So why did militants turn to attack the West? — The Saudi Arabia driver

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by Neil Godfrey

This post follows on from The Origins of Islamic Militancy. This time I change pace and copy a small section from pages 92 to 94 of Jason Burke’s book, The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy (2015). I have a lot of time for Burke’s books on this topic. He is one of the few to get out into the field, sometimes at risk to his own life, to talk with terrorists and their associates. Formatting and bolding are mine.

So why did militants turn to attack the West? One important reason is to be found in Saudi Arabia.

Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud
Abdulaziz ibn Saud

As a state, Saudi Arabia owed its foundation to the alliance of the battle-hardened latter-day followers of Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who had preached an austere, puritanical interpretation of Islam in the Arabian peninsula since the late eighteenth century, and an ambitious, capable tribal leader called Abdulaziz ibn Saud.

In 1979 came three events that shook the Saudi monarchy:

  • the seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca by a group of local extremists,
  • the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets
  • and the Iranian revolution. 

Each involved a different enemy — violent local militants who branded their rulers apostates, atheist Communists and Shia Islamists — but each revealed a new and potentially deadly threat to the reign of the house of Saud.

One response of the kingdom’s rulers was to use a substantial amount of the vast wealth generated by their oil revenues to expand the proselytisation of the Wahhabi creed, one of the most rigorous, intolerant and conservative existing in Islam, throughout the Sunni Muslim world. This had been a policy for some time but now the effort was massively expanded in an updated though much more far-reaching version of the original strategy that had brought them to power sixty years before. The aim was to reinforce their own religious credentials at home while increasing their influence overseas, allowing them to reassert their claim to both religious and political leadership in the Islamic world.

Over the ensuing decades,

  • tens of thousands of religious schools, mosques, Islamic universities and religious centres were built worldwide. 
  • Hundreds of thousands of scholarships to Saudi universities were offered and stipends paid to preachers.
  • Tens of millions of copies of holy texts and, more importantly, deeply conservative interpretations of them, were published and distributed.

This strategic choice was to have a huge impact on the Muslim world, fundamentally altering faith, observance and religious identity for hundreds of millions of people. It also contributed, as intended, to a shift of cultural influence from Egypt, once the unchallenged intellectual centre of the Arab world, to Saudi Arabia, its religious centre.

The effects of this campaign were reinforced by the connection made by many around the Islamic world between the immense wealth and level of development of the Gulf States and their apparent piety. More practically, life and faith in these countries were experienced at first hand by millions of temporary workers from poorer, troubled Muslim-majority countries, most with very different traditions of Islamic practice, who were drafted in over the decades to perform menial jobs. Despite the hardships they encountered, many went home profoundly impressed by what they had seen and heard, not least in local mosques, and would act as individual propagandists, both practising and spreading the harder-edged faith traditions of the Gulf themselves.

7. One physical manifestation of this was the architecture of the new mosques which proliferated through villages, towns and cities
across the Islamic world. Mosques had traditionally used local materials and incorporated local building styles, and thus reflected the pluralism of Islamic observance as it had evolved in different communities across the world.

The new constructions were all identical boxy, whitewashed, charmless cement constructions resembling places of worship in poorer neighbourhoods in Gulf cities.tunisia1_mosque_chenini

There were none in northern Iraq or Pakistan in the early 1990s, when I travelled there. A decade later, they were ubiquitous.

Efforts were redoubled after 1991 and the public relations disaster of having to ask US troops to defend the kingdom against potential invasion by Saddam Hussein. By the mid-1990s, rigorous, literalist strands of Islam, previously absent or seen as alien, had established a powerful presence across the entire Islamic world and in communities in the West.7

These doctrines rarely encouraged violence directly, but their inherent intolerance would greatly facilitate it. . . . .


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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “So why did militants turn to attack the West? — The Saudi Arabia driver”

  1. Lest we Forget concerns a US determined to turn Afghanistan into the USSR’s ” Viet Nam”

    The Saudi Sunni Wahabi Salafi, at the behest of the House of Saud and with the full knowledge of the US, preached jihad against the “godless”communist USSR and its assistance to the then Afghan Government.

