is that they’re cowardly as well as violent.

    • That’s movie script thinking….with a hint of good old American siege mentality mania…..Keep reading Cole….

      • I read our fave professor on a regular basis for years now. I am also a little confused about Saudi involvement just from this article alone. Despite the initial disclaimer about misinformation on Saudis/finance/terror – his 2nd point clearly shows a case of the Saudis funding a group that is al-Qaeda affiliated. The country itself is frequently noted as the home of many key al-Qaeda figures. So not totally a Wag the dog Hollywood thought. I am not sure how this makes them cowardly though – but it does imply a level of complicity with the violence.

        • Confusion here too. Some of us mainly get Cole condensations of things, no doubt. As time goes on blanket notions of Salafists will be broken down further for our benefit…seems possible/plausible. I’ll read the article again (the whole thing) to see if it rings as true as prior articles. If the SA gov is seeking better press, I can understand that. Outside the MSM/Fox orbit at least, it can get it for starters by easing up on Yemen, stopping stonings/flogging, and letting women drive cars. As Escobar has written, everyone’s pretending to hit ISIL-land while in reality hitting their old foes [Google escobar with turkey, past month]. It’s all too apocalyptic. All are guilty, but if they work together and slow it down…it’ll be so important that most will be forgiven. And let’s hope all can become parties to truces.

  3. The Saudi government must have very strong financial monitoring, given that some of its citizens started AlQaeda and are thought to be a primary source of funds to Daesh/Isis, as well as a source of extremist Wahabi or jihadist fighters whose return they fear. Do they monitor and yet not approve of the foreign military adventures their citizens’ money and participation has long supported?

    It seems likely that they intend to create a puppet state in W Iraq and E Syria, are serving or defining US policy, and like the US, are freely condemning anyone who resists as “terrorist” despite using the same war techniques.

  4. Juan you argue that it was the violent response of the Syrian regime that turned many of the fighters in Syria to ISIL/Al Nusura. That doesn’t ring true. If that were the case, ISIL would be largely a Syrian situation. Yet it is also in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afganistan, etc. Also, approximately 30 percent of its fighters in Syria are reportedly foreigners. It is also true that a number of the Syrian’s fighting for ISIL are basically conscripts.

    During the period, 2009 to 2011 an unbelievable string of barbaric terrorists attacks occurred in Iraq. Multiple large suicide bombings every week. Terrorism campaigns at that level can not happened without state sponsorship. In my opinion, the Saudi’s were up to their necks in that campaign.

    One of the features of the activities of state “intelligence” organizations, is that they are experts in covering their tracks. But the key question is “who benefits”? The Syrian and Iraqi governments are allied with Iran. So the first place to look for state sponsors of terrorism in Syria and Iraq are the people that want to over throw the Iranian regime.

  5. A problem with breaking Daesh is that under the broad umbrella of that purpose, which itself has several leaks, there are far too many opportunistic options and differing priorities. It would have been better for the leaders of the US, Russia and China to have sat down, devised a united plan, then called on their allies to aid its achievement in specific and clearly defined ways. As it is we’ve got what my grandmother would have called, a dog’s dinner.

  6. It’s really depressing that so many people think in media memes and sound bites and clearly haven’t bothered to expose themselves to other perspectives. Thank you for being a lonely voice of reason.

  7. It wasn’t necessary to read past your intro, Professor. To somehow suggest that the fatwas generated by Wahhabi scholars and their affiliates is not connected with Daesh efforts at cleansing the realm of heterodoxy is astonishing. Furthermore, Saudi support for movements that inexorably morphed into Al-Qaeda and Daesh from the late 70s onward is incontrovertible. Please join rational people in condemning what deserves to be condemned.

    • Cole was quite nuanced in his article. I’d like to know your references for disputing his remarks.This is an important subject for all of IC readers.

  8. The supposed distinction between Sunni and Wahabi got confusing in the article. As you know, Sunnis have 4 mainstream “madhabs” or schools of thoughts–Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali. The biggest school is Hanafi followed by the majority Sunnis of South and South-east Asia. The Talebans actually belong to this group. On the other hand Wahabis come from Hanbali school. Al Qaeda, and more loosely ISIL, are offshoots of Wahabism.

