Middle East Time Bomb: The Real Aim of ISIS Is to Replace the Saud Family as the
New Emirs of Arabia
This article is Part II of Alastair Crooke's historical analysis of the roots of
ISIS and its impact on the future of the Middle East. Read Part Ihere.
BEIRUT -- ISIS is indeed a veritable time bomb inserted into the heart of the
Middle East. But its destructive power is not as commonly understood. It is not
with the "March of the Beheaders"; it is not with the killings; the seizure of
towns and villages; the harshest of "justice" -- terrible though they are --
that its true explosive power lies. It is yet more potent than its exponential
pull on young Muslims, its huge arsenal of weapons and its hundreds of millions
"We should understand that there is really almost nothing that the West can now
do about it but sit and watch."
Its real potential for destruction lies elsewhere -- in the implosion of Saudi
Arabia as a foundation stone of the modern Middle East. We should understand
that there is really almost nothing that the West can now do about it but sit
The clue to its truly explosive potential, as Saudi scholar Fouad Ibrahim has
pointed out (but which has passed, almost wholly overlooked, or its significance
has gone unnoticed), is ISIS' deliberate and intentional use inits
doctrine-- of the language of
Abd-al Wahhab, the 18th century founder, together with Ibn Saud, of Wahhabism
and the Saudi project:
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the first "prince of the faithful" in the Islamic State
of Iraq, in 2006 formulated, for instance, the principles of his prospective
state ... Among its goals is disseminating monotheism "which is the purpose
[for which humans were created] and [for which purpose they must be called] to
Islam..." This language replicates exactly Abd-al Wahhab's formulation. And,
not surprisingly, the latter's writings and Wahhabi commentaries on his works
are widely distributed in the areas under ISIS' control and are made the
subject of study sessions. Baghdadi subsequently was to note approvingly, "a
generation of young men [have been] trained based on the forgotten doctrine of
loyalty and disavowal."
And what is this "forgotten" tradition of "loyalty and disavowal?" It is Abd al-Wahhab's
doctrine that belief in a sole (for him an anthropomorphic) God -- who was alone
worthy of worship -- was in itself insufficient to render man or woman a Muslim?
He or she could be no true believer, unless additionally, he or she actively
denied (and destroyed) any other subject of worship. The list of such potential
subjects of idolatrous worship, which al-Wahhab condemned as idolatry, was so
extensive that almost all Muslims were at risk of falling under his definition
of "unbelievers." They therefore faced a choice: Either they convert to al-Wahhab's
vision of Islam -- or be killed, and their wives, their children and physical
property taken as the spoils ofjihad.
Even to express doubts about this doctrine, al-Wahhabsaid,
should occasion execution.
"Through its intentional adoption of this Wahhabist language, ISIS is knowingly
lighting the fuse to a bigger regional explosion -- one that has a very real
possibility of being ignited, and if it should succeed, will change the Middle
The point Fuad Ibrahim is making, I believe, is not merely to reemphasize the
extreme reductionism of al-Wahhab's vision, but to hint at something entirely
different: That through its intentional adoption of this Wahhabist language,
ISIS is knowingly lighting the fuse to a bigger regional explosion -- one that
has a very real possibility of being ignited, and if it should succeed, will
change the Middle East decisively.
For it was precisely this idealistic, puritan, proselytizing formulation by al-Wahhab
that was "father" to the entire Saudi "project" (one that was violently
suppressed by the Ottomans in 1818, but spectacularly resurrected in the 1920s,
to become the Saudi Kingdom that we know today). But since its renaissance in
the 1920s, the Saudi project has always carried within it, the "gene" of its own
THE SAUDI TAIL HAS WAGGED BRITAIN AND U.S. IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Paradoxically, it was a maverick British official, who helped embed the gene
into the new state. The British official attached to Aziz, was oneHarry
St. John Philby(the father of
the MI6 officer who spied for the Soviet KGB, Kim Philby). He was to become King
Abd al-Aziz's close adviser, having resigned as a British official, and was
until his death, a key member of the Ruler's Court. He, like Lawrence of Arabia,
was an Arabist. He was also a convert to Wahhabi Islam and known as Sheikh
St. John Philby was a man on the make: he had determined to make his friend, Abd
al-Aziz, the ruler of Arabia. Indeed, it is clear that in furthering this
ambition he was not acting on official instructions. When, for example, he
encouraged King Aziz to expand in northern Nejd, he was ordered to desist. But
(as American author, Stephen Schwartznotes),
Aziz was well aware that Britain had pledged repeatedly that the defeat of the
Ottomans would produce an Arab state, and this no doubt, encouraged Philby and
Aziz to aspire to the latter becoming its new ruler.
