Shifting Sands: Why the United States Needs to Change its Policy Toward Saudi Arabia
By Rami Alkhafaji and Dr. Mahmut Cengiz
Background on the Rise of Wahabism
Amongst the sand dunes in central Arabia, a child was born who changed the course of history in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic world. Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab was born in 1703 in ‘Uyayna, Arabia, in the Nejd region of the central part of Arabia.
Contrary to the western part of Arabia, which enjoyed an influx of cultures, ideas, and practices due to the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, and the eastern part of the country, al-Hasa, along the Persian Gulf coast which was also a bustling region exchanging ideas and cultures along with goods by trading with Persia, India, and beyond, the Nejd region was sparsely inhabited and experienced less exposure to other cultures and clung to the harsh realities of the desert.
Abdul Wahab had a crisis of faith and traveled outside of Nejd to cities in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, but instead of softening his austere interpretation of the religion, he founded a dangerous cult that plagued the region to this day, a cult that sanctioned violence against the other, the other defined by Wahabism as any individual or group that disagreed with any of Abdul Wahab’s extreme views.
Abdul Wahab outlined his ideology in a book entitled Book of Tawhid. In his book, Abdul Wahab wrote that anything that goes against his creed should be destroyed, no matter what the object, whether it be a “king or prophet, or saint or tree or tomb.” (Gold, 17-19). Abdul Wahab’s views were so extreme that his father and brother both denounced his book. Abdul Wahab’s brother, Sulaiman, wrote a treatise refuting his brother’s work entitled The Unmistakable Judgment in the Refutation of Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab (Shafiq and Donlin-Smith, 2021, pg. 212).
Abdul Wahab took to the extreme the views of ibn Tayymiyah and called for the elimination of large swaths of the population, whether they be Shia, Christian, or even Sunnis who disagreed with his ideology. Thus, from the beginning of its existence, Wahabism was built to rid the world of others whom they perceived as different.
For any social, political, or religious movement to be effective, three elements must be present: men, money, and ideology. Abdul Wahab found his support in Muhammad ibn Saud, the ruler of a nearby town. In 1744, the two formed an alliance of convenience (Commins, 18). Ibn Saud and Abdul Wahab formed a symbiotic relationship, where Abdul Wahab furnished the ideology, and ibn Saud provided the military and financial backing to spread their religious extremism and expand their political power in an unholy alliance of politics, money, and pseudo-religion. The seed had been planted.
The alliance between the al-Sheikh (descendants of ibn Abdul Wahab) and al-Saud families continues to this day, lasting for more than 250 years. The two families have become interconnected and continue to control the political and religious institutions in modern-day Saudi Arabia. The families have intermarried multiple times and in today's Saudi Arabia, the minister of religion must always be a direct descendant of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab (Ibrahim, 2002). Thus, one cannot distinguish the Wahabi creed from the Saudi state.
The Wahabi establishment has been diligent and systematic in destroying any physical evidence of history in Arabia and beyond. Over 98% of the Kingdom’s historical and religious sites have been destroyed in addition to attacking the Shia holy sites of Najaf and Karbala, a practice that continues today by the modern-day descendants of Wahabism, namely ISIS and al-Qaida, and is clearly illustrated by the destruction of the holy mosque in Samarra by ISIS (Power, 2014). Additionally, Wahabis had destroyed the Bamyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan and the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. Even the tomb of the Prophet of Muhammad is not immune from the Wahabi attempts to erase Islamic history. The Wahabi establishment repeatedly declared their intention of leveling the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb in Medina, digging up his remains, and reburying them in a secret, unmarked grave. Their justification is declaring that people will venerate the tomb, not God.
The attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France provides the hypocritical nature of the Wahabi ideology. The attacks were carried out by Wahabi terrorists that were outraged by a picture in Charlie Hebdo’s magazine showing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad; 12 people were killed. This points out a remarkable hypocrisy in the Wahabi ideology: a cartoon of the prophet is a provocation that deserves death, but the destruction of his tomb is a religious duty (O’Toole 2015).
