Ever since the relatively obscure Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stepped forth on the pulpit of the Great Mosque in Mosul, Iraq, on June 28, 2014 to announce the rebirth of the Caliphate (abolished in 1924 by the Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk), with al-Baghdadi himself assuming the title of Caliph Ibrahim, the ruling head of the ummah, or worldwide community of Muslims, many might agree with Naipaul, despite the hyperbole — he has left out a potentially nuclear Iran — that «ISIS has to be seen as the most potent threat to the world since the Third Reich.»

It is baffling to read about or watch the sweep of terror spawned by ISIS in the name of Islam — a world religion with a following approaching two billion Muslims. It is insufficient merely to point out that the barbarism of ISIS reflects its origins in the fetid swamps of the Sunni Muslim insurgency of post-Saddam Iraq. But ISIS is neither a new presence in the Arab-Muslim history, nor is the response to it by Western powers, primarily Britain and the United States, given their relationship with the Middle East over the past century.


We have seen ISISes before, and not as al-Qaeda’s second coming.

The first successful appearance of an ISIS in modern times was the whirlwind with which the Bedouin warriors of Abdulaziz ibn Saud (1876-1953) emerged from the interior of the Arabian Desert in 1902 to take hold of the main fortress in Riyadh, the local capital of the surrounding region known as Najd. Some twenty-four years later, this desert warrior-chief and his armies of Bedouin raiders defeated the ruling Sharifian house in the coastal province of Hejaz, where lie Islam’s two holy cities, Mecca and Medina.

Husayn bin Ali (1854-1931), Sharif of Mecca and Emir of Hejaz, had joined his fate with the British against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. One of his sons, Prince Feisal, led the «Arab Revolt» for independence from Ottoman rule made famous by T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935). But in the aftermath of the Great War, which brought the Ottoman Empire to its ruin, Bedouin tribes in the interior of the Arabian Desert were jostling for power, and the House of Sharif Husayn proved inept at maintaining its own against threats posed to its rule over Hejaz, and as the khadim [steward] of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Another Englishman, a counterpart to T.E. Lawrence («Lawrence of Arabia»), was Harry St. John Philby (1885-1960), sent as a British agent during the Great War into the interior of the Arabian Desert. Philby would get to know Abdulaziz ibn Saud; eventually he worked for Ibn Saud as the warrior-chief rose in power and prominence. Philby chronicled the emergence of Abdulaziz ibn Saud as «the greatest of all the kings of Arabia,» and wrote the history of Ibn Saud’s tribe and people under the title Arabia of the Wahhabis. In the West, ironically, Philby is better known as the father of Kim Philby, the Soviet double agent, instead of the confidant of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Philby apparently became Muslim, took the name of Abdullah, and lived among the Arabs.

The defeat of the Sharifian forces in Hejaz in 1925 cleared the path for Abdulaziz ibn Saud’s eventual triumph in creating the eponymous Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The fall of Mecca to the Bedouin warriors known as the Ikhwan, or the Brethren (to be distinguished from the movement known as Ikhwan al-Muslimin [Muslim Brotherhood] founded by the Egyptian Hasan al-Banna in 1928), ended the ambition of Sharif Husayn and his sons to rule Arabia with the support of the British. The Sharifian defeat also meant that Britain would not have to referee the conflict between two of its allies — Sharif Husayn and his sons on one side, and Abdulaziz ibn Saud and his Ikhwan warriors on the other — competing for mastery over Arabia.

Philby’s loyalty to Abdulaziz ibn Saud restrained him from mentioning the terror and havocIkhwan warriors perpetrated in the occupation of Hejaz and the capture of Mecca and Medina.[1]But he was effusive in describing what he viewed as the renewal of Islam’s original revolution in the desert soil of its birth. He became the premier salesman of Abdulaziz ibn Saud and his family to the outside world, as T.E. Lawrence was of Prince Feisal and the Sharifian claims to rule the Arabs.[2] Philby wrote,

«Ibn Sa’ud made it clear from the beginning that he would tolerate no criticism of or interference with God’s law on earth… On Friday, January 8th, 1926, in the Great Mosque of Mecca after the congregational prayers, Ibn Sa’ud was proclaimed King of the Hijaz with all the traditional ceremony prescribed by Islamic precedent. It was at once an act of faith and a challenge to the world: to be made good in due course, without deviation from the principle on which it was based, to the glory of God, of whose sustaining hand he was ever conscious amid all the vicissitudes of good and evil fortune, which in the long years to come were to lead his people, under his guidance, out of the wilderness into a promised land flowing with milk and honey. The great fight, of four and twenty years almost to the day, was over; and a greater span, by nearly four years, yet lay before him to develop the fruits of victory for the benefit of generations yet unborn: generations which ‘knew not Joseph’, nor ever heard the war-cry of the Ikhwan.»[3]


The objective of the ISIS is apparently to remake the map of the Middle East, which was drawn by Britain and France as victorious powers in World War I, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. The goal is to unite the Fertile Crescent — the region between the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf — under the newly resurrected Caliphate’s rule, where «God’s law» will rule without anyone’s interference — much as Saudi Arabia’s founder, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, announced in 1926 on entering Mecca.

ISIS’s self-proclaimed leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in announcing the re-establishment of the Caliphate, have set for ISIS a hugely ambitious program, even if it seems anachronistic for Muslims in the twenty-first century.

But ISIS’s gamble to engineer the creation of the Caliphate and obliterate the post-WWI settlement is not entirely far-fetched when considered in the context of the making of Saudi Arabia.

There is also the shared doctrine of the Wahhabi-Salafi interpretation of Islam, which Abdulaziz ibn Saud insisted, and ISIS insists, is the only true Islam; all other versions and sects of Islam among Muslims are denounced as heresy or, worse, as apostasy, to be violently punished.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire let loose forces in the Middle East, some of which were contained by Britain and France, as victorious powers, in accordance with their Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.

In the Arabian Peninsula, Britain kept in check the forces let loose, preventing their spillover into the Fertile Crescent, until one coalition of Bedouin warriors led by Abdulaziz ibn Saud emerged as clear winner over the territories previously held by Turkey in the Fertile Crescent.

The deep forbidding interior of the Arabian Peninsula consists of the highlands and desert of Najd, far removed from what were once the major centers of the Islamic civilization at its peak. Inhabited by Bedouin tribes, deeply conservative in their customs and manner of living, and disapproving of the ways of the outside world, Najd was a primitive backwater of the Middle East and was left on its own.

The emergence of Abdulaziz ibn Saud as the ruler of Najd and Hejaz in the 1920s, and then as the monarch of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia under the watchful eyes of Britain as the hegemonic power in the Middle East after the World War I, was not merely the result of one coalition of Bedouin tribes trouncing its opponents for the spoils of war. It was also the victory of a doctrine — of Wahhabism,[4] to which Abdulaziz ibn Saud was wedded as a legacy of his family and tribal history, and which provided the religious and ideological legitimacy for the so-called «conservative revolution» or the Wahhabi version of Islamic «reform» he heralded in establishing his kingdom.


In the nine decades between the triumph of Abdulaziz ibn Saud and the rise of ISIS, Wahhabism emerged from the margins of the Muslim world to become the dominant face of Sunni Islam, which claims the allegiance of the vast majority of Muslims. This occurred as a result of Ibn Saud’s instincts and the discovery of oil in his kingdom. As a warrior-chief, he knew his limits on how far to push against the interests of Britain; and negotiated the subsequent embrace of his kingdom and leadership by the United States, which replaced Britain as the protector of the regional order.

