The Temptations and Risks of Supporting Extremism

The US and its allies in Afghanistan, Israel in supporting Hamas at its inception, Iran in sponsoring various bodies named “Hezbollah” in the 1980’s, and Pakistan with the Haggani group among others, all have given into this temptation. In most cases they have regretted the subsequent “blowback” when these groupings prove volatile, unpredictable and independent.

Since 2001 fear of general (as opposed to local or national) terrorism has come to the fore. Groups like Al Qaida, using Islam as a cover for a broader global agenda, are often termed “ Jihadi” in allusion to their attempts at religious justification for their acts of violence. Yet even Al Qaida, which has local chapters in Yemen and the Maghreb, and which appears in eclipse, have noticed that excessive violence alienates its potential constituency among the dispossessed, confused and angry Sunni world. Hence its expulsion of Islamic State (or ISIS) in April as too barbaric to merit further cooperation.

It is a matter of contention whether jihadis are motivated by religion or by identity-crises, economic and social marginalization and the attractions of a harsh simplistic faith which acts as personal and group reassurance. Although the ‘religious’ component is undoubtedly secondary to others, it is an intrinsic element in recruitment and validation of volunteers. And this raises the question where the responsibility for the growth and manifestation of jihadism lies.

Saudi Arabia, which practices a particularly conservative form of Islam, Wahhabism, and which promotes Salafi Islam politically and financially throughout the Muslim world, is often depicted as the treasurer and mastermind and above all the inspiration behind the global jihadi movement.

The indictment of the Kingdom is not entirely undeserved. As the Keeper of the Holy Places, Saudi Arabia uses Islam in its diplomacy, promoting and funding Salafism in Pakistan, the Caucasus, Maghreb and S.E. Asia. Since the challenge for the leadership of the Muslim world posed by revolutionary Shi’i Iran in 1979, Saudi Arabia to weaken its rival has played the sectarian card (“apostasy”) encouraging conflict between the two sects to diminish Iran’s claims to Muslim leadership. Inevitably this has led to communal strife and tensions in places like Pakistan, and later Iraq. Extremist Sunni groupings were not discouraged and private funding for such groupings from the Kingdom were not controlled.

It was the Iraqi war and the emergence of a Shi’i government in a neighboring state (apparently with US complaisance) that encouraged Riyadh to a more shrill form of promoting sectarian polarization. With disturbances in Bahrain (majority Shi’i) and later the Syrian civil war, which saw Iranian support for the Assad regime against a largely Sunni opposition, the situation deteriorated further.

However there is another side to the story. Already in the 1990’s Saudi Arabia had found that its funding of the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan was a two-edged sword, when these militants returned home. Unable to control such groups inevitably the Kingdom was linked to the bombings in the US in 2001.

Thereafter the Kingdom itself came under terrorist attack in 2005/6. Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula turned out to be a mortal enemy. More recently the more extreme IS (EI) shows few signs of limiting its activities to Shi’i Iraq (or Iran) but has wider, territorial ambitions.

Saudi Arabia has already moved to ban the Muslim Brotherhood and taken its distance from Hamas. Recent disclosures suggest that only 5% of the revenues of IS are from the Gulf. The Kingdom has contributed $100 million to a UN anti-terrorism centre. King Abdullah told Foreign Ambassadors on August 31st, “Terrorism at this time, is an evil force that must be fought with wisdom and speed.”

The temptation to use radical groups for national policies may now be resisted. However bad relations with Iran, the fact is that both states (and others) share an interest in containing and disbanding militant, transnational extremists and preventing the kind of widespread violence that threatens the entire region from Turkey through Pakistan. That is a shared interest and it should not have taken the rise of IS to have demonstrated it. Also the recent lesson of Maliki’s Iraq is that for stability there is surely the need for broader inclusive policies of representation for all communities. Saudi Arabia could practice this at home with its minority Shi’i population to its advantage. 

Dr. Shahram Chubin is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A specialist in the security problems of the Middle East region, he has been a consultant to the US Department of Defense, the United Nations, and the Swiss government.


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