The United States may have had good intentions regarding its foreign policy in the Middle East by stopping the spread of Communism after World War 2. The colonial powers of the United Kingdom and France, and later the United States, supported monarchies that ruled over former colonies once they withdrew from the Middle East region. By instilling pro-American monarchies throughout the Middle East, the United States sought to contain the spread of Communism across the Arab world in addition to securing oil to fuel its economic growth. Thus, the United States provided the Saudi monarchy with political and military cover to ensure that the United States had adequate access to oil. In addition to the United States seeking to contain the spread of Communism, the Saudi monarchy engaged in a platform to contain democracy and secularism. The Saudi kingdom felt threatened by the secularist nationalism epitomized by Nasser’s Egypt, and by liberal, socialist, and Marxist currents within Arab and Islamic societies, particularly among Shias (Sells, 2016). Although the United States may have had good intentions in supporting the Saudi monarchy, an unintended consequence was that the Wahabi cult was strengthened. By American administrations ensuring that the Saudi monarchy had adequate weapons to prevent a Communist threat to oil reserves, it allowed the Wahabis access to American weapons and money. Thus, the unintended consequence of supporting the Saudi monarchy to ensure adequate oil supplies resulted in the United States becoming complicit in supporting Wahabi terrorism. As a result, the American policy in the Middle East region may have emboldened a monster ideology that it may not be able to reel in.
The United States’ war on terror has failed because it neglects to address the source of extremism. On the one hand, the United States is fighting terrorists, but it is not addressing the main root of terrorism, the exportation of Wahabi ideology from Saudi Arabia. The policy decision of supporting a state that has entities that support Wahabi terrorist organizations has directly led to the killing of Americans and hampering American interests abroad. Thus, the policy problem the United States faces is the alarming rise of Wahabi terrorist organizations that are bankrolled by wealthy Saudis that pose a threat to American interests and civilians at home and abroad.
Domestic issues aside, to understand the Middle East, the United States must examine the roots of inner workings in Middle Eastern and Islamic societies to understand how they relate to modern-day politics and conflicts within the region. American media generally portrays extremists in one way, the Wahabi way.
Sunni schools of thought highlight the principle of the rule of Islamic Law over societies, known as Sharia. By using the ibn Taymiyyah school of thought as a guise, the Wahabi doctrine is the guiding principle of radicalization in Sunni populations. They claim that if societies are not governed by Sharia as understood by the ibn Taymiyyah school of thought, then they are not considered Muslims. Donors that follow the Wahabi interpretation of Sharia Law have infiltrated Sunni mosques all over the world through a network of books, imams, schools, and cultural centers to radicalize their followers (Alvi, 2014).
In Sunni society, there is no one authority that decides and gives opinions on the implementation of the Sharia. There are hundreds if not thousands of versions of Sunni Islam, leading to infighting among the groups. This leads to no unity within the institution. As Saudi Arabia claims to be the leader of the Islamic World, Saudi-funded Wahabism attempts to organize and centralize the extremist Sunni factions into pursuing extremist-oriented goals.
Minorities in the Arab world have sought protection within their own sectarian identities as a means of protection from Wahabi extremist groups. Their own sectarian identity is reinforced by the threat of Wahabi radicals. This has led Shia Muslims, feeling threatened by Wahabis, to seek Iranian support to establish equality with the Sunnis if not supremacy.
Shia fears of Wahabi extremist groups are not unfounded. Wahabi ulama sanctioned violence against Shias. Several fatwas by Saudi Arabia’s leading cleric, Abdul-Aziz ibn Baz, denounced Shias as apostates, and one by Abdul-Rahman al-Jibrin, a member of the Higher Council of Ulama, even sanctioned the killing of Shias—a call that was reiterated in Wahabi literature as late as 2002 (Jones, 2005, pg. 24).
The language and acts exhibited by Wahabis toward Shia populations throughout the Middle East play to the advantage of Iran. Shias have organized in opposition to the rise of Wahabi extremist groups and seek support from Iran. Iranian groups have asserted newfound power across the Middle East in countries such as Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Thus, the spreading of Wahabism undermines American interests abroad by directly threatening American individuals through attacks, and American interests by allowing an avenue for Iran to bolster their presence in the Middle East as an opposition figure to the Wahabi creed.