History is full of surprises, and so it is with the history of Wahhabism. Muslims who heard about it or encountered its practitioners during the nineteenth century, viewed it with disdain, yet it came to almost represent and somewhat define mainline Sunni Islam towards the end of the twentieth century. According to the historian Hamid Algar, «Wahhabism is essentially a movement without pedigree; it came out of nowhere in the sense not only of emerging from the wastelands of Najd, but also its lack of substantial precedent in Islamic history.»[5]

The founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab (1703-1791), was a Najdi born in a small town called ‘Ayaina. His grandfather had been the town’s religious elder and qadhi (judge), and his father followed him. The founder was reputedly precocious in his religious education and, according to Philby’s account, based upon what he learned in the service of Abdulaziz ibn Saud, «some of his forbears may well have known or heard the preaching of the famous Unitarian Ibn Taymiyyah, who was the main source of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab’s inspiration.»[6]

By 1745, Abdul-Wahhab had acquired a reputation as teacher, preacher, and reformer, with religious training acquired by spending time in the holy city of Medina. Apparently committed to the moral and spiritual reform of fellow Muslims, he announced a program of commending virtue and condemning vice in his native city. While he acquired some followers, he also generated controversy and opposition among those who viewed his preaching as too literal and harsh. Eventually when asked to leave ‘Ayaina, he headed for Dar’iya in the neighbourhood of Riyadh, and there sealed a relationship with the local chief, Muhammad ibn Saud (?– 1765). Thus was born the historic alliance between the founder of what became the Wahhabi movement and the chief of the Saudi clan of central Arabia, whose progeny was Abdulaziz ibn Saud.

The main thrust of Abdul-Wahhab’s «reformist» teaching was to purge his people’s belief in Islam of superstitions, devotion to holy men as saints, tomb-worship and reverence of the dead. He insisted on the literal and explicit meaning of the Quranic text, and of applying Quranic penalties, such as the cutting off the limbs of thieves and stoning of adulterers. He declared those who violated what he understood to be the teachings of the only true faith to be mushrikin(idolaters), against whom jihad (holy war) was not merely permissible but obligatory: «their blood could legitimately be shed, their property was forfeit, and their women and children could be enslaved.»[7]

At the time, Abdul-Wahhab’s inclinations were reformist. According to one of the most respected Western scholars of Islam, Sir Hamilton Gibb, there remained those «pagan Arabs who accepted the dogmas of the Koran without completely giving up their old beliefs. What Muhammad [the prophet] did for them was to superimpose upon the deposit of Arabian animism a supreme controlling power in the personality and activity of an all-powerful God.»[8] Abdul-Wahhab’s «reformist» concerns seem motivated by a loathing of the practices he railed against, as shirk (idolatry), which contaminated the purity of Islam’s strict monotheism.

Abdul-Wahhab’s doctrinal solution was to «purify» Islam by insisting that any practice that detracts from — or interposes itself between — the unquestioning submission to God, was shirkand, therefore, haram (forbidden). His uncompromising insistence on tauhid (Oneness or Unity of God) set the stark division between Islam and kufr (disbelief), and between Islam and shirk.

Abdul-Wahhab’s precursor in this respect was Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), whose theology was shaped by the calamity of the Mongol invasion of the Arab world.

Ibn Taymiyyah blamed the weakness and corruption of the Arab world on the borrowings from non-Muslims of un-Islamic ideas. These, he believed, had prepared the ground for the devastation brought upon Muslims by the Mongols. He saw the Mongol calamity as God’s punishment visited upon Muslims for deviating from the true path of Islam.

Ibn Taymiyyah’s enmity towards the Shi’ite Muslims as heretics, and his polemics against Christians as Trinitarians and, therefore, not strictly monotheists, laid the basis for the even more narrow and intolerant doctrine Abdul-Wahhab later preached in the arid and isolated environment of Najd.

Ibn Taymiyyah’s emphasis on tauhid, which inspired Abdul-Wahhab, was a warning for Muslims to beware of Christians and Shi’ite Muslims, whom he denounced as falsifying the true belief.

Abdul-Wahhab extended Ibn Taymiyyah’s polemics and bigotry also against the Sufis, who are devoted to the spiritual and mystical dimension of Islam, labeling them as deviationists or polytheists. In the end, Abdul-Wahhab’s theology, mimicking that of Ibn Taymiyyah, was characterized by the tendency to pronounce takfir on Muslims: accusing them of apostasy or disbelief. As these accusations of apostasy spread, they provoked among Muslims irreparable disagreements, which the followers of Abdul-Wahhab would seize upon as casus belli for theirjihad.

The «reform» of Abdul-Wahhab to «purify» Islam was a return to the imagined simplicity of the early years, when the prophet Muhammad preached against idol worship among the Arabs. Abdul-Wahhab spurned the traditional consensus of the ulema (religious scholars) and thefuqaha (jurists) that had been worked out between the seventh and the thirteenth centuries, referred to as the classical period of Islam.[9]

This consensus reflected the highest achievement of Muslims. Through cultural exchanges, Islam was emerging from its native and backward environment of Arabia, far removed from ancient civilizations of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) and Persia. Despite wars, the Islamic civilization was being shaped over the remains of empires that Arab armies had defeated. Gibb explained:

«After the end of the Arab-Muslim conquests there was a period of three centuries during which the territorial spread of Islam, though vast indeed, remained practically stable. This gave time and opportunity for a thorough interpenetration of the religious attitudes and beliefs of the original Arab immigrants and of the peoples with whom they mixed to form the medieval Muslim nation. In the course of these centuries, after a long stage of theological disputes, a certain equilibrium was reached. The theology of Islam was established in logical and rational terms, and this achievement did something to counteract the influence of grosser superstitions.»[10]

After the death of Muhammad in 632, Arabs and Muslims had swept forth into the world. The prophet had accomplished his mission of implanting among the pagan Arabs the worship of One God, in Arabic Allah, the God of Abraham as the Quran repeatedly affirms. Upon his death, the future of Islam and Muslims was an open book with blank pages to be filled in. But there was no heavenly mandate for the role of Caliph (khalif in Arabic, meaning successor), or for wars of conquests or empire. These came about as innovation, and as military offensives defeated far superior and more cultured adversaries. Justifications for such innovations (for instance, the office of Caliph) and military conquests were found in retrospect, or discovered, or invented — all based on the Quran or on the oral reports of the life and practice of the prophet (hadith), which Muslims came to accept as normative.

Within a generation of the prophet’s demise, his successors, under the title of Caliph, became rulers of empire. Their pomp and power rivaled, and often exceeded, those of the Byzantine and Persian rulers.

Islam, as a faith and submission to the idea of One God, evolved into Islam as a civilization, and there arose the necessity of reconciling the two. Devising the administration of empire became the task of the early generation of learned Muslims. In the context of the ancient world, their achievements were significant. The high standing the Islamic civilization achieved during the classical period of Arab and Muslim history later acquired a near-sacred status in the imagination of generations of Muslims up to the present times.

As centers of the high Islamic civilization, except for the revered status of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, became located outside of Arabia, the rest of Arabia once more became the backwater of civilization. From the remoteness of Najd, the contents of the high Islamic civilization could be thought of as departures from the prophetic era, and as corrupting Islam.

