By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
As politicians in Berlin debate the relative merits and dangers of Germany’s possible active military engagement in the war theatre against so-called Islamic State (IS), a number of public figures have taken up a precious weapon to wage in this conflict. This is the weapon of truth. Instead of calculating the numbers of ground troops that might be required, and who might provide them – considerations made in cheerful amnesia regarding the catastrophes wrought by similar conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq – several journalists and political figures have preferred to expose the forces behind the IS menace, in hopes of paralyzing the continuing financial, logistical, military and ideological support that has made IS a formidable agency.
The central focus of their exposé is Saudi Arabia, its royal family and state institutions as well as private foundations and individuals. Although the history of the genesis and growth of IS is complex, and many cooks have been brewing the deadly stew, the Saudi connection is the most vital to guaranteeing IS its ability to operate with impunity. Were the multifaceted Saudi support lines to be severed, the task of paralyzing IS militarily would present no serious obstacles to those currently engaged against it. To sever these support lines, they first must be identified, named, and acknowledged in the public domain.
In Germany it began with scattered comments, often almost parenthetical, in press reports on the conflict, whereby this or that journalist lamented the continuing de facto “sympathies” in Saudi Arabia for the jihadists. On November 8, the issue emerged explicitly in a prime time Sunday television program, called “Terra X.” The feature on “Lost Worlds – Destroyed Cultural Heritage in the Orient” presented the tragic chronicle of the destruction of ancient sites by the barbaric IS, from Mosul and Hatra to Aleppo and Palmyra. In a central segment, Daniel Gerlach, a well-known journalist and Arab expert, told viewers that the precedent for IS’s rampages against all pre-Islamic cultural heritage was to be found in the process leading to the establishment of Saudi Arabia as an entity. In the 18th century, the fanatical Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahab (1703-1787), who claimed to return to the principles of early Islam (Salaf), rejected the veneration of graves of leading Muslims (including companions of the prophet), denounced luxury and ostentation. He joined forces with the Saud tribe to conquer most of Arabia. The pact he sealed with tribal leader Muhammad bin Saud decreed that he, representing the political power, would combat “unbelievers” while al-Wahab would function as the leader in religious matters. The resulting state, the Emirate of Diriyah, was the predecessor to the Kingdom named after the Saud tribe, which adopted Wahabism (or Salafism) as its state religion. As Gerlach related, and actors reconstructed on screen, the early Saudi Wahabites ravaged all religious monuments in the area, not only pre-Christian temples and churches, but also Islamic sites, whether mosques or sites commemorating venerable figures. The same point had been made by Navid Kermani, a leading Islamic scholar and prize-winning author in Germany. In a speech in late October, Kermani had pointed out that people who are shocked by the IS’s desecration of cultural sites simply do not know that the early Wahabites had wrought the same destruction in Saudi Arabia.
Outside Germany, a decisive contribution to this process came from Moscow. As Russian President Vladimir Putin reported in a press conference at the conclusion of the G20 meeting, he had given his colleagues evidence of who exactly the IS backers are. Although he could not share the detailed intelligence information with the journalists, he did assure them that he had briefed the meeting on two important factors – finances and oil routes — and in minute detail. “I provided examples,” he said, “based on our data on the financing of different Islamic State units by private individuals. This money, as we have established, comes from 40 countries and there are some of the G20 members among them.” (Though he did not name names, it is known that Saudi Arabia is a member of the G20.) Then, he added: “I’ve shown our colleagues photos taken from space and from aircraft which clearly demonstrate the scale of the illegal trade in oil and petroleum products.” The photos showed a “motorcade of refueling vehicles” which “stretched for dozens of kilometers, so that from a height of 4,000 to 5,000 meters they stretch beyond the horizon.” This raised the question, why, if such columns are visible from overflying aircraft, no one in the anti-IS coalition had bombed them. The following day, the New York Times reported, “U.S. Warplanes Strike ISIS Oil Trucks in Syria” … for the first time. Significantly, Putin called for support from the US and Europe in the fight against IS, but also from “Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran.”
Perhaps encouraged by this highly effective, albeit not-so-diplomatic intervention by the Russian president, Rainer Hermann, a German Middle East specialist, decided to blow the whistle, laying out the whole story in a full-page feature in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The FAZ is a journal of record in Germany, comparable in impact to the New York Times and Washington Post in the U.S. Hermann, who had peppered his earlier articles with vague references to the Saudi factor in IS, presented on November 27 the most complete picture to date of the phenomenon.