Wahabi institutions recruit individuals throughout the world to indoctrinate them and spread Wahabism into their respective communities. Beyond direct threats of death and persecution, the pervasiveness of the Wahabi ideology serves to marginalize or silence anyone who disagrees with it. That ideology operates in several ways in Saudi mosques and programs. Many technical workers, such as engineers and medical professionals, come to the oil-rich nations of the Gulf, often staying for years or decades, and return to their home countries with new economic status and destructive ideologies (Sells, 2016). In addition, Saudi Arabia offers scholarships to young Muslim men around the world who lack education opportunities in their countries and lure them into studying Wahabism in Saudi mosques. The students are provided with generous stipends that allow them to live well and stay for years, before returning home to serve as teachers or imams and spread the Wahabi ideology (Sells, 2016). In addition to financing students to learn and spread the Wahabi ideology, the Saudi state and wealthy individuals in the Gulf maintain or finance sophisticated publications and media networks dedicated to the spread of Wahabi doctrines and ideology (Sells, 2016). Lastly, Saudi commercial and financial networks play a powerful role worldwide and especially within the Middle East for those who need financing for small or large frontline businesses (Sells, 2016). Those businesses find that their chances of financing increase if they adopt and profess to certain ideologies. Thus, Saudi society operates in many ways to promote and strengthen an ideology that is steadfast in its belief to silence and ostracize anyone who disagrees with it.
In addition to bringing individuals into Saudi Arabia to return home and spread Wahabism, Wahabis in Saudi Arabia project influence abroad through the funding of mosques, schools, textbooks, imams, imam learning centers and exchanges, cultural institutions around the world, and money exchanges in the form of pseudo-businesses, banking, and informal transport of cash through the hawala system (Alvi, 2014). This creates a complex and sophisticated system of Wahabi jihadist networks operating worldwide, including in the United States. Additionally, they use this money to establish Wahabi control of Islamic institutions, subsidize extremist madrassas, and control Islamic publishing houses. Saudi entities currently control roughly four-fifths of all Islamic publishing houses (Terrorism, 2003).
Wahabi schools and mosques have been hotbeds for extremist ideologies. In fact, a document published by Wikileaks described Saudi Arabia as the terrorists’ cash machine, from a secret memo written by Hilary Clinton in December of 2009, when she was Secretary of State (Walsh, 2010). It highlights the Gulf countries’ inability to block funding to groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Pakistani LeT. The problem was particularly acute in Saudi Arabia. People would be disguised as pilgrims during the Hajj pilgrimage and receive money from Saudi government-certified charities to set up shell companies to launder funds to their particular terrorist organization (Conesa, 2020). In recent decades, the Saudis have spent up to an estimated $100 billion spreading Wahabism. In fact, the Saudis spend $2.5 billion a year exporting Wahabism around the world (Terrorism, 2003).
According to data published by the RAND Corporation, the number of terrorist organizations with a Wahabi ideology has grown at an alarming rate since 1988. In fact, roughly half of the Wahabi terrorist organizations in the world in 2013 were in Syria, where much of American-made weaponry and funding was funneled from Saudi Arabia (Jones, 2014). Additionally, in 2014, Saudi Arabia provided $500 million to extremist groups in Iraq under the guise of humanitarian assistance (Conesa, 2020). In 2014, Iraq and Syria saw the rise of ISIS and were terrorized by their brutal acts. This drew the United States into the Middle East to fight more wars against Wahabi terrorist organizations. Hence, to effectively refocus the United States’ response to the alarming rise of Wahabi terrorist organizations would be to address the root cause of the problem: the directing of money and weapons to these groups by Saudi Arabia. Once upon a time, Wahabi tribesmen had invaded cities to spread their creed. Now, that work became the task of financial institutions funded by the Saudi state and Wahabi ulama (Nasr, 2007, pg. 155).