Abdul-Wahhab came to consider developments that distanced Muslims from the simplicity of early Islam as innovations, and since innovations (al-bid’ah), in his austere view, brought corruption, he denounced any innovation unacceptable as deviation or heresy.

Abdul-Wahhab’s doctrine was thus a repudiation of traditional Islam as represented by the highest authority in the Caliphate, and of the shared consensus of the mainline Muslim scholars of his time. His alliance, cemented in 1745, with Muhammad ibn Saud, started the jihad he evidently wanted to wage against those Muslims he denounced as deviants for refusing to accept his doctrine. For the next half-century, the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance nearly succeeded in the conquest of most of Arabia.

Muhammad ibn Saud died in 1765. He was succeeded by his son Abdul-Aziz who waged thejihad zealously, with the approval and blessings of Abdul-Wahhab until the latter’s death in 1791.

In 1803, Abdul-Aziz’s warriors, under the command of his son, Sa’ud, took Hejaz and entered Mecca. There they repeated what they had done earlier in Iraq. In Philby’s account,

«[Sa’ud] suddenly appeared before the holy town of Karbala [the site where Husain, the grandson of the prophet and venerated by the Shi’ites as their third Imam, was brutally killed by the Arab army of the Caliph in Damascus in 680 A.D.] in March 1802. After a short siege it was carried by storm, and given over to slaughter and pillage; the inhabitants were killed without mercy in the streets and houses; the great dome of the tomb of Husain was demolished, and the bejeweled covering of his grave carried off as spoil; and everything of value in the town was collected and taken off to the watering of al Abyadh, near Samawa, where Sa’ud settled down for a space to count his gains and distribute them in the traditional manner. He then returned to Dar’iya to receive the congratulations of his father and his people on the first doughty blow struck in the service of the true faith against a dispensation which was regarded in Wahhabi eyes as the incarnation of infidelity. It was certainly an act that shocked the world far beyond the limits of the Shia’ persuasion: and may be regarded as the starting-point of a general revulsion against Wahhabism, which was to have disastrous consequences for the Wahhabi State. But there was only joy in Dar’iya without reserve; and the pattern set at Karbala was soon to be copied in the holy cities of the Hijaz before the tide of retribution began to flow.»[11]

Revulsion against Wahhabism, as Philby wrote, eventually moved the Ottoman Empire to act. The sack of Mecca by the Wahhabis was a mighty slap on the face of the Caliph in Istanbul and, despite the strains on the resources of the Ottoman rulers since the French invasion of Egypt under Napoleon’s command in 1798, an Ottoman army was raised and sent by Egypt’s governor, Muhammad Ali Pasha, into Arabia.

The Saudi-Wahhabi warriors were driven out of Hejaz by the soldiers of the Caliph, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire; and Mecca was re-captured in the early months of 1813, bringing an end to Wahhabi rule in the two holiest cities of Islam. The Ottoman army then pushed forward by stages into the interior of Arabia. The Saudi-Wahhabi stronghold of Dar’iya capitulated in September 1818. The power of the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance was broken; Hejaz was restored to the rule of the Ottoman Caliphate; and Mecca returned to the stewardship of the House to which Husayn bin Ali [Sharif Husayn] belonged.[12]

The defeat of Saudi-Wahhabi power confined Wahhabism to the interior of the Najdi desert.

The restoration of Ottoman rule in Hejaz also meant restoring in Mecca the traditional Islamic consensus reached by the ulema during the classical period of Muslim history. Wahhabism — as an aberration of primitive minds far removed from, and suspicious of, civilization — was destined to pass into history as a footnote, but for the fatal error of the Ottoman rulers in entering the Great War in 1914 on the side of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


The conquest of Arabia by Abdulaziz ibn Saud and his Ikhwan warriors in the first quarter of the twentieth century was cruel and bloody. It also occurred under the gaze of the British in the region, and the material support Britain provided at critical stages of the march of the Saudi-Wahhabi warrior-chief, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, to power.

The English created a myth that Abdulaziz ibn Saud was a great unifier of the tribes of Arabia. Philby was at the head of those who spun their tales of the Saudi warrior as among the greatest of the Arab leaders, even going to the absurd length of comparing him to the Prophet of Islam. «Like the Prophet Muhammad,» Philby wrote, «‘Abdul-‘Aziz ibn Sa’ud was also a man of destiny.»[13]

The facts were alarmingly opposite. Abdulaziz ibn Saud massacred his way to conquering Arabia. In towns such as Taif, Bureida and Al Huda, the Wahhabi Ikhwan slaughtered the townspeople. They tried to destroy the tomb of the prophet in Medina and desecrated cemeteries in Mecca. They also spread death and devastation among the Shi’ite Muslims in the eastern parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Hatred for Shi’ism as a heresy is deeply rooted in the Wahhabi doctrine. Wahhabis believe that the Shi’a reverence for Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the prophet, as Imam (religious leader) has made Ali co-equal to the prophet or placed Ali even ahead of the prophet, thereby committing an unforgivable transgression of shirk, or polytheism.

The Ikhwan of Abdulaziz ibn Saud were checked from raiding what is now called Iraq — and pillaging the Shi’ite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, as the Wahhabi warriors had done in the early nineteenth century — by the frontier marked out between Arabia and Iraq by Sir Percy Cox, the British High Commissioner in the Persian Gulf region.

Despite the efforts of Saudi apologists, both native and Western, to airbrush out the horrors perpetrated by Abdulaziz ibn Saud and his army in subduing the tribes of Arabia, the memory of that gory history persists. Saïd K. Aburish, an Arab historian and journalist, wrote,

«It was an atmosphere where the sword of the executioner had a recognizable name, the rakban, or «necker,» and it was well known and feared as the guillotine during the French Revolution… No fewer than 400,000 people were killed and wounded, for the Ikhwan did not take prisoners, but mostly killed the vanquished. Well over a million inhabitants of the territories conquered by Ibn Saud fled to other countries: Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait.»[14]

Fortune, however, would smile on Abdulaziz ibn Saud, as the discovery of plentiful oil transformed the status of his kingdom in the sight of Western powers and the newly formed states in the region. But first he had to settle the tensions within his coalition of Ikhwan warriors, grown suspicious that he might be turning his back on them. The intolerance of others is one of the defining characteristics of the Wahhabi doctrine and its adherents. They saw his increasingly close relationship with the British, even willingness to be instructed by them as their paid agent, disapprovingly.

Abdulaziz ibn Saud sought to pacify the leaders of the Ikhwan in his entourage with gold and other forms of wealth. He told them to go back to their women and their homes, and enjoy the largesse he readily offered them. He advised them that with the conquest of Arabia attained, there could be no further role for ghazzu (the customary Bedouin practice of raiding), as in the past. Yet, as he failed to win over the hardliners among the Ikhwan, a showdown became unavoidable. In March 1929, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud and his loyal warriors confronted the dissidentIkhwan veterans outside the village of Sabila, and offered them one final gesture of reconciliation by asking them to surrender peacefully and return to their homes. The offer was refused, and the king ordered his men to mow down the opposition with their British-supplied machine guns. Some five thousand Ikhwan mutineers were killed; the rest fled to Iraq and Kuwait, only to be pushed out in the open by the authorities and bombed by Britain’s Royal Air Force.[15]

This explosive tension at the heart of the Saudi-Wahhabi partnership remains; it is essentially irresolvable. Although it may be managed or contained, there is no moderation, nor any allowed. The Wahhabi doctrine is fundamentally intolerant of others, especially of Muslims who reject Wahhabism. This doctrinally-based bigotry leaves Wahhabis at unease with anyone who does not share their creed, and fearful of alien cultures contaminating or undermining their own closed tribal ways. According to Hamid Algar, there is «a fear of perceived deviation at the very heart of Wahhabism and helps to explain its intrinsically censorious nature.»[16]

Abdulaziz ibn Saud dealt with the Ikhwan mutineers in the customary manner of the tribal code of justice: he executed them. Those among the Ikhwan warriors who remained loyal, he recruited into what eventually became the National Guards, the trusted militia of the Saudi-Wahhabi partnership.