It is not clear exactly what passed between Philby and the Ruler (the details
seem somehow to have been suppressed), but it would appear that Philby's vision
was not confined to state-building in the conventional way, but rather was one
of transforming the wider Islamicummah
(or community of believers) into a Wahhabist instrument that would entrench
the al-Saud as Arabia's leaders. And for this to happen, Aziz needed to win
British acquiescence (and much later, American endorsement). "This was the
gambit that Abd al-Aziz made his own, with advice from Philby," notes Schwartz.
BRITISH GODFATHER OF SAUDI ARABIA
In a sense, Philby may be said to be "godfather" to this momentous pact by which
the Saudi leadership would use its clout to "manage" Sunni Islam on behalf of
western objectives (containing socialism, Ba'athism, Nasserism, Soviet
influence, Iran, etc.) -- and in return, the West would acquiesce to Saudi
Arabia's soft-power Wahhabisation of the Islamicummah(with
its concomitant destruction of Islam's intellectual traditions and diversity and
its sowing of deep divisions within the Muslim world).
"In political and financial terms, the Saud-Philby strategy has been an
astonishing success. But it was always rooted in British and American
intellectual obtuseness: the refusal to see the dangerous 'gene' within the
Wahhabist project, its latent potential to mutate, at any time, back into its
original a bloody, puritan strain. In any event, this has just happened:ISISis
As a result -- from then until now -- British and American policy has been bound
to Saudi aims (as tightly as to their own ones), and has been heavily dependent
on Saudi Arabia for direction in pursuing its course in the Middle East.
In political and financial terms, the Saud-Philby strategy has been an
astonishing success (if taken on its own, cynical, self-serving terms). But it
was always rooted in British and American intellectual obtuseness: the refusal
to see the dangerous "gene" within the Wahhabist project, its latent potential
to mutate, at any time, back into its original a bloody, puritan strain. In any
event, this has just happened:ISISis
Winning western endorsement (and continued western endorsement), however,
required a change of mode: the "project" had to change from being an armed,
proselytizing Islamic vanguard movement into something resembling statecraft.
This was never going to be easy because of the inherent contradictions involved
realpolitikand money) -- and as
time has progressed, the problems of accommodating the "modernity" that
statehood requires, has caused "the gene" to become more active, rather than
become more inert.
Even Abd al-Aziz himself faced an allergic reaction: in the form of a serious
rebellion from his own Wahhabi militia, the Saudi Ikhwan. When the expansion of
control by theIkhwanreached
the border of territories controlled by Britain, Abd al-Aziz tried to restrain
his militia (Philby was urging him to seek British patronage), but theIkwhan,
already critical of his use of modern technology (the telephone, telegraph and
the machine gun), "were outraged by the abandonment ofjihadfor
reasons of worldlyrealpolitik...
They refused to lay down their weapons; and instead rebelled against their king
... After a series of bloody clashes, they were crushed in 1929.Ikhwanmembers
who had remained loyal, were later absorbed into the [Saudi] National Guard."
King Aziz's son and heir, Saud, faced a different form of reaction (less bloody,
but more effective). Aziz's son was deposed from the throne by the religious
establishment -- in favor of his brother Faisal -- because of his ostentatious
and extravagant conduct. His lavish, ostentatious style, offended the religious
establishment who expected the "Imam of Muslims," to pursue a pious,
King Faisal, Saud's successor, in his turn, was shot by his nephew in 1975, who
had appeared at Court ostensibly to make his oath of allegiance, but who
instead, pulled out a pistol and shot the king in his head. The nephew had been
perturbed by the encroachment of western beliefs and innovation into Wahhabi
society, to the detriment of the original ideals of the Wahhabist project.