Entitled “The Breeding Ground of Terror,” the feature begins bluntly: “Saudi Arabia exports above all two products: oil and Islam. Saudi oil is the lubricant for the world economy, but Saudi Islam is a danger to world peace.” For a half century, he goes on, the Saudis have used their petrodollars to finance a mission to spread this “intolerant” and “backward” brand of Islam, against all other Muslims and non-Muslims. This “Saudi offensive created the theological and ideological breeding ground for today’s terrorism in the name of Islam.” Though Hermann writes that, since the Saudi Kingdom has also been threatened by IS, it may not finance the terrorists directly, nonetheless “it is the creator of this monster, since IS is a particularly violent continuation of Wahabite Islam.”
Tracing its history, Hermann presents the Saudi offensive as a Cold War move against Egypt’s Nasser. Starting in 1962, the Saudis set up institutions to combat Nasserite Pan-Arabism and secularism, first the Muslim World League (1962) then the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), now known as the Conference for Islamic Cooperation. With massive financing at the time from Salman Bin Abd al Aziz al Saud, who is today king, they built mosques, schools, cultural centers and offered scholarships to universities (like the University of Medina, 1961), to indoctrinate Muslims with Wahabism. In 1972, the Wahabite theologians were integrated into the state bureaucracy. Muslim students from all over the world, from the Arab states, North Africa, across Central Asia, Pakistan, India and East Asia, would come to study and, after graduation, return home to spread Wahabism. Hermann reports that “since its founding in 1961, about 45,000 religious cadres from over 160 countries have studied at the Islamic University.” In addition, the Saudis have founded schools and universities worldwide to spread the “true Islamic identity.”
There were two challenges in 1979, Hermann writes, that impacted this process. One came from the Iranian revolution, the other, from a radical preacher Juhayman al Otaybi, who occupied the mosque in Mecca and denounced the Saud dynasty as corrupt. The Saudi royals capitulated and the most radical form of ideology became supreme. At the same time, Saudi institutions, like the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY, 1972) and an International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO, 1978), started supporting terrorist groups. They were buttressed by Islamic satellite stations and websites. When Fahd became king in 1982, Hermann writes, some saw him as a modernizer. But he financed 1500 mosques, 2200 schools, and over 200 Islamic cultural centers. A print shop named after him issued 138 million (!) copies of the Quran, in 20 languages. Some of the Saudi-backed operations have been investigated in the wake of terrorist attacks, and some even shut down. But the belief structure and the IS terrorists who embrace it, are still at large.
When the Saudis were asked what they might contribute to help Europe overcome the refugee crisis, they declined to offer invitations to welcome refugees. (Nor, it must be said, are Syrian refugees eager to resettle in Saudi Arabia, and for good reason.) The Saudis said they would be happy to finance the building of 200 (!) new mosques in Germany. Just one day after Hermann’s exposé of the Saudi-IS connection appeared, the same FAZ hosted an interview with Cem Özdemir, leader of the Green Party and member of Parliament. He too had no hesitation in stating that Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states are the “ideological sources” for this perversion of Islam. “The Saudi Wahabism is not a part of the problem,” he said, “it is the source and cause.” Özdemir rejects any Saudi offers of “missionary help” in building mosques in Germany. Rather, he proposed that the German government should undertake a fundamental review of its economic relations with Riyadh. “For me, the jihadism which is reinforced by Saudi Arabia, is a form of fascism. That is, as we have seen in Paris, an existential threat to our society.”
The truth is indeed the most potent weapon. Although Saudi Arabia is not the sole creator and sponsor of IS, its continuing support for the jihadists represents a major obstacle to any attempt to defeat the terrorists. If the anti-IS coalition partners were serious, they would confront the Saudis, yes, even threaten a rupture in diplomatic relations, to dry up the financial flows, and cut off logistical and military support. As for abolishing the hideous Wahabite ideology – that belief structure which has been rightly compared to fascism – that may indeed take longer. But if the immediate military threat can be crushed, that will open the way to defeating its ideology.
On December 1, the news broke that Putin named another name: Turkey. He said he had proof that “oil from the deposits controlled by Islamic State militants enters Turkish territory on [an] industrial scale.” Turkish complicity with IS has been no secret. Now it is a political issue. And that is all for the good.
(Muriel Mirak-Weissbach is a regular contributor to the Mirror-Spectator. She is an author and philanthropist and lives in Germany.)