However, the ghosts of the Ikhwan mutineers mowed down in the plains of Sabila haunt the kingdom. Their grievance against the ruling House of Saud is occasionally aroused by what is sometimes regarded as its too intimate embrace of the Western powers.

In the second half of the twentieth century, oil made Saudi Arabia and its rulers unimaginably wealthy. It was also a double-edged sword: threats to the Saudi kingdom mounted. The earnings from oil were «rental» income, received from sale of a natural resource that required very little native ingenuity or work. As the earnings mushroomed, the headache for the Saudi rulers came from the dilemma of how to administer this massive infusion of petrodollars without disrupting too flagrantly the Wahhabi-approved customs of the kingdom. This felicitous headache was compounded by the envy of non-Saudi Arabs; by the appeal of secular nationalism across the Arab Middle East; and by the migrant foreign workers needed in large numbers to meet the labor shortage triggered by the construction boom. Native Saudis, who received a subsidy, lacked incentive to work. Consequently, the kingdom had to cope with the presence of foreign workers who wanted equitable treatment based on international standards, in a country wary of all things foreign.

Change is both unavoidable and disruptive, irrespective of how it is managed or checked. In awakening to the modern world with its pressures for change, Saudi Arabia was set on a collision course between the old and the new. But despite being in the news since emerging as a central player in the global economy, due to its immense oil reserves and potential new discoveries, the kingdom has remained mysterious to the outsiders. As John R. Bradley, a Western journalist who lived and worked there, observed, «The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, so extraordinarily introverted and completely closed to outsiders, is perhaps the world’s last great, forbidden country.»[17]

Hence, those whom Saudi largesse would not appease grew loud in their denunciations of the corrupting influence of the new ways. The ghosts of the Ikhwan mutineers worked their spell, and Juhayman al-Utaybi, a hardline Wahhabi who had served in the National Guard, gathered others around him to strike at the heart of Islam’s sacred institution, the Grand Mosque of Mecca, which the Saudi dynasty is sworn to protect.

Al-Utaybi came to believe that since the House of Saud was corrupt, it had lost its legitimacy to rule Arabia. His father and grandfather were Ikhwan warriors who had participated in the rebellion against Abdulaziz ibn Saud on the battlefield of Sabila. He recalled the grievance of theIkhwan against their king for turning soft on Wahhabi principles; by the time he plotted his own rebellion, the signs of Saudi deviation appeared to many devoted Wahhabis to be too pronounced.

The evening of November 20, 1979 marked the beginning of the year 1400 in the Islamic calendar. On that night, al-Utaybi led his supporters to incite a general Wahhabi-led uprising against the Saudi rulers by seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca, where Muslim pilgrims from around the world gather for their annual pilgrimage, the Hajj.

The rebellion was crushed and al-Utaybi was executed, along with those of his followers captured with him in the Grand Mosque. But the rebellion, although it was likely doomed to fail, revealed that the most lethal threat to the kingdom was and remains internal. It arises from the contradiction at the heart of the Saudi-Wahhabi partnership: the Wahhabi fear of deviation as the Saudi rulers seek to administer the kingdom awash with petrodollars and pressed by the forces of change on all sides.


Al-Utaybi’s rebellion against the House of Saud was hushed up by the Saudi-Wahhabi authorities, and pushed down the memory hole of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. According to Yaroslav Trofimov, author of The Siege of Mecca, «In the years after the Mecca uprising, the Saudi government tried its best to erase these bloody events from public memory. The subject of Juhayman remains taboo in the kingdom, strenuously avoided by Saudi historians and ignored by official textbooks.»[18]

There were, however, other events in the Middle East and beyond in 1979 of even greater immediate consequences than the siege in Mecca. In February of that year, the Shah of Iran left Tehran in the wake of a revolution that turned Islamic, and which brought an old Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-89), back from exile to become its leader. Then, on November 4, two weeks before the siege of Mecca occurred, hardline student followers of Khomeini stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took American diplomats as hostages. The Americans would be held for 444 days, before their release in January 1981.

Additionally, in December 1979 came the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. It would spark a near decade-long Soviet-Afghan war, which also became — at the beginning of Islam’s fifteenth century — a holy war or jihad of Muslims against infidels. It set the stage for the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union in December 1991, bringing to an end the Cold War, which for nearly half a century, had defined the main security tension between East (communism) and West (capitalism) in global politics.

The making of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East upset the regional equilibrium between monarchies and republican states. The ruling Shi’ite clerics in Tehran broadcast their intent to export the Islamic revolution, and provocatively gestured to Shi’ite Muslims in neighboring Arab states to create a common front with Palestinians and other disenfranchised segments of the population, against Israel and undemocratic regimes headed by Sunni dictators and dynastic rulers.

Saddam Hussein, the Sunni despot in Baghdad, felt the tremors of the Iranian revolution most intensely. His «republic of fear,» as the Iraqi Shi’ite author and dissident, Kanan Makiya, described Saddam’s Iraq, was a narrowly based autocratic regime drawing upon the sectarian loyalties of Sunni tribes in a state where Shi’ite Muslims made up two-thirds of the population.

Iran’s revolutionary threat, although also feared by the Sunni rulers of the Gulf states, including the House of Saud, was left to the Iraqi leader to countermand. Saddam Hussein viewed himself as the leader and defender of the «Arab nation,» and as the rightful successor to the place that Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser once held in the imagination of Arabs. In his view, and in the opinion of most Arabs, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat had betrayed Nasser and the «Arab nation» by going to Jerusalem in November 1977 and making peace with Israel.

Saddam Hussein launched a pre-emptive war against Iran in September 1980. He hoped that by striking at Iran, still unsettled after the upheavals of the revolution, a regime change in Tehran might be brought about. It was a huge miscalculation. After the initial shock, Iran went on the offensive. The Iran-Iraq war turned into a nearly eight year, grinding waste of men and materiel, finally ending in August 1988 with a UN-brokered ceasefire.


History is full of unintended consequences. In retrospect, the Soviet-Afghan war and the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s prepared the conditions for the explosive events of 9/11 and after.

The Iran-Iraq War left the Iraqi despot, Saddam Hussein, in terrible dilemma. His recklessness exposed him as vainglorious and foolish. It also left him in severe debt to those Arabs, in particular to the Saudis and the Kuwaitis, who had bankrolled with their petrodollars his war against Iran. When Saddam Hussein requested debt forgiveness, the ruling house of Kuwait declined.

