Wahhabism, ISIS, and the Saudi Connection
January 31, 2016
The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has become somewhat of a revelation to the international community over the last several months. Commencing with the desertion from Al-Qaeda, to the self-proclamation of Caliph by its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and finally the surge in Iraq and Syria, each move has occurred without a countervailing effort. In order to conceptualize the mentality of ISIS and its motivation, look no further than inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to examine how its puritanical Wahhabi doctrine has enabled the ideology of ISIS and terrorist groups alike, and will continue to do so for potential Islamic extremist groups in the future.
It’s all too obvious that the theology of ISIS is reciprocal to the Wahhabi religious doctrine that has governed Saudi Arabia from its inception to this very day.
A Brief History of the Deal at the Heart of Saudi Society
Wahhabism refers to the Islamic doctrine founded by Muhammad Ibn’ Abdul-Wahhab. Born in 1703, Abdul-Wahab grew up in Nejd (present-day Saudi Arabia) and was a religious zealot who believed the two most important aspects of religion were, “the Quran and the sword.” As a young teen, he was introduced to the works of Ibn Taymiyyah, an atavistic theologian whose works still resonate in present-day Sunni militant theology. Ibn Taymiyyah’s belief that, “misguided Muslims who do not abide by his interpretation of Shari’ah law should be fought as if they were infidels,” is a foundational principle of Al-Qaeda and ISIS alike. Abdul-Wahhab continued his devotion to the teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah throughout his early adult life and began to travel across Nejd projecting his views on Shi’ite communities. Due to his excessive, puritanical beliefs he was forcibly expelled from the city of Basrah by Shi’ite clerics after they revolted against his teachings and attacked him. His rejection eventually led him back to the place of his birth, Al-‘Uyaynah, where his radicalism started to gain excessive adulation. On one prominent occasion, he arranged for the public execution of a woman who confessed to her adultery, had her tied down, then stoned her to death. As this story disseminated throughout the region a local tribal ruler issued a decree that Abdul-Wahhab had to either be stopped or killed. With his life in jeopardy, Abdul-Wahhab traveled to a small market town called Dir’iyyah, which at the time was under the control of one Muhammad Bin Sa’ud. Little did they realize that the events that followed would set a precedent for the future of the region.
Bin Sa’ud, under the religious conviction that this man was “driven to him by Allah,” struck a deal with Abdul-Wahab in 1744 that remains solidified to this day between the House of Saud and the House of Ash-Shaykh (the descendants of Abdul-Wahab). Abdul-Wahhab and Bin Sa’ud’s army went about waging wars against Muslim and non-Muslim tribes alike across Arabia, spreading Wahhabism as the predominant religion. This bond between Abdul-Wahab and Bin Sa’ud legitimized the use of religion as the instrument for consolidating power and establishing Bin Sa’ud as the ruling family. The alliance forced obedience from the conquered tribes to the House of Saud and their policies, of which Abdul-Wahab strongly encouraged. At that point, Wahhabism became compliantly submissive to the new royal family and continues to be so to this day, evidenced by the 2003 statement from the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Abdul-Aziz Bin Abdullah Al Ash Shaykh that, “ the rulers should always be obeyed, even if unjust.”
Every Saudi ruler since Bin Sa’ud has followed his predecessor’s domestic policy by ensuring that the religious establishment remains in significant control of public affairs. Present-day Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia is very much like that of the first Saudi state. The religious police, Mutawwa’ah, still roam the streets with sticks enforcing Wahhabism’s strict standards regarding the separating of sexes, women’s dress code, use of alcohol or drugs, and religious observances. Shi’ites are highly discriminated against, any type of political dissent is immediately suppressed on the basis of religious violations, and public beheadings are still routinely used as a type of capital punishment for “sorcery, drug trafficking, and rape.”
The relationship between the ulama (political elite) and muftis (religious authorities) has been honored and respected as the royal family has allowed the appointment of a member of the House of Shaykh to be the Grand Mufti since 1744. The only exception to this was ‘Abdul-‘Aziz Bin ‘Abdullah Bin Baz, better known as Bin Baz.
