Saudi Arabia—not Iran—is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world today and Wahhabism remains the source of most radical Islamic extremism. For years Iran has borne the unenviable title of “world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism.” However, out of the 61 groups that are designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department, the overwhelming majority are Wahhabi-inspired and Saudi-funded groups, with a focus on the West and Iran as their primary enemy. Only two are Shi’a—Hezbollah and Kataib Hezbollah, and only four have ever claimed to receive support from Iran. Nearly all of the Sunni militant groups listed receive significant support from either the Saudi government or Saudi citizens.
The Great Compromise
Wahhabism is an ideology of compromise between the ambitions of the zealot and the needs of the ruler. Wahhabism can be thought of as a religio-political subcategory of the Salafi approach to Islam. Salafis get their name from the al-salaf al-salih or “pious companions” of Muhammad whose practices they claim to imitate. What distinguishes Wahhabism from Salafism is that the former is dependent on the House of Saud for its power whereas the latter is a phenomenon that exists globally.
The 18th century partnership of tribal leader Ibn Saud and cleric Abd al-Wahhab wedded two parallel sources of legitimacy in Arabia—religion and tribal kinship. The clerics known as ulema received their authority from God and then conferred it upon the Saud clan themselves. In exchange the ulema are protected from the risks that come with governance. Wahhabis must be distinguished from jihadi Salafis because Wahhabism is inextricably linked to the Saudi state and therefore not revolutionary in nature. The Royal family walks a tightrope between the liberalization necessary for economic development and strong political ties with the West, and the more conservative demands of the Wahhabi movement. One such demand is to turn a blind eye to the sponsorship and export of terrorism and jihad in South Asia, the Middle East, and even the West.
Exporting Jihad And Buying Friends
Some contend that Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia are being used as scapegoats when in fact the real causes of Islamist terrorism are far more complex. Mohammed Alyahya made just this argument in his New York Times article “Don’t Blame ‘Wahhabism’ for Terrorism.” The crux of the argument is that “most Islamist militants have nothing to do with Saudi Wahhabism.” For example, he asserts that the Taliban are Deobandis which is “a revivalist, anti-imperialist strain of Islam that emerged as a reaction to British colonialism in South Asia” and al Qaeda “follow a radical current that emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood.” While a nuanced understanding of the causes of terrorism is important, it must not lead policymakers to ignore an obvious source.
It is certainly true that not all Sunni extremist movements find their roots in Wahhabism. Al Qaeda was inspired by the anti-state Islamist literature of Muslim Brothers like Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. But organizations and movements evolve. The al Qaeda we know today is very much a product of the more extreme elements of the Wahhabi movement that is tolerated and promoted by Riyadh. However, it is Pakistan rather than the Arab world, which is the true ground zero of Saudi Arabia’s export of extremism. An invasive strain of Saudi-sponsored Salafism, often referred to as the Ahl-e-Hadith movement, has spread throughout Pakistan, all the while the fundamentalist Deobandi movement is increasingly supported by Gulf donors. According to a U.S. government cable, “financial support estimated at nearly 100 million USD annually was making its way to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in the region from ‘missionary’ and ‘Islamic charitable’ organizations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ostensibly with the direct support of those governments.” This fusion of Salafism and Deobandism occurs at the expense of indigenous South Asian interpretations of Islam like the Sufi-oriented Barelvis.
The close relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan began as early as the administration of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. According to a recently available CIA report, in 1975, Bhutto “obtained assurances of generous aid from Saudi Arabia” during a state visit. In exchange for such support Pakistan “furnished military technicians and advisers to the armed forces of Saudi Arabia.” Other CIA documents reveal that during Zia ul-Haq’s military dictatorship, Pakistan viewed the Soviet presence in Afghanistan beginning in 1979 as an existential threat. So Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was more than enthusiastic to train Pashtun mujahideen to fight the Soviets with Saudi and U.S. assistance.
