The recent spate of terrorist attacks in the Europe, the Middle East, and Asia has called attention to two rather sobering facts about the “Islamic State” (Daesh) and the international fight against this group, as well as most other terrorist organizations. First, these incidents have made it abundantly clear that Daesh is not an Islamic organization at all, but rather transcends classification based on religious motive or ideology. Second, as Daesh becomes further and further unhinged as a legitimate state – in other words, as it loses more territory – the group will rely more heavily on rogue acts of stateless terror. Taken together, these two new realities make the case for increased cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States, as well the entire internal international community, even greater.
While winning a ground war against Daesh may weaken the organization, such a territorial victory is not going to curtail the spread of its ideology and influence; only a unified effort on all levels will eradicate their reach. Cooperation, however, can be achieved only through understanding, which currently appears to be lacking on both sides. Many in the West are convinced that “Saudi Wahhabism” is fueling Daesh and Saudi Arabia, as a result, perceives itself to be in a no win situation in which it has been found guilty by association with the very group that wants to destroy the country’s existence. Because of this misunderstanding, the opportunity to challenge Daesh during this period of vulnerability will either be seized half-heartedly or missed all together. In the meantime, Daesh’s stateless terrorism will continue, both in the Middle East and elsewhere, with no realistic endgame in sight. This cannot and should not be the new reality.
The legitimacy of Daesh’s claim that it is an Islamic group has been questioned since it emerged as a potential successor to Al Qaeda six years ago, and particularly after it proclaimed itself a worldwide caliphate in 2014. For the vast majority of Muslims, both in the Middle East/Saudi Arabia and around the world, the ideology that Daesh preaches is simply foreign, based on archaic interpretations of the Q’aran and Islamic thought that are either baseless or have no place in contemporary society. Indeed, just as a “mainstream” Christian of any denomination would reject the ideology of extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Lord’s Resistance Army, most Muslims view Daesh with disdain and bewilderment; quite simply, the message it preaches is foreign language to any true Muslim. Even before the most recent spate of terrorism in the Kingdom, Daesh’s repeated attacks on mosques during Friday prayer positioned the group as an enemy, rather than a champion, of Islam. For any Muslim who had doubts regarding the illegitimacy of Daesh’s claim that it represents Islam (in any form), the recent terrorist attacks in France, Turkey, Bangladesh, Baghdad, and Saudi Arabia served to dispel any misgivings. Indeed, the fact that a Daesh terrorist would have the sheer audacity to attempt an attack on the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, which was clearly intended to be an attack on fellow Muslims, proved with certainty that the organization’s claim to represent any type of Islam is without merit. Even those who adamantly reject Western values or who blame the West for deterioration of conditions throughout the Middle East, Daesh crossed the line in its desperate attempt to garner attention by attempting an attack in the second most holy site in the Islamic faith during the final night of Ramadan. This incident, coupled with other attacks that killed eight people (all Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’a), across the Kingdom during the end of the holy month was an affront to all Saudis in all spectrums of society. In Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, the overriding consensus now firmly holds that members of Daesh are not Muslims, and that their cause is unequivocally rebuked. Just as most Americans feel threatened by Daesh’s apocalyptic vision and barbarism, Saudis of all walks of life view Daesh as a threat to their security and, moreover, an invading force.
Yet, despite Islam’s rejection of Daesh – every leading religious figure in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere has strongly condemned Daesh’s actions as being un-Islamic – the West, and particularly the Western media, continues to interpret the organization through the lens of “Wahhabi Islam,” which is characterized as being the source of all Islamic extremism and is said to be backed by the Saudi government and religious establishment. Daesh’s ideology, we are told, is basically a manifestation of Wahhabism in its purest form and, as such, does not differ much from the Islam that is practiced in the Kingdom. In other words, Daesh is a Saudi creation and a Saudi export, with the Kingdom’s rulers and religious leaders complicit in its rise and appeal. This argument has become so commonplace that it is now accepted as a given in the West that Saudi Arabia’s connection to the jihadists is clear, despite the fact that these terrorists have targeted the very establishment that supposedly supports them, and that Saudi Arabia founded and leads the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) – a multi-national coalition of Islamic countries with the specific mission of defeating Daesh and fighting terrorism waged in the name of Islam. Further, this view completely disregards the competing narrative – held by many leading political and military analysts – that recognizes the role played by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as well as its refusal to intervene in any meaningful way during the first months of the conflict in Syria, resulting in the rise of Daesh. Instead of acknowledging these inconvenient truths, critics of the Saudi government and religious establishment focus solely on the perceived connection between Daesh’s twisted ideology and Islam as it is practiced in Saudi Arabia. While the Kingdom and its rulers are no strangers to criticism, such illogical conclusions and accusations cannot help but interfere with efforts to combat Daesh as a unified front, which is what is most needed today. With Saudis feeling wrongly accused and misunderstood, and the West either unable or unwilling to disconnect Daesh’s nihilistic ideology and practices from what it labels “Saudi Wahhabism,” the impetus for cooperation is weak.
In light of this discouraging state of affairs, it is difficult to predict whether any real progress against Daesh will be made in the near future. If progress is defined as territorial victories over Daesh, then it is likely that the next several months will be marked by further success; continued military and economic pressure on the organization by the U.S.-led coalition and Russia will undoubtedly lead to the loss of even more of the land that they swept through following the collapse of Syria and Iraq. Regaining the territory from Daesh will be a difficult and expensive task, but it will get done. And yet, even if the ground campaign against Daesh achieves its greatest prize – the city of Raqqua, capital of the proclaimed caliphate – and in the process manages to kill or capture most of the organization’s leaders, a very real possibility exists that this would be a Pyrrhic victory, leaving Daesh landless but no less powerful.
While conventional warfare will stop, Daesh has already proven that it does not need conquest in the battlefield in order to claim victory, and it is all but certain that large and small acts of terrorism will continue across the globe, against all nationalities, religions, and races, regardless of whether Daesh controls any land. Accordingly, the international community needs to stop pointing fingers and looking for scapegoats to blame for the rise and appeal of Daesh, and instead start focusing on pooling resources to fight the jihadists both militarily and ideologically by investing in the communities and lives of those who are vulnerable to the draw of extremism. Now is not the time to point fingers or to demand radical change in Saudi Arabia. Now is not the time to look for the root causes of senseless terror. That is the job of historians. The task at hand is to make Daesh history.