In 1993, Bin Baz became the first non-member of the House of Shaykh to hold the position, and has since played an instrumental role in the political legitimization for the House of Saud with his obscurantist views of Islam that resembled the early teachings of Abdul-Wahab. It is argued that he is responsible for the religious propagation and extremely radical interpretation of Islam through this viewpoint of Wahhabism. His rulings and fatwas range from: disputing the landing on the moon — the banning of pictures, statues and relics — the banning of prayer behind a man wearing a suit and tie — rejection of the rotation of the earth — the banning of singing and music — banning women from driving — and declaring Muslims who do not believe the stories of the Prophet as infidels. Bin Baz enforced strict dress codes for women, as well as men, forbade people who practiced martial arts from bowing to each other, and continued anti-Shi’ite, anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic propaganda through public statements.
His hostility towards other religions was apparent through his sermons and fatwas: “It is incumbent upon Muslims to take as enemies the infidel Jews and Christians and other polytheists, and to avoid their amiability,” and “(Shi’ites) are the most polytheist, and none of the people of passion are more lying than them, and more remote from monotheism, and their danger on Islam is very great indeed.” This was the same rhetoric and propaganda used during the inception of Al-Qaeda by Bin Laden, and Bin Baz was no different regarding militant legitimization for religious superiority.
Shortly after 9/11 this history became quite relevant to US intelligence analysts. Saudi Arabian credibility was immensely damaged internationally, and officials found themselves backtracking on the theology of their state religion. With eleven of the hijackers having been Saudi citizens, the Saudi regime was put on the defensive. This resulted in a political effort to marginalize the extremism of Al-Qaeda by relieving what they viewed as, “extremist,” Imams from their duties, reforming some of the educational indoctrination, and advocating for the condemnation of terrorist activity worldwide. This was done by the House of Saud to appease their Western allies and keep the lucrative oil relationship intact, but by no means did any radical transformation of the House of Shaykh take place in this process.
Saudi Arabia Back in the Spotlight
The Saudi religion was slowly forgotten by the international community as a correlative issue with Al-Qaeda due to the political focus toward ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it has since subtly entered back into the international spotlight since the Syrian civil war outbreak in 2011. With the uprising against Bashar Al-Assad, many Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia in particular, have used the conflict as a proxy war for Sunni vs Shia supremacy by funneling millions of dollars to Wahhabi militant factions to assist in the overthrow. In 2012, Saudi Arabia’s own intelligence chief Bandar Bin Sultan was formally sent to Syria to round up and organize Sunni militants for the opposition movement. Initially, financial support and arms were transferred to Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), before it formally partitioned itself as ISIS.
The plan for the Saudi-backed AQI to enter Syria became botched when Hezbollah and Iran began funneling cash, arms, and personnel into Syria to combat the overthrow, creating a rift between AQI, Al-Qaeda leadership, and Saudi leadership on a plan of action. The leader of AQI, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, after months of ideological conflict with Al-Qaeda leadership decided to defect, thus creating the present-day Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. What is important in this transformation is the amount of Wahhabi influence on the ideology of Al-Baghdadi and subsequently ISIS. The biographies of Al-Baghdadi and others in ISIS leadership positions show how they’ve absorbed the Wahhabi doctrine and mastered its details. Documents reveal the groups explicitly stated goals of, “establishing the religion and dissemination monotheism, which is the purpose and calling of Islam,” — this is the same rhetoric in Abdul-Wahab’s interpretations of Islam. Their main goal is nothing more than to create a Wahhabi state that is inherently identical to the theology of Abdul-Wahhab, and Al-Baghdadi has resorted to the teachings of Abdul-Wahhab for his arguments to support the means of creating that state.
His stated principles are practically replicas of Wahhabi sources such as “the need to demolish and remove all manifestation of polytheism and prohibits its ways,” and “the need to resort to the law of God through seeking adjudication in the Islamic courts of the Islamic State.” Al-Baghdadi’s process of establishing an Islamic State is conducted in the same manner that Abdul-Wahhab and Ibn Saud used in the 18th century by conquering territory and ruthlessly forcing the conquered to conform or die. ISIS’s brutal tactics of beheading and flogging, the banning of smoking and music, and dress codes enforced on women, along with the continual circulation of Wahhabi books and documents among the schools it controls is extremely reflective of the Wahhabi ideology — these same books and documents being circulated can currently be found in Saudi Arabia.
