If we’re allied with an authoritarian regime that is the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism, what are we fighting for?
Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading sponsor of Islamic extremism. It is also a close U.S. ally. This contradiction, although responsible for a lot of human suffering, is frequently ignored. Yet it recently plunged back into the limelight with the Saudi monarchy’s largest mass execution in decades.
On Jan. 2, Saudi Arabia beheaded 47 people across 13 cities. Among the executed was cleric Nimr al-Nimr, a leader from the country’s Shia religious minority who was arrested for leading peaceful protests against the regime in 2011-12.
Sheikh al-Nimr was known throughout the Islamic world for his staunch opposition to sectarianism. The outspoken Saudi dissident firmly insisted that Sunnis and Shias are not enemies, and should unite against the sectarian regimes oppressing them. “The oppressed should unite together against the oppressors, instead of becoming tools in the hands of the oppressors,” he declared.
By executing a dissident who challenged sectarianism, the Saudi monarchy was only further fomenting it.
Human rights organizations condemned the executions. Amnesty International said the Saudi regime is “using the death penalty in the name of counter-terror to settle scores and crush dissidents,” sentencing activists “to death after grossly unfair trials.” Amnesty called this “a monstrous and irreversible injustice.”
Yet atrocities like the mass beheadings are by no means new in Saudi Arabia. What is new is the global attention to them…
Saudi Arabia is a theocratic absolute monarchy that governs based on an extreme interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law). It is so extreme, it has been widely compared to ISIS. Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud characterized Saudi Arabia in an op-ed in The New York Times as “an ISIS that has made it.”
“Black Daesh, white Daesh,” Daoud wrote, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “The former slits throats, kills, stones, cuts off hands, destroys humanity’s common heritage and despises archaeology, women and non-Muslims. The latter is better dressed and neater but does the same things. The Islamic State; Saudi Arabia.”
“In its struggle against terrorism, the West wages war on one, but shakes hands with the other,” Daoud continued. “This is a mechanism of denial, and denial has a price: preserving the famous strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia at the risk of forgetting that the kingdom also relies on an alliance with a religious clergy that produces, legitimizes, spreads, preaches and defends Wahhabism, the ultra-puritanical form of Islam that Daesh feeds on.”
Since the November Paris attacks, in which 130 people were massacred in a series of bombings and shootings for which ISIS claimed responsibility, the West has constantly spoken of the importance of fighting extremism. At the same time, however, the U.S., U.K., France, and other Western nations have continued supporting the Saudi regime that fuels such extremism.
Saudi political dissidents like Turki al-Hamad have constantly argued this point. In a TV interview, al-Hamad insisted the religious extremism propagated by the Saudi monarchy “serves as fuel for ISIS.” “You can see [in ISIS videos] the volunteers in Syria ripping up their Saudi passports,” al-Hamad said.
“In order to stop ISIS, you must first dry up this ideology at the source. Otherwise you are cutting the grass, but leaving the roots. You have to take out the roots,” he added.
In the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks, scholar Yousaf Butt stressed that “the fountainhead of Islamic extremism that promotes and legitimizes such violence lies with the fanatical ‘Wahhabi’ strain of Islam centered in Saudi Arabia.”
“If the world wants to tamp down and eliminate such violent extremism, it must confront this primary host and facilitator,” Butt warned.
In the past few decades, the Saudi regime has spent an estimated $100 billionexporting its extremist interpretation of Islam worldwide. It infuses its fundamentalist ideology in the ostensible charity work it performs, often targeting poor Muslim communities in countries like Pakistan or places like refugee camps, where uneducated, indigent, oppressed people are more susceptible to it.
Whether elements within Saudi Arabia support ISIS is contested. Even if Saudi Arabia does not directly support or fund ISIS, however, Saudi Arabia gives legitimacy to the extremist ideology ISIS preaches.
What is not contested, on the other hand, is that Saudi elites in the business community and even segments of the royal family support extremist groups like al-Qaida. U.S. government cables leaked by WikiLeaks admit “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
“It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority,” wrote former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a leaked 2009 cable.
Supporters of the Saudi monarchy resist comparisons to ISIS. The regime itselfthreatened to sue social media users who compared it to ISIS. Apologists point out that ISIS and Saudi Arabia are enemies. This is indeed true. But this is not necessarily because they are ideologically different (they are similar) but rather because they threaten each other’s power.
There can only be one autocrat in an autocratic system; ISIS’ self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi refuses to kowtow to present Saudi King Salman, and vice-versa. After all, the Saudi absolute monarch partially justifies his rule through claiming that it has been blessed and ordained by God, and if ISIS’ caliph insists the same, they can’t both be right.
Some American politicians have criticized the U.S.-Saudi relationship for these very reasons. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham has been perhaps the most outspoken critic. Graham has called extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda “a product of Saudi ideals, Saudi money and Saudi organizational support.”
Sen. Graham served on the Senate Intelligence Committee for a decade, and chaired the committee during and after the 9/11 attacks. He condemned the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq, which he deemed a “distraction” from the U.S.’s real problems, and has warned that Saudi Arabia may have played a role in the 9/11 attacks that left almost 3,000 Americans dead.
This is not in any way to suggest that there was a conspiracy, and that the U.S. government was involved in the attacks; such a notion is preposterous, and can be refuted with even rudimentary knowledge about the Middle East and a basic understanding of history. There was no “inside job”; the conspiracy theory is absurd. Rather, critics like Sen. Graham have suggested that the U.S. government sees its close relationship to Saudi Arabia as so critical that it may have downplayed potential Saudi involvement in the attacks.
Of the 19 Sept. 11 attackers, 15 were citizens of Saudi Arabia. Zacarias Moussaoui, a convicted 9/11 plotter, confessed in sworn testimony to U.S. authorities that members of the Saudi royal family funded al-Qaeda before the attacks. The Saudi government strongly denies this.
The 2002 joint House-Senate report on the Sept. 11 attacks has 28 pages on al-Qaeda’s “specific sources of foreign support,” but this section is classified, leading Graham and others to suggest it may contain information about potential Saudi involvement. The 9/11 Commission insisted in its 2004 report, however, that it “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al-Qaeda.
Sen. Graham has nevertheless insisted that the possibility that elements of the Saudi royal family supported the 9/11 attackers should not be ruled out. In his 2004 book “Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia, and the Failure of America’s War on Terror,” Graham further argued these points, from his background within the U.S. government.
The independent, non-partisan Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania has detailed the allegations and possible evidence — or lack thereof — of Saudi ties to the 9/11 attacks on its website FactCheck.org.
Whatever its role, what is clear is that Saudi Arabia’s support for violent extremist groups is well documented. Such support continues to this very day. In Syria, the Saudi monarchy has backed al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. The U.S. government has bombed al-Nusra, but its ally Saudi Arabia is funding it.
Yet despite its brutality and support for extremism, the U.S. considers the Saudi monarchy a “close ally.” The State Department calls Saudi Arabia “a strong partner in regional security and counterterrorism efforts, providing military, diplomatic, and financial cooperation.” It stated in September 2015 it “welcomed” the appointment of Saudi Arabia to the head of a U.N. human rights panel. “We’re close allies,” the State Department remarked.