When Saudi rulers send warplanes on missions against Islamic State, they’re targeting a group whose theocratic ideology and roots in desert warfare overlap at least partly with the kingdom’s own present and past.
The world’s largest oil exporter has evolved into a mostly urban society in its eight decades of statehood, yet nomadic fighters erupting from the desert in a blaze of religious zeal are still part of its foundation narrative. Today inSaudi Arabia, as in the territory controlled by Islamic State inSyria and Iraq, women must wear black abayas, shops all close during prayer times, religious police enforce Islamic laws and criminals face violent punishment.
Saudi Arabia, like its longtime U.S. ally, sees Islamic State as a terrorist group and has joined the war against it. Yet the jihadists share some common ground with their Saudi opponents, even if that’s outweighed by their differences, and they have sympathizers in the kingdom, according to Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University. Some Saudis view the U.S.-led bombing campaign as a Western plot against the Muslim world, and such sentiments have provoked a backlash in the past, especially when U.S. troops were allowed into the kingdom to fight the 1991 Gulf War.
Islamic State refers to “the same texts that the Saudi government and official clergy do on religious questions,” and there are “similarities in terms of enforcing public morality,” Gause said. The group’s biggest threat to the kingdom is “its ability to recruit sympathizers within Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi rulers have been trying to prevent their citizens from fighting abroad in Islamist causes since the Syrian war escalated, and the top clerics have denounced Islamic State.
Courts have sentenced more than 30 people to prison this week for conspiring to attack U.S. forces based in Qatar and Kuwait and for supporting the killing of foreigners and government officials in the kingdom, the official Saudi Press Agency said. They included four women said to have encouraged their children to join overseas wars. There have been more than 200 terrorism-related convictions in the past two months.
The kingdom’s austere form of Islam dates to a 1744 pact between the Al Saud family, now its rulers, and Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, a religious scholar who denounced the practices of the era’s Muslims as impure. Their alliance created a “militant Wahhabi movement” and marked the beginnings of a Saudi state, according to Michael Cook’s 2000 book, “Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought.”
The modern state was founded in 1932 by Abdulaziz Al Saud, the current king’s father, after a campaign of conquest backed by Wahhabi Muslim warriors known as the Ikhwan and famed for their ardor during battle. When the Ikhwan took Taif near Mecca in 1924, they plundered the city for three days, killing an estimated 400 people, Eugene Rogan wrote in “The Arabs: A History,” published in 2009
Saudi religious thought has evolved and “the Wahhabism of today isn’t in favor of the jihadi movement,” said Fahad A. Alhomoudi, the founder of the Western Studies Institute in Saudi Arabia. Islamic State is “more of a militant movement, instead of an Islamic movement,” said Alhomoudi, formerly a professor at the School of Law at Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University.
Violence combined with an appeal to Islamic theology has marked Islamic State’s rapid advance across Syria and Iraq, where it has declared a caliphate on land it conquered. Promotional videos show the beheading or torture of captives or battle scenes, interspersed with Koranic citations.
This combination means that the Saudis see a dual threat when they look at Islamic State, said Paul Pillar, a former intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Its military prowess is “a possible short-term threat to any established power in the region,” and the jihadist group could also “in the longer term be seen as a challenge to the Saudi regime’s religiously-based claim to legitimacy,” Pillar, now a professor at Georgetown University, said in an e-mail.
Much of Islamic State’s violence has been directed toward Shiite Muslims, as well as Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria, and also toward women, who have been sold as slaves or subjected to forced marriages, Human Rights Watch said.
While they’re not usually exposed to violence, the same groups are regularly featured in human rights reports critical of Saudi Arabia. Saudi clerics such as Mohammed al-Arefe, who has more than 9.5 million Twitter followers, mostly reject Shiite practices and dismiss women’s right to drive cars. Authorities today warned women against pursuing a campaign on the issue.
Other faiths are banned, and practitioners have been arrested by religious police for holding private services in their homes. Offenders can be flogged, or beheaded for serious crimes.
Islamic State and Wahhabi doctrines overlap in “puritanism and xenophobia toward non-Muslims and Shiite,” said David Commins, author of “The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia” and a professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
A key difference is “the caliphate agenda,” Commins said, referring to the title used by Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The revival of a term used by earlier Islamic leaders suggests a wider ambition to rule all Muslims. “That was never part of Wahhabi doctrine,” Commins said.
Abdulaziz halted his expansion once most of the Arabian Peninsula was conquered, and turned against the Ikhwan, whose main leaders later surrendered to the British. That history underscores another distinction with Islamic State, that between an established power and an expansionist upstart, according to James Dorsey, a senior fellow in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“The House of Saud wants to ensure its grip on power,” and doesn’t seek to expand beyond its borders or “create one unified Muslim state that would be ruled by a caliph,” he said. “Islamic State seeks to topple existing regimes that it views as apostate.”
Saudi Arabia’s current ruler, the 90-year-old King Abdullah, has sought to change the kingdom. He has tentatively promoted women’s role in the workplace since ascending to the throne in 2005 and encouraged thousands of young Saudis to study abroad through a state-sponsored scholarship program.
‘Violence and Compulsion’
Comparing Saudi Arabia to the Islamic State “neglects the gradual but significant cultural change that has taken place since the 1990 Gulf War,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc., a consultancy based in Vienna, Virginia, who has worked for the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
“The Saudis have adopted a more inclusive narrative that tries to bridge the divide with the Shiite minority at home and the followers of other faiths abroad,” Nazer said. Islamic State puts “violence and compulsion at the center of its creed,” while Saudi clerics and writers have joined efforts to “discredit Islamic State’s religious narrative and to expose its heinous crimes.”
The Gulf War triggered an outpouring of criticism by Saudi religious scholars of the decision to let U.S. troops deploy in the kingdom. It was the last time, until this year, that the Saudis publicly sided with the Americans in a major Middle East conflict.
Adding to Saudi concerns is the fact that so many Saudi citizens are among the jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq. There are about 2,500 of them in Syria, the New York-based Soufan Group, a security research firm, estimated in a June report. Twelve of 21 Islamic State suicide bombings in Iraq since last month were carried out by Saudis, London-based al-Hayat newspaper said last week.
Jihadists who returned to the kingdom from past wars in Iraq and Afghanistan used skills they learned there to attack Saudi targets. Their appeal was enhanced by the fact that “Islam is essentially republican in spirit and more than skeptical about monarchy,” said Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
“Those who are attracted to movements like Da‘esh are potentially lethal boomerangs against the Al Saud,’’ Freeman said in an e-mailed response to questions, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. ‘‘They consider violence against those with whom they disagree a religious duty.’’
Al-Qaeda also targeted the Al Saud, especially after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Its campaign ultimately failed, because ‘‘the state was strong enough to put them down’’ and rich enough to retain the loyalty of ‘‘the vast bulk of the Sunni population,’’ Gause said.
Islamic State ‘‘is basically the same as al-Qaeda politically and doctrinally, just more successful on the ground,’’ he said. It ‘‘might be a stronger opponent, if it can sustain a state-like entity in the region. That is a big if.’’
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