    The Saudis provided vast amounts of money, the USA some funds and most of the training. Training camps were set up in Pakistan with the assistance of the ISI.

    One of these camps was where the training concentrated on Improvised Explosive Devices.

    “Buda’s Wagon : A Brief History of the Car Bomb” by Mike Davis, specifically Chapter 13 “Car Bomb University”

    An “institution” jointly funded by the Saudi GID and the CIA. Here training was given by CIA operatives whose experience came from their work in Viet Nam, other parts of Indo China, Central, South America and Europe. They instructed in the construction and use of IED, VIED, pipe bombs, even camel bombs.

    Then,of course, never having learnt from history* the US via the DIA & CIA brought to fruition ISIS.

    * The two Georges, Hegel and Santayana

    May I suggest The Blowback” Trilogy, by Chalmers Johnson

    •Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire

    •The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic

    •Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic

    Then he wrote

    •Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope

  2. Difficult for amateurs to sort information from disinformation, in the welter of “intelligence” research data – sometimes contrary accounts contain items of agreement. Compare e.g. Craig Murray, Brandon Martinez & Michel Chossudovsky v the so-called “neo-con” & “Zionist” publications/websites. Fact & fiction – all round.

  3. Something is off in the article…?…
    “The effects of this campaign were reinforced by the connection made by many around the Islamic world between the immense wealth and level of development of the Gulf States and their apparent piety. More practically, life and faith in these countries were experienced at first hand by millions of temporary workers from poorer, troubled Muslim-majority countries, most with very different traditions of Islamic practice, who were drafted in over the decades to perform menial jobs..”

    —Saudi and their Wahabism is NOT impressive to most mainstream Muslims….they have destroyed heritage sites important to Muslims……The vulgar construction of luxury hotels by none other than the “Bin Laden Group” in Mecca—the sacred pilgrimage site—has further disgusted many Muslims…..(The hajj is supposed to be a place where all humanity is shown to be equal—in practice)
    However—they do have the money to influence politics of other nations…particularly Muslim-majority democracies that are corrupt anyway…..

    The strong exclusivity, us vs them binary, and identity-constructs can be appealing to many who are uncertain in a time of globalization…..(these characteristics are not exclusive to Wahabism…they happen in all ideologies….)

    Saudi and others in the area are prejudiced at toxic levels to those who are non-Western….there is ongoing diplomatic tensions over mistreatment of eastern workers…though the remittance amounts are large enough that most corrupt non-western governments do little about it….

    I have heard those that are spreading Wahabism are the eastern students who get free scholarships to study in Saudi Arabia…(and some of these are people who would never make it in any respectable local university!)

    Much of the mainstream Islam in the East came about through Sufi philosophers/teachers….and was flexible and tolerant….Wahabism (and other Purists movements) is the opposite of the mainstream Islam practiced in many parts of the East for centuries….60 percent of the global Muslim population is in the East—including the large Muslim-minority nations of China, India and Russia.
    In the East—freedom of speech is not yet robust and this hampers efforts somewhat to combat Wahabism from within Islam….but Muslim scholars in the West are filling the vacuum…..one such effort may be the publication of the study Quran. A scholar I respect, Sayid Hossein Nasr was part of the project….

    The U.S. has also been the BF of Saudi and its Wahabism—using it for geostrategic reasons—ex, the Taliban……let’s not forget that more harm has been caused by arming these people with weapons…..thereby promoting and encouraging violence…this goes for ISIS too…..
    It is extreme stupidity to arm people prone to violence, let them lose among the population,—then bomb them so that those who were not prone to violence—end up seeking vengeance…and escalating the conflict into an endless cycle of murders, one upon another….anyone who thinks this is the way to create peace has most certainly lost his intelligence somewhere……

    @ Neil—I enjoyed our previous conversation….time constraints did not permit me to continue…perhaps we may have another opportunity to exchange views again…..

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