This all has created a deleterious consequence for the House of Saud. As ISIS has garnered further international publicity and continues to become a security concern for the West and Middle East, it has also created a situation where Saudi Arabia’s image is becoming severely damaged. As more and more investigations delve into the ideology of ISIS and the stark similarities and principles of ISIS and Saudi Arabia are discovered, one may ask why the royal family in Saudi Arabia does not distance itself from the religious establishment as a whole? Herein lies the paradox behind the Saudi state: without the House of Shaykh using the Wahhabi ideology to legitimatize the religious duty of the House of Saud to rule, the royal family will no longer have a substantial claim for political power over the kingdom. Therefore, the House of Saud is constantly oscillating between condemning ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and any other Sunni militant groups that live by the creed of Wahhabism (that is essentially one-in-the-same with the religious authority in Saudi Arabia), appealing to the global community that Saudi Arabia is not a state that supports ISIS’s ideology, and not upsetting the religious Ash-Shaykh establishment in Saudi Arabia. The damage-control mode taken by Saudi Arabia in recent months is evident by their foreign policy actions, with Saudi Arabia now part of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS.
Yet public opinion of ISIS in the kingdom remains very empathetic. In June 2014, a poll taken in Saudi Arabia showed that 92% believed, “ISIS conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic Law,” and families of sons who have died fighting with ISIS have expressed “joy,” regarding the martyrdom of their child. Saudi intelligence has taken notice of this level of public sympathy (due in part to pressure from the U.S.) especially of the blatant Twitter campaigns showing support for the Islamic State and pledging allegiance to Al-Baghdadi. However, as the House of Saud wages its condemnation against ISIS, it is clear that the Wahhabi ideology is firmly cemented in the religious culture of Saudi Arabia casting significant doubt on a change in public opinion.
The danger that ISIS poses for the international community is that it preaches and institutes the same religious teachings of Abdul-Wahhab, carrying aspirations of creating an Islamic state that has been tried for nearly two centuries since the creation of the first Saudi state. Only this time, the group has resources that were never accessible to its predecessors. Firstly, ISIS is effectively using social media campaigns to recruit new members from all over the globe. Secondly, the size of the group (estimates are around 30,000) is large enough to conclude that a small-scale counterinsurgency campaign would not be enough to suppress its progress across the region due to their massive territorial control over northern Syria and parts of Iraq. Thirdly, ISIS controls oil fields that are estimated to be making them $3 million per day on the black market, and the toppling of the Iraqi bank in Mosul gave them an inheritance of nearly $400 million in cash. The continued kidnapping of foreigners and reporters will serve as possible additional funding from European and Asian governments due to their willingness to negotiate with terrorist organizations. ISIS’s financial resources, recruiting tactics, and military strength are all imperative issues facing the international community moving forward.
It is blatant that the state religion in Saudi Arabia has both directly and indirectly led to the formation of ISIS. The Wahhabi ideology taught, enforced, and supported in Saudi Arabia is essentially a mirror image of the religious establishment ISIS is implementing in its attempt to form an Islamic state, with both the House of Shaykh and Al-Baghdadi adhering to the same teachings and theology of Wahhabism. While the conduct of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia is not at the same level of brutality that ISIS displays by leaving beheaded bodies mounted in the streets, enslaving women and girls of different religions, or massacring towns and villages at point-blank range, the fundamental ideas behind the importance of living by the Koran and ruling by the sword still pertain to both sides — this is evidenced by public opinion polls and support for the groups across internet platforms.
As long as the Wahhabi ideology prevails as the religious authority in Saudi Arabia, the potential will always remain for additional Sunni groups to emerge with the same pious philosophies and inclinations as ISIS. The House of Shaykh and House of Saud have deep, intertwined family ties with each other, as members of both houses have married one another over the last two centuries. The House of Saud will most likely never allow the House of Shaykh to lose its religious authority in the Kingdom because of the need for the House of Shaykh to legitimize the power the royal family possesses. If the Saudi Arabian establishment is continually supported and backed by the West, their existence will be incompatible with countering Islamic radicalism. Moving forward, expect to see any rise of religious fanaticism inside the Kingdom suppressed while extremist groups outside of the Kingdom’s grasp, particularly in neighboring countries, continue to emulate the Wahhabi doctrine that Saudi Arabia has lived under since its founding.