Since the mid-1960s, Wahabi organizations have been very active in the United States. To spread Wahabism in the United States, Saudi elements have used their vast amounts of money obtained through oil revenues. Individuals use their money to spread their ideology to mosques all over the world, and they are succeeding. Money is used to build mosques, madrasas, schools, and Sunni cultural centers. All these places need people to run them, and Saudi Arabia provides them. Saudi Arabia sends clerics to these mosques and teachers to the madrasas, schools, and Sunni cultural centers. These institutions and clerics are intended to preach the Wahabi ideology. The issue with Saudi funding of American mosques lies in people that accept the funds are more likely to adhere to Wahabism (Conesa, 2020). Since 1984, some embassies have had religious attaches stemming directly from the Wahabi ideology whose mission is to promote their version of “Islam.” In the 1980s, the Saudi embassy office in Washington had an annual budget of $8 million and 35-40 staff to build mosques, distribute Korans, and provide Wahabi and Salafist training to foreign imams for conducting congregations (Conesa, 2020). There are extensive networks of money and people who travel across the world to attempt to spread this extremist ideology, most successfully in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Shell Charities and Humanitarian Aid
Of course, there is no single mechanism for identifying what is known as “Saudi money” that is given to terrorist networks across the world. The funds come from public and private sources and are channeled through a variety of foundations and charities that distribute the assets, making it very difficult to track. The oil wealth of Saudi Arabia worked to the advantage of Wahabi extremists, who capitalized on the social dislocations and the corruption generated by the oil economy to gain support and distribute their radical views across the world. (The New York Times, 2009).
Wahabis seek to spread their doctrine among struggling youth. Poverty-stricken youth struggle with identity, thus making them especially vulnerable to manipulation. Research has shown that extremist organizations, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, exploit the global identity crisis among Muslim youth to recruit individuals to their organizations (Suleiman, 2017). These groups promote a very particular set of ideas and individual purpose—ideas that originate in the Gulf region and Saudi Arabia in particular. By exploiting and indoctrinating youth, Wahabis have set up fake charities to produce and grow their network of extremism.
The guise of humanitarian aid and charities continues to be a way in which Saudi Arabia supports the exportation of Wahabism. For example, then Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz set up a commission to supposedly help Bosnian orphans from the Bosnian war. $600 million was raised. In October of 2001, NATO forces raided the offices of the Saudi High Commission for Aid to Bosnia in Sarajevo. They found maps of Washington D.C, with bull’s-eyes on government buildings, a computer program explaining how to use a crop duster aircraft (a method of spreading chemical weapons), and photographs of past American targets of terrorist attacks. This was quite indicative that this commission was a planning-bed for terrorist attacks on Americans and American interests (Gold 146).
Additionally, in documents published by the New York Times, lawyers conducted a taped interview in 2008 with a former Bosnian prisoner, Ali Ahmad Ali Hamad, who says he was an operative for al-Qaeda and had met Osama bin Laden numerous times at Afghan training camps. In the interview, Mr. Ali Hamad asserted that the Saudi High Commission for Aid to Bosnia, funded in large part by members of the Saudi royal family, hired him and other known al-Qaeda members and provided money, vehicles, and supplies to them during the Bosnian conflict and afterward (The New York Times, 2009).
The Muslim World League (MWL) was established in Mecca with the status of an NGO. In 1962, when MWL was founded, the Saudi government transferred a quarter of a million dollars. In 1980, this contribution had grown to $13 million, not including private donations. Based in Mecca, its Secretary General must be Saudi. As of 2016, the MWL is present in 120 countries and controls about 50 major places of worship in Europe alone: Madrid, Grenada, Kensington, Mantes-la-Jolie, Copenhagen, Brussels, Geneva, Zurich, Rome, and Sarajevo, among others (Schulze, 1990). According to a 2008 New York Times report, the MWL is a Saudi NGO with a history of ties to terrorism (Macfarquhar, 2008).