SEIZING THE GRAND MOSQUE IN 1979
Far more serious, however, was the revivedIkhwanof
Juhayman al-Otaybi, which culminated in theseizure
of the Grand Mosqueby some
400-500 armed men and women in 1979. Juhayman was from the influential Otaybi
tribe from the Nejd, which had led and been a principal element in the originalIkhwanof
Juhayman and his followers, many of whom came from the Medina seminary, had the
tacit support, amongst other clerics, of Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Bin Baz, the former
Mufti of Saudi Arabia. Juhayman stated that Sheikh Bin Baz never objected to hisIkhwanteachings
(which were also critical ofulemalaxity
towards "disbelief"), but that bin Baz hadblamed
himmostly for harking on that
"the ruling al-Saud dynasty had lost its legitimacy because it was corrupt,
ostentatious and had destroyed Saudi culture by an aggressive policy of
Significantly, Juhayman's followers preached theirIkhwanimessage
in a number of mosques in Saudi Arabia initially without being arrested, but
when Juhayman and a number of theIkhwanfinally
were held for questioning in 1978. Members of theulema(including
bin Baz) cross-examined them for heresy, but then ordered their release because
they saw them as being no more than traditionalists harkening back to theIkhwan--
like Juhayman grandfather -- and therefore not a threat.
Even when the mosque seizure was defeated and over, a certain level of
forbearance by theulemafor
the rebels remained. When the government asked for a fatwa allowing for armed
force to be used in the mosque, the language of bin Baz and other seniorulemawascuriously
restrained. The scholars did not declare Juhayman and his followers
non-Muslims, despite their violation of the sanctity of the Grand Mosque, but
only termed themal-jamaah
al-musallahah(the armed group).
The group that Juhayman led was far from marginalized from important sources of
power and wealth. In a sense, it swam in friendly, receptive waters. Juhayman's
grandfather had been one of the leaders of the the original Ikhwan, and after
the rebellion against Abdel Aziz, many of his grandfather's comrades in arms
the National Guard -- indeed Juhayman himself had served within the Guard --
thus Juhayman was able to obtain weapons and military expertise from
sympathizers in the National Guard, and the necessary arms and food to sustain
the siege werepre-positioned,
and hidden, within the Grand Mosque. Juhayman was also able to call on
wealthy individuals tofundthe
ISIS VS. WESTERNIZED SAUDIS
The point of rehearsing this history is to underline how uneasy the Saudi
leadership must be at the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. PreviousIkhwanimanifestations
were suppressed -- but these all occurred inside the kingdom.
ISIS however, is a neo-Ikhwanirejectionist
protest that is taking place outside the kingdom -- and which, moreover, follows
the Juhayman dissidence in its trenchant criticism of the al-Saud ruling family.
This is the deep schism we see today in Saudi Arabia, between the modernizing
current of which King Abdullah is a part, and the "Juhayman" orientation of
which bin Laden, and the Saudi supporters of ISIS and the Saudi religious
establishment are a part. It is also a schism that existswithin
the Saudi royal familyitself.
According to the Saudi-ownedAl-Hayatnewspaper,
in July 2014 "an opinion poll of Saudis [was] released on social networking
sites, claiming that 92 percent of the target group believes that 'IS conforms
to the values of Islam and Islamic law.'" The leading Saudi commentator, Jamal
ISIS' Saudi supporters who "watch from the shadows."
There are angry youths with a skewed mentality and understanding of life and
sharia, and they are canceling a heritage of centuries and the supposed gains
of a modernization that hasn't been completed. They turned into rebels, emirs
and a caliph invading a vast area of our land. They are hijacking our
children's minds and canceling borders. They reject all rules and
legislations, throwing it [a]way ... for their vision of politics, governance,
life, society and economy. [For] the citizens of the self-declared "commander
of the faithful," or Caliph, you have no other choice ... They don't care if
you stand out among your people and if you are an educated man, or a lecturer,
or a tribe leader, or a religious leader, or an active politician or even a
judge ... You must obey the commander of the faithful and pledge the oath of
allegiance to him. When their policies are questioned, Abu Obedia al-Jazrawi
yells, saying: "Shut up. Our reference is the book and the Sunnah and that's
"What did we do wrong?" Khashoggiasks.