    Hanbali school, practiced more in the middle east, has always been more puritanical than their counterparts, and those of us who are students of Islamic history are not overly surprised to see the progression of Wahabism into Daesh. In my humble opinion, Talebanism (extreme form of Hanafi) would not have been a problem for the rest of the world–they were imposing harsh rules but among their own population. It was Al Qaeda that took advantage of the Taleban’s tribal culture of hospitality and launched aggressions against the West. There are some fundamental thought processes in Wahabism that makes it difficult to coexist with other Sunnis without dominating them, or non-sunnis (that includes Shias, Ahmadis, Christians, Jews…), without picking up a fight.

    I hope Prof. Cole can focus on and educate us on Wahabism in a future post.

  9. Pakistan, at least its civilian arm, was caught off guard by the announcement that included them as part of this coalition.
    link to

    Not included in the alliance is Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Its unclear how far their definition of ‘terrorism’ goes. It may include against non-violent protesting groups that oppose the monarchy, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and may not include the Taliban.

    While there was the political rise of Shia Islamism and Zia sitting in power, Saudi Arabia’s funding of Wahhabism (and the Mujahideen) contributed greatly to the sectarian disharmony, violence and terrorism committed by Sunni Islamist (there were local brands such as Deobandis as well) militants in Pakistan since the 80’s (there was always certain bit of sectarianism in its history, but it went overdrive from then).

    On point 4, I’d include in the human rights talk along with the Muslim Brotherhood, all peaceful protesters against the state, that includes the Shiites in the north, and others such as dissenting bloggers or those accused of alleged apostasy who are whipped or about to be put under the sword in an ISIL-like way. Though don’t think the latter groups’ oppression is going to drive them towards terrorism.

  10. Saudi Arabia is bombing Houthi rebels because they are Shia. Saudi Arabia also wanted Pakistan to help them and Pakistan would have helped too as they are on the same side of this religious conflict, but chickened out at the last moment.
    Saudi Arabia is not peaceful but the root of all Islamic violence around the world. They are financing extremist wahhabi ideology everywhere and it is causing all sorts of social changes in places like Indonesia, Bangladesh and South India.
    Saudi Arabia is not a rational actor its a definition of a religious zealotry in statecraft.

    We have to work with Russia and destroy Saudi Arabia’s client-ISIS to bring stability to Northern Iraq and Syria.

  11. What struck me was the call for ‘all Syrians to come to a political settlement of the civil war.’

    Has this ever happened? Don’t ALL civil wars end with unqualified victory for one side or the other?

    Labels notwithstanding, that would seem to apply to the English Civil War, the French revolution, the American revolution, the Russian revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Chinese civil war, the war in Viet Nam, and our very own hometown favorite, the American Civil War.

    This last ending in totaler sieg for one side and one side only in spite of the considerable good will and desire to compromise evinced by many on both sides in both the run-up to the fracas and in the early going. Lee, for example, didn’t support succession — he was merely unwilling to fight against his home state. See also some of Horace Greeley’s calls for a settlement.

    About the only example I can think of of civil war actually ending in compromise was Austria’s settlement with Hungary in 1848 that produced the Dual Monarchy. First off, I’m not sure that could be considered civil war in much of any sense — wasn’t it simply Hungary seeking independence?

    Second, it didn’t really solve the problem for Austria. The empire only lasted another seventy years before ultimately perishing at the hand of the same nationalism she had sought to defuse in 1848.

    But to return to the point: isn’t it therefor utopian foolishness to call for a ‘settlement’ in Syria? Can we afford to waste time pursuing such a chimaera? Isn’t our idealism simply going to add to the final toll in death, misery, and fuel for ‘the clash of civilizations’ in the form of exported terrorism?

    Shouldn’t we simply decide who we want to win and help them to expedite their triumph? That may not be very ‘nice’ — but sometimes things aren’t ‘nice.’

    • Only 20 percent of insurgencies are decisively defeated on the battleground, a la Sri Lanka. Mostly negotiated peace is outcome.

      • ‘Only 20 percent of insurgencies are decisively defeated on the battleground, a la Sri Lanka. Mostly negotiated peace is outcome.’

        …Then it all depends whether we call it a civil war or an insurgency?