Saudi officials naturally garnered greater respect from Pakistani officers than their American counterparts due to the revered status of the Kingdom as caretaker of the two holiest sites in Islam. The U.S. also underestimated the extent to which Pakistani officers would develop sympathies for the militants they spent years training. The ISI became an intermediary between Saudi Arabia and militant Islamic groups across South Asia. During the 1990s, the ISI shifted its focus towards Kashmir and the Punjab in an effort to counter perceived Indian aggression. But the deep connections fostered between the ISI and various militants resurfaced after 9/11 when their focus pivoted back to Afghanistan.
Meanwhile the ISI fought some militant groups while allowing others like the Haqqani Network to remain powerful. When Osama bin Laden was discovered in Pakistan, the U.S. ramped up drone strikes against safe havens, and the ISI retaliated by releasing the name of the CIA’s Islamabad bureau chief which resulted in numerous death threats. Since 9/11, Gulf dollars have continued to bolster extremist groups inside Pakistan even as Pakistani civilians die by the thousands from suicide operations linked to Saudi-sponsored madrasas.
In exchange for tolerating Gulf-sponsored terrorism Pakistani leaders get security. While in power they have an unofficial army of militants they can call upon to deal with anything from Baluchi separatists to keeping India on its toes. Once they leave power they have an escape hatch to protect them and their family. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was found guilty of corruption, kidnapping, and hijacking, in the summer of 2000, Saudi Arabia accepted him to live in exile. Benazir Bhutto’s notoriously corrupt widow and ex-president, Asif Zardari, went on a “self-imposed exile” to the U.A.E. throughout 2016. And the former president and general, Pervez Musharraf, is currently hiding out in Dubai to avoid prosecution for treason charges.
But the export of extremism from Saudi Arabia is not always by design. In his history of Pakistan, Ian Talbot argued that “the exposure of the lower-class Pakistanis to the Islamic heartland further encouraged a mindset favourable to Islamization, although Zia was to find that its impact on sectarianism was to prove unpredictable and potentially destabilizing.” Saudi Arabia fears the effects of its own radicalization and recently deported 40,000 Pakistani workers over concerns of terrorism. Today South Asia is rocked by sectarian violence from the mountainous peaks of Kabul to the tropical markets of Karachi and posh hotels of Mumbai. This February, suicide attacks killed hundreds across Pakistan. The province of Sindh begged the central government to shut down Gulf-funded seminaries. Islamabad declined.
Controlling The Message
The internet age rendered in-person missionary work by Saudi clerics less relevant. The radical messages of Saudi preachers and their protégés can be viewed on mobile phones across the world. Students filter into the seminaries in Mecca and Medina and return to teach at the hundreds of madrasas spread across the world. These representatives of the Kingdom do not always preach a militant message. Sometimes, and perhaps more dangerously, they preach an apologist one.
In 2008, popular Indian televangelist Zakir Naik called 9/11 an “inside job” done by the Bush administration to defame Islam. He also commented that “If he [Osama bin Laden] is terrorizing America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him.” Despite these comments Naik went on to win the King Faisal International Prize for his “service to Islam.” The conspiracy theories he peddles are crucial to Saudi Arabia’s standing among the Muslim masses that are not necessarily prone to violence. However, conspiracy theories that brush aside the problem of extremism within the Kingdom are nothing new. Rumors about U.S. involvement in the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca led to an attack on the U.S. embassy in Islamabad in 1979 resulting in the death of two U.S. citizens.
Meanwhile Saudi Arabia spends millions on public relations firms in Washington D.C. every year in order to ensure it is not viewed as a state sponsor—or even enabler—of terrorism. The Kingdom attempts to contain the effects of its own hate preachers by campaigning to distance itself from the most egregious acts of terrorism in the Muslim world while still embracing a Salafi message. All the while in D.C. the Kingdom scrambles to disassociate itself not only from terrorism but from extremism altogether.