Saddam Hussein could not stomach the response of the Emir of Kuwait — it rankled him as ingratitude. He had taken Iraq to war against Khomeini’s Iran in defense of Arabs and Sunni Islam against the Persians and their Shi’ite heresy. The Kuwaiti Emir’s ingratitude could not go unpunished; so Saddam Hussein dispatched his army to take over Kuwait. The raging folly of Saddam Hussein set the stage for the U.S.-led first Gulf War of February 1991 — Operation Desert Storm — to liberate Kuwait and defend Saudi Arabia.


Abdulaziz ibn Saud, whose career had spanned the first five decades of the twentieth century, died in 1953. His legacy was to leave the second Saudi-Wahhabi state, named the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — the first Saudi-Wahhabi state was launched by Muhammad ibn Saud and Abdul-Wahhab, in the mid-18th century — in the care of the House of Saud he had restored, by ruthlessness and cunning, to power. Since his death, his sons Saud, Feisal, Khalid, Fahd, Abdullah, and Salman have successively ruled the Kingdom.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, when founded, was hugely anachronistic, a throwback to the values and customs of the seventh century in an age defined by science and man’s quest for knowledge and adventure beyond his planetary home. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains a bundle of contradictions held together from within by a religious doctrine — Wahhabism — violently imposed and maintained, defended from the outside by the protective shield the United States has provided.

The famous photograph of Abdulaziz ibn Saud meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt in February 1945 aboard the U.S.S. Quincy symbolizes the incongruity of the Saudi-American «special relationship.» About the meaning of this relationship to the Saudi rulers, Prince Feisal, Abdulaziz ibn Saud’s son, remarked to President John Kennedy in 1962, «After Allah, we trust the United States.»[19]

The famous photograph of Abdulaziz ibn Saud meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt in February 1945 aboard the U.S.S. Quincy symbolizes the incongruity of the Saudi-American «special relationship.» (Image source: U.S. Navy)

In the absence of oil, it is unlikely there would be any relationship of the sort which the United States cultivated with the House of Saud. Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian state under the banner of Allah, and protected, as if Allah arranged it, by the United States. This special relationship, however, rests uneasily upon the minds of those Saudis who take their Wahhabism seriously and are offended by any real or perceived dilution of, or deviation from, their creed.

Fahd (1922-2005), the fourth son of Abdulaziz ibn Saud, succeeded his brother Khalid as king in 1982. With Saddam Hussein’s army driving into Kuwait in August 1990, the threat to Saudi Arabia seemed imminent. Fahd approved the deployment of American forces inside the kingdom with the consent of the blind Sheik, Abdul Aziz Bin Baz, the Chief Mufti and the highest juridical authority in the kingdom, and other leading Wahhabi clerics.

Approval for stationing American forces inside Saudi Arabia carried a certain amount of risk, despite the support of the Wahhabi religious leaders. In one of his many private conversations with Philby, Abdulaziz ibn Saud had confided his views about Christianity and Christians; his remarks also revealed the strange thinking of his people. On the basis of Philby’s private papers, his biographer, Elizabeth Monroe, repeated those conversations between Abdulaziz ibn Saud and his English confidant, Philby:

«He [Abdulaziz ibn Saud] told Philby that by his standards Christians were of a kindred faith because they were ‘people of the Book’; being believers according to their lights, they were less abhorrent to him than lax Muslims — mushriqin, or people who associate other beings such as saints with the worship of God. Purity of faith was more important to him than all else; the easy-going habits of the Hijazis and the Turks, with their acceptance of corruptions unknown to early Islam, their deviations into heretical byways, their veneration of shrines and their tolerance of music, smoking, and strong drink were anathema to him and to his people… By no means all believers agreed with him about Christians or about the possible wisdom of helping the British. To some of his men, all Christians were dogs, unfit to eat with or even to speak to, and he, by dealing with them, was as reprehensible as the Sharif… But he was not lax; he was a reformer and by extending his territory he was spreading the faith as first conceived. Christian allies were permissible if alliance served Islamic ends.»[20]

What principally mattered in accepting Christian support, therefore, was whether such support served the followers of Islam in spreading the faith, or whether it corrupted those followers and besmirched Islam. This same thinking could also apply to an alliance with the Jews and Israel in defending Saudi interests, should such need arise.

There were, all the same, those Saudis who viewed the American military as a Christian-Jewish Crusader army, violating the purity and sacredness of the land with the two holiest cities of Islam. To hardline Wahhabis, the sight of American soldiers on Saudi soil was intolerable. The unintended consequence of the American-led liberation of Kuwait and defense of Saudi Arabia was the hardening of denunciation of the House of Saud by dissident Saudi Wahhabis.

In May 1991, a body of dissident Wahhabi theologians sent a letter to Sheikh Bin Baz. The main thrust of the letter was that the dependence of the kingdom for its security on foreign non-Muslim armies was evidence that the House of Saud had renounced true Islam. The letter was alarming: the criticism had come from within the Saudi society, and it revealed a widening gap between those Wahhabi theologians defending the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance, and those increasingly critical of the House of Saud for laxity.

Among the Wahhabi critics of Saudi rulers, Bin Baz heard from Osama bin Laden. In an open letter published in mid-1990s, Bin Laden rebuked the Wahhabi religious leaders for approving the decision of King Fahd to invite American forces into Saudi Arabia. He denounced this as a recipe for disaster for the Muslim umma or community, and condemned the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance as apostates collaborating with Western powers.[21]

By the time Osama bin Laden wrote to Sheik Bin Baz, a profound change in the radical discourse of religion and politics within the Muslim world had occurred. Two apparently separate currents of extremist Muslim or Islamist thinking had merged; ironically, the House of Saud had been instrumental in bringing them about.

One current was the Wahhabi doctrine, from its inception onwards doctrinally located at the margins of Sunni Islam. The vast majority of Sunni Muslims viewed Wahhabism with disdain, as an extremist, life-denying perversion of traditional Islam, and as inherently bigoted and violent. But as Saudi money poured forth, spreading Wahhabi theology across the Muslim world and into the West, the House of Saud, flush with petrodollars, gradually altered the mainstream Sunni Muslim view of Wahhabism.

The other current was the innovation in Muslim thought presented by the Egyptian, Hasan al-Banna (1906-49), as the founder of the Ikhwan al-Muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood). Another Egyptian responsible for the brand of extremist theology associated with the Muslim Brotherhood was Sayyid Qutb (1906-66); his influence as the ideologue of radical Islam, or Islamism, among a new generation of Muslims born in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, would exceed that of al-Banna.[22]

While Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb were contemporaries and were both influenced by political developments in Europe between the two world wars, Qutb, unlike al-Banna, also experienced military rule in Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser and drew upon this experience — he was eventually imprisoned and hanged by Nasser’s regime — to deepen the Islamist critique of secular regimes in the Muslim world.

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Great War, followed by the abolition of the Caliphate, had left pious Muslims at a loss. For the next half-century, politics in the Muslim world was primarily driven by secular nationalism and the pressures to modernize traditional societies in imitation of the West. But there were also persistent questions raging below the surface, in opposition to those in power, on how to return — «reform» — Muslim societies back to their authentic Islamic roots.

The Islamist answer was that corrupting influences had taken hold of the Muslim umma long before the Western powers conquered Muslim lands. The writings of Ibn Taymiyyah were revived, and his theology updated as an explanation of why the Muslim umma in modern times was broken and distraught. Hasan al-Banna saw himself and the movement he founded as deepening and broadening the «reformist» ideas inherited from an earlier generation of thinkers and activists, Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) and Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935).