        In any case, plenty of insurgencies are decisively defeated on the ground. For that very reason, they remain obscure. The following come to mind: the Forest Brethren in the Baltic States and Stefan Bandera in the Ukraine, the Mau Mau in Kenya, the Communist insurgency in British Malaya, and the Moro in the Phillippines.

        Others simply win…then they’re not the insurgents, are they? The (original) IRA in Ireland, the rebels in the American colonies (since we’ve decided to label civil wars insurgencies), the FLN in Algeria, the Viet Minh in Viet Nam, and virtually all of Spain’s former colonies in the New World. Naturally, negotiations often conclude the fighting, but these usually aren’t compromises in any sense so much as ceremonies essentially conceding sovereignty and tidying up the mess: financial separation, repatriation of loyalists, etc.

        So we can label all these conflicts civil wars, or we can label them insurgencies. I don’t actually see negotiated peace as a common outcome — it’s certainly not the outcome in 80% of the cases as you imply.

        More to the point, I certainly don’t see a negotiated peace as a plausible outcome in a conflict which has become as bitter as the one in Syria, which represents so many profound divisions, and in which so many foreign powers have taken a decidedly unhelpful interest. Ourselves, the Turks, the Iranians, Hezbollah, Russia, and the Saudis are all entirely ready to fight to the last Syrian — and to keep fighting for as long as it takes to reach that outcome.

        There is also the matter of the spillover — which is all but literally pouring gasoline on the once-dying embers of the ‘clash of civilizations’ so beloved of xenophobes. Above all, we need to end this now. Once someone wins, at least the killing will become more selective, and for most people a semblance of normal life can resume.

        I say that in Syria, any negotiated settlement would be a long way off, and in any case, wouldn’t emerge until one side has clearly gained the upper hand. So we need to quit being part of the problem by trying to impose our preferred solution — that’s what everybody is doing now.

        We need to decide who we can help win quickest and throw our weight into the scales on their side. That is the course of true wisdom — and true humanity. The dead aren’t going to appreciate how all this time you were hoping for a better, kinder Syria. Anyone can speak for th dead, and so I will too. They’d rather you’d just helped to end the fighting.

        That means forgetting about getting your way and just agreeing to whoever can most plausibly impose peace, and impose it quickly.

        Hate to say it — I’m really kind of a Muslim Brotherhood fan myself — but the man we need to get behind here is Assad. Who else?

  12. A German intelligence officer summarized a common pattern with regards to Daesh/ISIS terrorists who originated in Germany, with the following quip:

    “Not all Salafis are terrorists but all terrorists are Salafi.”

    German agencies consider radical Salafi preaching a “gateway drug”.

  13. Good post by Juan. Two emendations.

    One is that while the Taliban are technically Hanafis, the most liberal of the Sunni Shari’a codes, many of them follow the north Indian Deobandi movement that has fallen under the influence of Saudi Wahhabis supporting the Hanbali code. This partly explains the openness of the Taliban to letting the strongly Wahhabist al Qaeda in to Afghanistan, although Juan is right that al Qaeda follows a much more radicalized version of Wahhabism than is generally practiced in Saudi Arabia, as does its offshoot, Daesh.

    The other is that while in many places Salafism and Wahhabism are essentially identical, they have different historical origins, which show up in some places in ongoing differences. Whereas Wahhabism dates from 1740 in Saudi Arabia and has been closely linked to the Saud family, Salafism started in the 19th century in Egypt and eastern Libya and was originally focused on making Islam consistent with modern science and rationality while also purifying its doctrines to fit with early Islam, with them largely Hanafi. Later the modernizing branch would weaken while the more fundamentalist branch gained. The link with Wahhabism came during Nasser’s rule in Egypt when many were expelled and became school teachers in Saudi Arabia where they were welcomed. There this group’s views converged more on Saudi Wahhabi views, but some subtle differences remain.

  14. “When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers”. Victims of terrorism, war are only the grass. Of the elephants fighting, there is an entire herd, and Saudi Arabia is just one of them. It’s not going to end until there’s nothing left fighting for.

  15. Are king Salman and the prince the new Saddam, will we in decade read about how US and UK were arming the despots? “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

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