With 3,000-4,000 Saudi fighters in the Islamic State today, he advises of the
need to "look
inward to explain ISIS' rise". Maybe it is time, he says, to admit "our
political mistakes," to "correct the mistakes of our predecessors."
MODERNIZING KING THE MOST VULNERABLE
The present Saudi king, Abdullah, paradoxically is all the more vulnerable
precisely because he has been a modernizer. The King has curbed the influence of
the religious institutions and the religious police -- and importantlyhas
permittedthe four Sunni schools
of jurisprudence to be used, by those who adhere to them (al-Wahhab, by
contrast, objected to all other schools of jurisprudence other than his own).
"The key political question is whether the simple fact of ISIS' successes, and
the full manifestation (flowering) of all the original pieties and vanguardism
of the archetypal impulse, will stimulate and activate the dissenter 'gene' --withinthe
Saudi kingdom. If it does, and Saudi Arabia is engulfed by the ISIS fervor, the
Gulf will never be the same again. Saudi Arabia will deconstruct and the Middle
East will be unrecognizable."
It is even possible too for Shiite residents of eastern Saudi Arabia to invokeJa'afri
jurisprudenceand to turn toJa'afari
Shiiteclerics for rulings. (In
clear contrast, al-Wahhab held a particular animosity towards the Shiite and
held them to be apostates. Asrecentlyas
the 1990s, clerics such as bin Baz -- the former Mufti -- and Abdullah Jibrin
reiterated the customary view that the Shiite were infidels).
Some contemporary Saudiulemawould
regard such reforms as constituting almost a provocation against Wahhabist
doctrines, or at the very least, another example of westernization. ISIS, for
example, regards any who seek jurisdiction other than that offered by the
Islamic State itself to be guilty of disbelief -- since all such "other"
jurisdictions embody innovation or "borrowings" from other cultures in its view.
The key political question is whether the simple fact of ISIS' successes, and
the full manifestation (flowering) of all the original pieties and vanguardism
of the archetypal impulse, will stimulate and activate the dissenter 'gene' --withinthe
If it does, and Saudi Arabia is engulfed by the ISIS fervor, the Gulf will never
be the same again. Saudi Arabia will deconstruct and the Middle East will be
"They hold up a mirror to Saudi society that seems to reflect back to them an
image of 'purity' lost"
is the natureof the time bomb
tossed into the Middle East. The ISIS allusions to Abd al-Wahhab and Juhayman
(whose dissident writings are circulated within ISIS) present a powerful
provocation: they hold up a mirror to Saudi society that seems to reflect back
to them an image of "purity" lost and early beliefs and certainties displaced by
shows of wealth and indulgence.
This is the ISIS "bomb" hurled into Saudi society. King Abdullah -- and his
reforms -- are popular, and perhaps he can contain a new outbreak ofIkwhanidissidence.
But will that option remain a possibility after his death?
And here is the difficulty with evolving U.S. policy, which seems to be one of
"leading from behind" again -- and looking to Sunni states and communities to
coalesce in the fight against ISIS (as in Iraq with the Awakening Councils).
It is a strategy that seems highly implausible. Who would want to insert
themselves into this sensitive intra-Saudi rift? And would concerted Sunni
attacks on ISIS make King Abdullah's situation better, or might it inflame and
anger domestic Saudi dissidence even further? So whom precisely does ISIS
threaten? It could not be clearer. It does not directly threaten the West
(though westerners should remain wary, and not tread on this particular
is plain: As Ibn Saud and Abd al-Wahhab made it such in the 18th century; and as
it such in the 20th century. ISIS' real target must be the Hijaz -- the seizure
of Mecca and Medina -- and the legitimacy that this will confer on ISIS as the
new Emirs of Arabia.