Rashid Rida was an advocate of Islamic reform through critical reading of the Quran and return to the prophetic traditions of the earliest, or the first three generations of Muslims — al-salaf al-salih (pious ancestors). From this advocacy emerged the idea of «Salafism,» which in turn became the hallmark of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots across the Muslim world.[23]

Salafism and Wahhabism were doctrinally convergent; members of the Muslim Brotherhood, once the Saudi kingdom was established, found their staunchest ally and financiers in the House of Saud and among the Wahhabi clerics.

As the Canadian scholar of Islam and Muslim history, Professor Wilfred Cantwell Smith, noted, the Salafiyah movement, led, in «willingly accepting Wahhabi influence, to a reinvigorated fundamentalist activism» in the twentieth century.[24]

Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, in turn, further deepened the Wahhabi doctrine pertaining to the notion of jihad, and broadened its appeal for Muslims by turning jihad into an obligatory duty for the believer. This duty was not, as Sayyid Qutb described in Milestones (the most widely read ideological text of Islamism), merely a matter of personal striving for self-improvement; it was, instead, engagement in the holy war to establish God’s law on earth.

In Sayyid Qutb’s description, «Islam is the way of life ordained by God for all mankind… and orders practical life in all its daily details. Jihaad in Islam is simply a name for striving to make this system of life dominant in the world.»[25] For Qutb, jihad as holy war was not simply one of the central pillars of Islam; it was inseparable from the meaning and practice of Islam.

For Hasan al-Banna, the allure of death and dying for Islam was ennobling. He wrote about the «art of death» (fann al-mawt), and how «God grants a ‘noble life’ to that nation alone which ‘knows how to die a noble death.'»[26]

In Hasan al-Banna’s preaching of jihad, to be truly Muslim required accepting martyrdom. With such preaching, which made martyrdom a desired goal for Muslims, the path was paved for homicidal acts carried out by individuals willing to die in jihad for spreading Islam.

In the age of totalitarianism — which in the last century flourished under the various headings of Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism, Hitler’s National Socialism and Maoism — Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb added Islamism.

Shariah, as God’s law, in covering and monitoring every detail of human conduct, as Qutb insisted, is total; its enforcement through jihad made for an ideology — Islamism — consistent with the temperament of the totalitarian era.

Islamism in its Shi’ite version, as Khomeinism, triumphed in Iran with the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

Among Sunni Muslims, Islamism spurred the jihadist activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots within Egypt, among Palestinians, and in North Africa among Algerians. Armed jihadbecame a freelancing activity of Muslims wherever many, or even a few, gathered and raised the banner of fighting for the honor, or for the spread, of Islam.

In October 1981, a cell of jihadi soldiers within the Egyptian army killed President Anwar Sadat for his «betrayal of Islam» in embracing Israeli leaders, and for signing a peace treaty with the Jewish state.

It was in Afghanistan, during the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, that jihad as a theology and totalitarian ideology, in other words as Islamism, came to its own. That jihad was the result of a collaborative effort of Salafist-Wahhabi warriors and volunteer recruits, financed by the House of Saud, Saudi citizens, and Gulf petrodollars, and armed with weapons from friendly states, including the United States.


The Soviet-Afghan war, or the Afghan jihad as it came to be known, hugely emboldened the Islamist movement. In Osama bin Laden, this movement found its figurehead, its chief organizer, and its principal financier. In March 1997, Bin Laden gave an interview to Peter Arnett of CNN in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. In response to Arnett’s question about the significance of the Afghanjihad, Bin Laden answered:

«The influence of the Afghan jihad on the Islamic world was so great; it necessitated that people should rise above many of their differences and unite their efforts against their enemy… As for the young men who participated in jihad here, their number was quite big, praise and gratitude be to Him, and they spread in every place in which non-believers’ injustice is perpetuated against Muslims. Their going to Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan and other countries is but a fulfillment of a duty, because we believe that these states are part of the Islamic world.»[27]

Bin Laden organized al Qaeda as the base for supporting the network of Islamist warriors in the global jihad he planned to ignite.

The unfolding confusion in world politics after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, the beginning of the crack-up in the Middle East that followed the Gulf War of 1991, and the effects of the Balkan wars on Muslim opinion all assisted Bin Laden’s plan to keep increasing jihadi pressure on the American presence inside Saudi Arabia and within the Middle East, by striking at American installations and personnel. By the time he gave his CNN interview, he had figured out the dynamics of a «virtuous circle» in the tactics and strategy of the globaljihad. According to the journalist Jason Burke:

«Successful attacks would bring in recruits, money and prestige and mobilize and radicalize the ‘Arab street.’ [Bin Laden’s] enhanced capability would then allow more successful attacks, which would accelerate the process. His aim had always been to instigate. When the situation had become sufficiently radicalized, his own interventions would be unnecessary. The Muslim youth would have cast off their illusions, embraced the true Islamic path and launched their own attacks against the tyrannical oppressors.»[28]

In giving the 1997 CNN interview, Bin Laden and his inner circle of al Qaeda militants also understood the importance of the media in the dynamics of the «virtuous circle.» As news organizations broadcast terrorist attacks claimed by al Qaeda, it would generate new recruits and funds for the jihadi terrorist network; and the greater or more outrageous the terrorist attacks on civilian and military targets, more time the media would spend on reporting them, further raising the profile of Bin Laden and al Qaeda among Muslims worldwide.

The 9/11 attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington, were spectacular in planning and execution; and the visual effects stunning to the global audience, as the world media broadcast the towers brought down in flames after al Qaeda jihadi terrorists had flown hijacked airplanes into them.

A few weeks after 9/11, Bin Laden spoke with Taysir Alluni, reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, for the Qatar based television news, Al-Jazeera. Bin Laden volunteered, «I say that the events that happened on Tuesday September 11 in New York and Washington are truly great events by any measure, and their repercussions are not yet over.»[29]

Osama bin Laden had exceeded even his own expectations to instigate the United States as the «Great Satan» — the appellation used by Iran’s Khomeini — to go to war in the Muslim world.

Bin Laden had instigated two wars: the second Afghan war and the war in Iraq for regime change. He had drawn American troops into the vortex of the Middle East, to be the catalyst for radical change at the center of Arab Islam and to raise the stakes for the House of Saud as apostate collaborator with the «Great Satan.» He may have suspected that the hunt for him might lead to his being killed, as it eventually did, when U.S. Navy SEALs killed him at his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011. But to his followers, he had blazed the path of martyrdom.

In December 2004, Osama bin Laden had posted, on the website of the Global Islamic Media Front, the most damning indictment of the House of Saud. There was no longer any ambiguity in his message to his jihadi followers, and no effort was made to soften his critique of the rulers of Saudi Arabia. He declared,

«The Saudi regime has committed very serious acts of disobedience — worse than the sins and offenses that are contrary to Islam, worse than oppressing slaves, depriving them of their rights and insulting their dignity, intelligence, and feelings, worse than squandering the general wealth of the nation… It has got to the point where the regime has gone so far as to be clearly beyond the pale of Islam, allying itself with infidel America and aiding it against Muslims, and making itself an equal to God by legislating on what is or is not permissible without consulting God.»[30]

Since 1945, at the end of the Second World War, conflicts of varying sorts and intensities had raged across the Middle East. The creation of Israel in 1948 launched a set of Arab-Israeli wars that have persisted despite the efforts of the great powers to find an acceptable settlement for both Jews and Palestinians. The Arab-Israeli wars, however, have paled in intensity and casualty figures beside the conflicts within the Arab world and the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Through the decades, during these intra- and inter-Arab conflicts, Saudi Arabia remained more or less protected with American support.