Another organization that had been accused of funding terrorist operations is The International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO). The IIRO is a charity based in Saudi Arabia founded in 1978 by the MWL. In August of 2006, the United States Treasury Department accused IIRO’s Philippine and Indonesian branches and its Executive Director, Abdul Hamid Sulaiman Al-Mujil, of having supported Islamic militant groups, provided donor funds directly to al-Qaeda, and collected funds for other entities, including the Abu Sayyaf group (US Congress, Senate, 2003). Lawyers for Sept. 11 families and their insurers have collected several hundred thousand pages of interview transcripts, government reports, financial records, court testimony, and other material in an attempt to link members of the Saudi royal family to the financing of al-Qaeda. An internal, top-secret report from the Treasury Department gave the intelligence details behind the decision to list two branches of the IIRO—Indonesia and the Philippines—and one of its leaders as banned terrorist entities. The report found that the IIRO supported terrorist organizations beginning in the early 1990s “through to at least the first half of 2006” (The New York Times, 2009). Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Saudi suit, who obtained a partly redacted copy of the Treasury Department report, said other affidavits and statements from charity officials show the IIRO is largely run by members of the Saudi royal family (The New York Times, 2009).
MWL and IIRO are part of the Saudi Relief Committee, the Saudi Red Crescent, and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. The Al-Haramain Foundation, based in Saudi Arabia and a partner of MWL, was also a member before being declared persona non-grata by international organizations after the September 11, 2001 attacks (Conesa, 2020 pg. 72). The Al-Haramain Foundation was active in Afghanistan, Albania, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Comoros, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Tanzania, and the United States. Its funding allowed it to provide $40-50 million per year worldwide, and part of that money went to al-Qaeda (Conesa, 2020 pg. 74). On June 2, 2004, the United States Treasury Department referred to Al-Haramain as “one of the leading Islamic NGOs supporting al-Qaeda and promoting Islamist militancy on the planet” (Conesa, 2020 pg. 74). The organization has been blacklisted by the United Nations.
Some members of the United States congress acknowledge that Wahabism is the ideology that fosters violence and the Saudi support of it undermines security in the United States and the Middle East. Senator John Kyl stated in a Congressional hearing regarding 9/11 that, “It is widely recognized that all of the 19 suicide pilots were Wahabi followers. In addition, 15 of the 19 were Saudi subjects. Journalists and experts, as well as spokespeople of the world, have said that Wahabism is the source of the overwhelming majority of terrorist atrocities in today's world, from Morocco to Indonesia, via Israel, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya. In addition, Saudi media sources have identified Wahabi agents from Saudi Arabia as being responsible for terrorist attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq” (Terrorism, 2003). Thus, members of congress are aware that Wahabism fosters terrorism, but mere acknowledgment without action does not solve the problem. More needs to be done to ensure American interests and security.
Estimates place the number of Wahabi-controlled mosques in the United States at 50%, while some estimates reach to 80% of direct Wahabi control (Terrorism, 2003). This is very concerning regarding American security. Elements within Saudi society have a grip on the inner workings of American society by supporting radicalization throughout mosques in the United States. The Wahabi ulama can unleash a frightening wave of terrorism by radicalizing members of the mosques they control.
In fact, members of the Saudi royal family have threatened the United States with all-too-familiar expressions of violence that terrorist organizations use to threaten the United States. After President Joe Biden declared that Saudi Arabia would face consequences for cutting oil output amid the Russian-Ukrainian war, a Saudi prince, Saud al-Shaalan, related to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, took aim at President Biden and the United States. He warned leaders not to threaten Saudi Arabia, stating “Anybody that challenges the existence of this country and this kingdom. All of us, we are products of jihad, and martyrdom…that's my message to anybody that thinks that it can threaten us” (Lee, 2022). This is quite frightening, a member of the Saudi royal family had threatened the United States with statements that mimic those of terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. Thus, using threats of violence that mimic those of ISIS, Saud al-Shaalan insinuated that Wahabis have influence in the United States and can thus influence people to take violent action if the Saudi royal family feels their position is threatened.
If Saudi-funded Wahabi clerics are allowed to continue to preach in communities throughout the world and Saudi Arabia continues to be a hotbed for terrorists laundering funds, then extremism in the United States and around the world will continue to grow. It is important that if the United States wants to stop the spread of international terrorism, it must clamp down on the Saudi-funded construction of mosques and the Saudi-funded preaching in mosques in the United States (Pandith, 2019).
