Containing the scourge of Islamist terror will be impossible without containing the ideology that drives it: Wahhabism, a messianic, jihad-extolling form of Sunni fundamentalism whose international expansion has been bankrolled by oil-rich sheikhdoms, especially Saudi Arabia. That is why the newly announced Saudi-led anti-terror coalition, the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, should be viewed with profound skepticism.
Wahhabism promotes, among other things, the subjugation of women and the death of “infidels.” It is – to quote US President Barack Obama’s description of what motivated a married couple of Pakistani origin to carry out the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California – a “perverted interpretation of Islam,” and the ideological mother of jihadist terrorism. Its offspring include Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and the Islamic State, all of which blend hostility toward non-Sunnis and anti-modern romanticism into nihilistic rage.
Saudi Arabia has been bankrolling Islamist terrorism since the oil-price boom of the 1970s dramatically boosted the country’s wealth. According to a 2013 European Parliament report, some of the $10 billion invested by Saudi Arabia for “its Wahhabi agenda” in South and Southeast Asia was “diverted” to terrorist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
Western leaders have recognized the Saudi role for many years. In a 2009 diplomatic cable, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton identified Saudi Arabia as “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Thanks largely to the West’s interest in Saudi oil, however, the Kingdom has faced no international sanctions.
Now, with the growth of terrorist movements like the Islamic State, priorities are changing. As German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said in a recent interview, “We must make it clear to the Saudis that the time of looking the other way is over.”
This shift has spurred the Kingdom to announce a “crackdown” on individuals and groups that fund terror. But, according to a recent US State Department report, some Saudi-based charities and individual donors continue to fund Sunni militants.
From this perspective, Saudi Arabia’s surprise announcement of a 34-country anti-terror alliance, with a joint operations center based in Riyadh, is a logical step, aimed at blunting growing Western criticism, while boosting Sunni influence in the Middle East. But, of course, the alliance is a sham – as a closer look at its membership makes clear.
Tellingly, the alliance includes all of the world’s main sponsors of extremist and terrorist groups, from Qatar to Pakistan. It is as if a drug cartel claimed to be spearheading a counternarcotics campaign. Listed as members of the alliance are also all of the jihadist citadels other than Afghanistan, including war-torn Libya and Yemen, both of which are not currently governed by a single authority.
Moreover, despite being touted as an “Islamic” alliance, with members coming from “all over the Islamic world,” the group includes predominantly Christian Uganda and Gabon, but not Oman (a fellow Gulf sheikdom), Algeria (Africa’s largest country), and Indonesia (the world’s most populous Muslim country).
The failure to include Indonesia, which has almost twice as many Muslims as the entire Middle East, is striking not only because of its size: Whereas most countries in the alliance are ruled by despots or autocrats, Indonesia is a robust democracy. Autocratic rule in Islamic countries tends to strengthen jihadist forces. But when democracy takes root, as in tolerant and secular Indonesia, the clash between moderates and extremists can be better managed.
Saudi Arabia’s dysfunctional approach is reflected in the fact that some alliance members – including Pakistan, Malaysia, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority – immediately declared that they had never actually joined. The Kingdom seemed to think that it could make that decision on behalf of the major recipients of its aid.
Add to that the unsurprising exclusion of Shia-governed Iran and Iraq, along with Alawite-ruled Syria, and it is clear that Saudi Arabia has merely crafted another predominantly Sunni grouping to advance its sectarian and strategic objectives. This aligns with the more hardline policy approach that has taken root since King Salman ascended the throne in January 2015.
At home, Salman’s reign so far has meant a marked increase in the number of sentences of death by decapitation, often carried out in public – a method emulated by the Islamic State. Abroad, it has meant a clear preference for violent solutions in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
A smaller Saudi-led Arab coalition has been bombing Yemen since March, with the goal of pushing back the Shia Houthi rebels who captured Sana’a, the capital, after driving the Saudi-backed government from power. Saudi warplanes have bombed homes, markets, hospitals, and refugee camps in Yemen, leading critics to accuse the Kingdom of deliberately terrorizing civilians to turn public opinion against the Houthis.
Saudi Arabia’s solutions have often controverted the objectives of its American allies. For example, the Kingdom and its Arab partners have quietly slipped out of the US-led air war in Syria, leaving the campaign largely in American hands.
But beyond Saudi Arabia’s strategic manipulations lies the fundamental problem with which we started: the Kingdom’s official ideology forms the heart of the terrorist creed. A devoted foe of Islamist terrorism does not promote violent jihadism. Nor does it arrest and charge with “terrorism” domestic critics of its medieval interpretation of Islam. Saudi Arabia does both.
This speaks to the main shortcoming of today’s militarized approach to fighting terrorism. Unless the expansion of dangerous ideologies like Wahhabism is stopped, the global war on terror, now almost a generation old, will never be won. No matter how many bombs the US and its allies drop, the Saudi-financed madrassas will continue to indoctrinate tomorrow’s jihadists.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.