The rebellion led by al-Utaybi in November 1979, however, had revealed the internal fissures in Saudi society, which if ignited could lead to bigger conflagration. Osama bin Laden understood this internal reality of the country of his birth. In striking at the distant enemy — the United States — on 9/11, he lit the fuse inside Saudi Arabia. One of the most insightful scholars of Arab politics, Professor Fouad Ajami (1945-2014), an Arab-American, wrote in 2004,

«It was a matter of time before the terrible wind that originated in the Arabian Peninsula returned to its point of origin. The jihadists had struck far and wide. They had taken the Wahhabi creed, stretched it to the breaking point, and turned it into an instrument of combat. Where the creed had once taught obedience to the rulers, it now turned its wrath on the ‘infidels’ defiling the sacred earth of Arabia. In Arabia, it was a time of denial. In the year behind us, the bubble in which the Saudi kingdom was sheltered burst, and today there is a running war between the forces of order and zealots who have put down roots in a realm that once thought car bombs and kidnapping were the lots of other lands.»[31]

Few in the West, and even fewer in the United States, had any inkling of Ajami’s reference in describing what Osama bin Laden had set in motion. The founder of al Qaeda had awakened the ghosts of Ikhwan, the Bedouin warriors and Wahhabi zealots who once rode with Abdulaziz ibn Saud in spreading terror beyond their arid inner sanctum of Najd. When the Ikhwan warriors threatened the House of Saud in the making, Abdulaziz ibn Saud had mowed them down with weapons supplied by the British. Years later, like the forgotten Ikhwan warriors, Salafi-Wahhabi jihadists, raised for holy war by Osama bin Laden, still threaten the House of Saud and the entire post-WWI order in the Fertile Crescent.


ISIS is «the Islamist phoenix,» in the description of the oil and energy specialist, Loretta Napoleoni. It has arisen from the depredations of the Iraq War and the worsening conflict inside Syria following the «Arab Spring» uprising of 2011. The difference between al Qaeda and ISIS is that the former remained a network of jihadi warriors and the latter is a state in formation.

Osama bin Laden had spoken about the restoration of the Caliphate, and Mullah Omar of Afghanistan had taken for himself the title of Amir al-Mu’minin («Commander of the Believers») in the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan war.

But when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the Caliph and announced the rebirth of the Caliphate, he turned the nostalgia of a broad segment of Muslims into a practical reality to defend. As Napoleoni writes, «Though al Baghdadi’s men are willing to die for the Caliphate, their dream, by contrast, is positive and contemporary: they want to experience the Caliphate on this earth, not only in the afterlife.»[32]

The question in the struggle over the Fertile Crescent, over a dozen years after the 2003 American-led regime change in Iraq, is whether the United States will hold the line between Saudi Arabia and the ISIS-hatched Caliphate, or let that struggle spill over into the kingdom. In the 1920s, the line was held by Britain, but after the Second World War, Britain was an exhausted power and retreat from her vast overseas empire became an imperative. In the wake of Britain’s retreat, the United States took upon itself the burden of maintaining regional order in the Middle East.

In defending the regional order (as shaped by the Sykes-Picot cartography from the Great War) against Saddam Hussein’s brutal invasion and occupation of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush ironically brought into the open the nightmare scenario of what might follow once the tyrant in Baghdad was removed. The terrible uncertainties of post-Saddam Iraq deterred President Bush from sending American forces all the way into Baghdad after they had routed the Iraqi army in Kuwait during the first Gulf War in 1991.

The states of the Fertile Crescent and the Gulf were, as Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Bashir had once remarked, «tribes with flags.» Iraq was an entity created by Britain, in which Shi’ites and Sunni tribes were to share power with the Kurds. It was eventually held together by the Sunni-dominated military and by appeals to Arab nationalism, which was a fiction. The Sunni Arab Muslims were a minority within an Iraq with a Shi’ite Arab majority, and the Sunni Arab fear of Shi’ite revanchism was fuelled by the awareness of how they had abused the Shi’ite Muslims.

There was no mistake about the nature of Saddam Hussein’s brutal despotism, and the extent to which his tyranny rested upon the fears of his Sunni clansmen. Soon after the Iraqi army was expelled from Kuwait, Kanan Makiya imagined what could occur if the tyrant were removed:

«After Saddam is gone, when people’s lives and those of their loved ones look as if they are on the chopping block, Sunni fears of what the Shi’a might do to them in the name of Islam are going to become the major force of Iraqi politics. The more Iraq’s Shi’a assert themselves as Shi’a, the greater will be the tendency of Iraq’s Sunni minority to fight to the bitter end before allowing anything that so much as smells of an Islamic republic to be established in Iraq. They see in such a state — whether rightly or wrongly is irrelevant — their own annihilation.»[33]

Makiya knew the tribal and sectarian nature of his country, as did the jihadi warriors associated with al Qaeda, who moved into Iraq in the wake of regime change in 2003. Their deliberate assault on Shi’ite centers and shrines, masterminded by the ruthless al Qaeda associate in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was designed to launch the Sunni-Shi’a war in the Fertile Crescent. It worked: While American forces tracked and killed al-Zarqawi in June 2006, ISIS has praised his deeds with remembrance of him as one of its founding fathers.

The Salafi-Wahhabi holy warriors also sensed that the American public would turn against a long and ugly war of attrition in the Middle East, just as it had done with the war in Vietnam. Under President Obama began America’s military disengagement from Iraq, after the American public had gradually turned sour with military involvement in Iraq and the broader Middle East — just as the Salafi-Wahhabi jihadi warriors had sensed would happen.

Regime change in Baghdad had led to the formation of a Shi’a dominated majority government. What Makiya prophesied after the first Gulf War eventually came horribly true, as Iraqis became trapped in the spiral of sectarian killings. The Sunni-Shi’a schism has been the main divide in Muslim history since the early years of Islam, and in recent years Sunni Arabs in Iraq began to perceive their respective interests as under siege.

The Sunni insurgency in Iraq has been fuelled by the desire to restore Sunni pride and identity, and to reverse the slippage of Sunni power.

With the rise of ISIS, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and the Sunni rebellion in Syria against the minority Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad became linked, and with this linkage the frontier between the two states ceased to exist. ISIS has disrupted the Iranian arc of influence and power that came out of Tehran and had passed through Baghdad and Damascus into Beirut.

Although the rise of ISIS might be threatening to the House of Saud’s rule in Arabia, doctrinally the two are natural allies in the Sunni-Shi’a conflict, which has the likelihood of escalating into a new version of the 1980s’ Iran-Iraq war. Saudi relations with ISIS are shrouded in mystery, as have been Saudi relations with al Qaeda, despite the public break with Osama bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks.

The Saudis have, moreover, redirected the internal opposition of hardline Wahhabi zealots into support for jihadi politics abroad. The Sunni-Shi’a conflict provides ample opportunity for the Saudis to co-opt ISIS in waging jihad against Iran and its allies in the Fertile Crescent.

In Funding Evil, Rachel Ehrenfeld documented Saudi funding of al Qaeda — despite the special relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. As the history of the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance in developing the kingdom is filled with bigotry and terror, Saudi Arabia remains a state devoted to the cause of jihad in spreading Wahhabism within the Sunni Muslim world and beyond.