A Complicated Relationship
Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull once asked President Obama “aren’t the Saudis your friends?” Obama famously replied “it’s complicated.” It is complicated. How can Saudi Arabia possibly serve as an effective partner against terror when its internal security is dependent on the continued export of terrorism? The answer is that for both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. the other has always been the perceived lesser of two evils.
In the early 1930s when U.S. companies first began to explore the Saudi oil market they were favored by the Royal family over the British who were viewed as imperialists disguised as businessmen. This enemy-of-my-enemy partnership grew closer during the Cold War and the goal to contain the Soviets was described as the “complementary foreign policy” of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in a 1983 CIA memorandum. The fact that Saudi Arabia promoted a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in order to counter the Soviet Union did not alarm the U.S. intelligence community. Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran cemented Saudi Arabia’s position as the lesser of two perceived evils.
When the Gulf War incited harsh criticism of the Royal family for hosting non-Muslim soldiers they responded by coopting the majority of Wahhabi scholars into official government positions. Those who were too extreme for government work were encouraged to go abroad. The “28 pages” report detailing connections between the Saudi government and 9/11 hijackers proved once and for all that it wasn’t only private Saudi citizens who provide financing and manpower to radical terrorist organizations but the government itself. But Saudi Arabia claims it too is in a fight against radical extremism. Yet the majority of terrorist attacks in the Kingdom remain directed at the Shi‘a minority in the Eastern Province and Western targets. In fact, the U.S. State Department website explicitly warns citizens in Saudi Arabia to avoid “places where members of the Shia-Muslim minority gather.”
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad recently wrote in Politico that the Saudis claim to have adopted a new “policy of honesty” and admitted to him that in the past they had funded extremists. However, partial confessions and lukewarm commitments to fight terrorism are a pillar of Saudi diplomacy. After 9/11, the Saudi government made some effort to share intelligence and set up rehabilitation facilities for low-risk terrorists. But this was largely a show of good will that produced few long-term gains in the war on terrorism. The infamous “Podesta emails” confirm that the U.S. intelligence community believes Saudi Arabia and Qatar are now “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL.” The export of fanaticism and terrorism is a necessary release valve so that the fragile equilibrium of Saudi society does not implode.
One Terrorism Policy
When the late Taliban commander, Mullah Mansoor, was killed in May of last year, it was his recent trip to Iran that became the focal point of discussion. For years, however, Washington all but ignored that the vast majority of the ammonium nitrate used to construct IEDs that delimb American soldiers in Afghanistan comes from Pakistan. In 2007, at the height of the war in Iraq, the U.S. military estimated that 45% of all foreign terrorists targeting U.S. troops were Saudi. Now the debate in Washington is whether to designate Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as terrorist organizations. The Muslim Brotherhood has rarely engaged in terrorism and the IRGC’s main focus appears to be Iranian dissidents abroad and fighting ISIS in Syria. Meanwhile the metastasization of Gulf-sponsored terrorist networks continues unabated. Counterterrorism policy has been reduced to a popularity contest rather than an assessment of real threats.
The U.S. must stop treating implicit and explicit state sponsors of terrorism differently. Saudi Arabia’s compartmentalized efforts at containing rather than eradicating extremism should not be lauded as a genuine partnership. States that clandestinely sponsor terrorism, albeit sloppily, must be held to the same standards as those that openly provide support. Counterterrorism strategists must adopt a long-horizon approach and recognize that state sponsors of terrorist groups are responsible for the consequences even when those organizations inevitably go rogue and turn on their benefactor. And just as Pakistan paid a heavy price for tolerating Saudi support for Wahhabi terror, the U.S. and the West are starting to feel the brunt of their own negligence of Riyadh and Doha’s love affair with terrorists.
Indeed, the very phrase “biggest state sponsor of terrorism” is best removed from diplomatic vocabulary altogether because so long as it shines the spotlight on only one country, others will hide in its shadow.
Adam Weinstein is a veteran of the Marine Corps, where he served in Afghanistan, and a policy research intern at the National Iranian American Council. He tweets at @AdamNoahWho.