Policy Suggestions and Conclusion
The most important step the United States can take toward eliminating extremism would be to combat Wahabism worldwide by cutting off the Saudi money that funds it. Without funding, Wahabis would not be able to spread their interpretations around the world. The more money the Saudis obtain through oil revenues and massive stock portfolios, the more money Saudi elements invest in spreading Wahabism. Saudi Arabia might be helping to counter the influence and power of Iran in the region, and they are buying billions of dollars of weapons systems from the United States, but they are simultaneously taking actions that feed extremism and help it grow. If the United States allows the Saudi-funded Wahabi ideology to prevail, extremists will continue to find fertile ground for recruitment throughout the world. Even though ISIS is territorially defeated, other extremist groups will emerge in its place that are equally harsh because the same ideology remains (Pandith, 2019). If the United States does not act in preventing the growth and spread of Wahabism, more extremist groups will form, more home-grown terrorism will occur, and American citizens at home and overseas will be threatened by attacks.
Wahabi fanatics undermine American interests by allowing Iran to garner support as an opposition figure to the Wahabi creed. Iran has grown its influence in the region by amassing support for opposition against terrorist groups such as ISIS. Iran has exerted military influence in Syria and Iraq as a direct response to the rise of ISIS (Boghani and Tsui, 2016). This is also a large issue because Iran conducts operations against American interests in the Middle East. Thus, if the United States stands committed to fighting terrorist entities and not allowing Iran to garner support, then the United States must work with regional partners to halt the spread of Wahabism.
Additionally, if the United States should consider a more aggressive strategy to target Wahabi groups, the United States can support democracy-seeking entities within Saudi Arabia that oppose the Wahabi doctrine. If the United States supports reform movements—economically, logistically, or militarily—in Saudi Arabia, through democracy-seeking elements and marginalized elements of Saudi society, this could put pressure on the Saudis if they allow elements in their country to spread terrorism abroad, there would be consequences.
The United States government must heavily monitor funds that Saudis “donate” to mosques in the United States. Sanctioning organizations and individuals who participate in money laundering for these “charities” could prove very effective. In addition to this, the American government must hold Saudi Arabia accountable by reducing military assistance to the Saudi kingdom if they continue spreading this ideology. With the war in Yemen and fear of Iranian encroachment into the region, American military assistance is vital to the safety and security of the Gulf region.
Arms sales to Saudi Arabia can be reconsidered by the American government if they believe Saudi Arabia does not stop promoting policies that inevitably manifest into terrorist attacks against Americans and American interests. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been a cornerstone of typical American policy in the Middle East. Former United States president Donald Trump signed a $350 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia in 2017. (Starr, 2017). A deeply disturbing circumstance that could evolve from the enormous sums of American arms sales, roughly $51 billion a year since Trump’s election, to countries where terrorist-supporting institutions reside is that they could use that weaponry to attack Americans and American interests (Laforgia and Bogdanich, 2020). If the Saudi monarchy believes the United States is threatening their rule, then they would use any means to preserve their rule, even if that means using American-made weaponry against Americans. Republican Senator Mike Lee stated in a New York Times article, “We don’t know how these weapons are really being used or whether they may be turned against U.S. troops in the future” (Laforgia and Bogdanich, 2020).
History has proven that American arms sales to other countries can result in those same weapons being used against interests, such as previous arms sales to Iran that are now being used to combat American interests in the Middle East and arms sales to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war that were eventually used against American troops in the First Gulf War and the Occupation of Iraq. Because Saudi Arabian elements support the extremist view of Wahabism and export this ideology all over the world, if the United States continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, there will be an immense threat of American-made weaponry being funneled to terrorist entities to be used against American interests—which has already occurred in Syria. Hence, if the United States is committed to aiding Saudi Arabia, but does not want to encounter the increasing threat that American-made weaponry will end up in Wahabi terrorists’ hands, then the United States should provide democracy and enlightenment, rather than bullets and fighter jets, to the Saudi population.
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