In a report about a leaked briefing on Saudi Arabia by the late scholar Laurent Murawiec, given in July 2002 to a Pentagon advisory committee, the Defense Policy Board, Thomas Ricks of theWashington Post reported, «The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot-soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader.»[34]

Murawiec’s book on Saudi Arabia, Princes of Darkness: The Saudi Assault on the West, published in 2005, was an explosive account of the insidious ways in which the House of Saud has been an incubator of Islamism and has funded the enemies of the United States, such as the various affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Hamas — all while the House of Saud depended for its own security on American protection. A Pentagon spokeswoman, after the briefing by Murawiec, went on record to state that it did not reflect the official views of the Department of Defense. This swift denial indicated the sensitivity inside Washington on the questionable nature of American-Saudi relationship, which in the context of 9/11 required the most serious reassessment, and which the American leadership has resisted.

In the circumstances of American military disengagement from Iraq and the investment in time and effort made by President Obama to try and reach an agreement with Iran, the Saudi rulers will support the ISIS-led war against the Shi’ite population in Iraq and Syria. It was reported in the British press that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador in Washington and former chief of Saudi intelligence, told Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the British MI6, «The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shi’a’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.»

ISIS’s campaign to consolidate its hold on its captured territories has been marked by the deliberate ethnic cleansing of minorities in the region, and destruction of ancient sites and artifacts found in the regional museums. As V.S. Naipaul noted, «ISIS is dedicated to a contemporary holocaust.»

The Saudi silence in the face of mounting atrocities signifies, in the view of this author, acquiescence and an embrace of ISIS.

There is method in the genocidal violence perpetrated by ISIS against minority Christians and Yazidis, and the majority Shi’ite Muslims in the region. It is to spread fear, to weaken the opposition, and by the force of ideology and terror to reconfigure the Fertile Crescent. As the Islamist ideologue Abu Bakr Naji has written, «One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [others], and massacring.» [35]

Abdulaziz ibn Saud, at the head of his Bedouin Ikhwan warriors, would have heartily agreed with Naji and would have approved the sweep of terror perpetrated by ISIS.


The war for regime change in Iraq after 9/11, launched by President George W. Bush, cannot be re-litigated or undone. It was waged for reasons well-considered at the time, and the expectation that regime change would eventually lead, with American support, to the remaking of Iraq as a functioning democracy, was not unreasonable.

American support in the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after 1945 was crucial. The transformation of imperial and militaristic Japan into a peaceful democracy was testimony of how American support can make for a better world of nations. In the Korean Peninsula, American troops have held the line between the North and the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953; this has made the vital difference in turning South Korea into a democracy and an advanced industrial society.

But America changed in the intervening decades since the Second World War. The immense burden of securing the post-1945 world order through the Cold War decades and beyond has taken its toll. The war in Vietnam stretched to its breaking point the public support for indefinite overseas military engagement against hostile populations that seemingly posed no immediate or existential threat to the country. In the Iraq war, such public support for defeating insurgency and terror, for assisting in nation-building, and for keeping secure the post-WWI settlement for the region, eventually got drained.

It is crucial for the future of the free world and for the security of America that fresh American leadership would educate the American public about how desperately important it is to support a return of the American military — at least in the numbers reached during the Iraq war between 2003 and 2009. This may perhaps sound unlikely, given the public mood in an America tired of overseas military involvement. Yet without American leadership, it cannot be expected that the European Union will step into the breach to keep Western values and a free way of life from being overwhelmed.

America’s disengagement from the Middle East has been a prelude to the likely reconfiguration of the Fertile Crescent. Consequently, the world may soon find a new Middle East in which Iran, especially with nuclear capability, and the Islamic State as a Caliphate — both openly expansionist powers — will likely emerge as the new Shi’ite and Sunni Islamic behemoths.

The broader Sunni-Shi’a war, in which Saudi Arabia and ISIS together are pitted against a nuclear Iran, is the ominous cloud that hangs over the Fertile Crescent and beyond. The potential for other countries — and terrorist groups — in the region to acquire nuclear weapons could turn the Sunni-Shi’a conflict into an apocalyptic war.

There is, however, another possibility. A Sunni Caliphate straddling the Fertile Crescent in partnership with Saudi Arabia and the Shi’ite Islamic Republic of Iran might seek a modus vivendi, after recognizing the futility of Sunni-Shi’a conflict in perpetuity. Such an arrangement between the Sunni Caliphs of the Ottoman Empire and the Shi’ite rulers of the Safavid Persian Empire once existed, despite their mutual antipathy. In this scenario, the world would not be any worse off than at present.

[1] He is mentioned only in passing the pillage of the Sharifian palaces, and destructions of the domed tombs of pious men or Muslim saints found in the two holy cities of Islam.

[2] On Philby, see Elizabeth Monroe, Philby of Arabia (London: Faber and Faber, 1973).

[3] H. St. John Philby, Sa’udi Arabia (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1955), pp. 290-291.

[4] For a brief study on the subject, see Hamid Algar’s Wahhabism: A Critical Essay (Oneonta, NY: Islamic International Publications, 2002).

[5] Algar, p. 10.

[6] Philby, p. 33.

[7] Algar, p. 34.

[8] H.A.R. Gibb, Studies on the Civilization of Islam (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), p. 181.

[9] See G.E. von Grunebaum, Classical Islam: A History, 600 A.D. to 1258 A.D. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1970).

[10] Gibb, p. 182.

[11] Philby, 93.

[12] Husayn bin Ali, is Sharif Husayn, whose son was Prince Feisal, alongside T.E. Lawrence. The Sharif family was Sunni, as were the Ottomans.

[13] Philby, xi.

[14] S.K. Aburish, The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), p. 24.

[15] Aburish, p. 34.

[16] Algar, p. 33.

[17] J.R. Bradley, Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. xi.

[18] Y. Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Qaeda (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. 251.

[19] Cited in Robert Lacey, Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2009), p. 72.

[20] Monroe, pp. 69-70.

[21] See Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden. Edited and Introduced by Bruce Lawrence (London: Verso, 2005). For Bin Laden’s letter to Sheik Bin Baz, see pp. 15-19.

[22] On the making and spread of Islamism see, for instance, Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969, 1993); James Toth, Sayyid Qutb: The Life and Legacy of a Radical Islamic Intellectual (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi’, Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996); and Bassam Tibi, Islamism and Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

[23] On Salafi, see the useful article by Bernard Haykel, «Salafis,» in Gerhard Bowering (editor),The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), pp. 483-84.

[24] W.C. Smith, Islam in Modern History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 68.

[25] Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2002), p. 76.

[26] See R.P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, p. 207.

[27]Messages to the World. The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, p. 49.

[28] J. Burke, Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), p. 182.

[29]Messages to the World. The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, p. 111.

[30] Ibid., pp. 247-248.

[31] F. Ajami, «Reaping the whirlwind,» in U.S. News and World Report, 28 June 2004.

[32] L. Napoleoni, The Islamist Phoenix: The Islamic State and the Redrawing of the Middle East(New York: Seven Stories Press, 2014), p. 36.

[33] K. Makiya, Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab World (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), p. 224.

[34] Thomas E. Ricks, «Briefing Depicted Saudis as Enemies,» in Washington Post, Tuesday 6 August 2002, p. A01.

[35] Quoted in Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (New York: Regan Arts, 2015), p. 41.



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