Counter-Terrorism: ISIL And The Saudi Connection


August 21, 2014: Saudi Arabia was the original source of nearly all current Islamic terrorism and is still the source of most recruits and financial supports for these groups. Despite this Saudi Arabia declared itself an enemy of al Qaeda in the 1990s, literally went to war with al Qaeda in 2003 and recently agreed to abide by new UN sanctions against Islamic terrorist fund raisers. These new rules were adopted on August 16th and pressure was applied to the wealthy Gulf oil states to enforce them vigorously this time. The Saudis recently demonstrated their determination to do so by sentencing four young Saudis to prison for trying to go off and join ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Earlier this year (February) the Saudis made it illegal for Saudi citizens to join ISIL but in typical Saudi fashion waited a while before strictly enforcing it. The Saudis have a hard time punishing fellow Saudis for being Islamic radicalism, in large part because Arabia was where Islamic radicalism was invented and is still highly respected and practiced.

The Arabian Peninsula is where Islam was founded in the 7th century and where the highest concentration of the world’s oil supply is found. This combination of Islamic conservatism and vast wealth has created a situation where it is difficult for the Saudi government to go after all the financial backers of Islamic terrorism in their midst. There too many of these guys and some are quite high wealthy, powerful and well connected. Despite the official prohibitions there continue to be some wealthy Arabian families willing to fund Islamic terrorist groups, even those as extreme as al Qaeda and ISIL.

The situation is worse with ISIL, which recently declared a new Islamic empire, or caliphate, in areas of Syria and Iraq that it controlled.  But now Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the two major sources of Islamic terrorist funding, have agreed that outfits like ISIL are a threat to even Islamic conservatives and must be destroyed. The Saudis and Kuwaitis won’t be able to stop all the ISIL donations but can reduce the flow of cash considerably by stressing “self-preservation” to the hard-core donors.   

The UN has condemned ISIL for committing crimes against humanity and being an international pariah. Even other Islamic terrorist groups are appalled at the harsh way ISIL treats civilians and anyone who opposes them. ISIL relishes the publicity their atrocities receive. But al Qaeda knows from bitter experience (in Iraq from 2006-2008) that the atrocities simply turn the Islamic world against you. The bad relations between ISIL and all the other Islamic radicals reached a low point in June 2013 when the head of al Qaeda (bin Laden successor Ayman al Zawahiri) declared the recent merger of the new (since January 2013) Syrian Jabhat al Nusra (JN) with the decade old Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) unacceptable and ordered the two groups to remain separate. The reason for this was that the merger was announced by ISI without the prior agreement of the JN leadership. The merger formed a third group; Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That was the problem, as many JN members then left their JN faction to join nearby ones being formed by ISIL. JN leaders saw this as a power grab by ISI/ISIL and most of the JN men who left to join ISIL were non-Syrians. Many of these men had worked with ISI before and thought they were joining a more powerful group.

Forming ISIL was just an attempt by ISI to grab some glory, recruits, cash and power by poaching JN members. JN appealed to Zawahiri for help and got it. That did not end the matter and the dispute escalated in January 2014 when outright war between ISIL and other Islamic terror groups in Syria began. A month later al Qaeda declared ISIL outcasts and sanctioned the war against them.

That’s not the first time al Qaeda has had to slap down misbehaving Iraqi Islamic terror groups and won’t be the last. But it’s not a problem unique to Iraq. It is a problem for Saudi Arabia because the Saudis financed and armed al Nusra and some of the other Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria that are now at war with ISIL. To the Saudis such support is the lesser of two evils as ISIL is crippling rebel efforts to overthrow the Assad government. This is also part of the ideological war the Saudis (and most other Sunni Moslems) are fighting with Shia Iran (and its Shia allies the Assads and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon). Meanwhile the Saudis continue crushing the Sunni Islamic terrorists that try to attack them at home. This includes local members of ISIL.

Saudi Arabia has been having more problems with ISIL at home. In early 2014 the Saudis revealed that it had broken up an ISIL operation inside Saudi Arabia. This involved charging 62 ISIL members (59 Saudis, a Yemeni, a Pakistani and a Palestinian) who were planning several attacks and assassinations in Saudi Arabia. At that point 35 of the 62 have been arrested and the rest were being sought along with new suspects revealed after interrogating those already in custody. The Saudis are thorough and persistent in these matters. This can be seen in how Saudi Arabia continues to prosecute Islamic terrorists who made several major attacks in 2003 and 2004 during a brief al Qaeda terror campaign inside Saudi Arabia. In early 2014 a Saudi court condemned three of these terrorists (two Saudis and a Kuwaiti) to death for their role in three attacks made in 2003 against residential compounds.  The terrorist violence in Saudi Arabia greatly increased after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which enraged al Qaeda. Even though Saudi Arabia officially condemned this operation, it was seen as an infidel occupation of the al Qaeda homeland. So the terror attacks in Saudi Arabia began, because the Saudi government had not resisted the "crusaders" with force. ISIL sees the Saudis as the enemy because of this. Thus one of the few things Saudi Arabia and Iran can agree on is that ISIL must be destroyed. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are already quietly tending to that common goal.

The Saudis have been dealing with Islamic terrorism within their borders since the kingdom was formed in the 1920s and were able to quickly defeat the 2003 al Qaeda offensive. By 2009 over a thousand al Qaeda members were killed or prosecuted in the kingdom. Several thousand more were arrested and released, often after a period of rehabilitation. Certain clergy were ordered to halt their pro-radical preaching. All clerics were encouraged to point out the religious errors in the thinking behind al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists. The Saudi royalty have always had considerable control over the Islamic clergy (who are all, in effect, state employees.)

A large minority of Saudis still support al Qaeda, but it's the majority who do not and that makes it nearly impossible for the terrorists to operate in their "homeland." Killing civilians will do that, and al Qaeda has not been able to figure out how to fight without shedding the blood of innocents. So the innocents are taking their revenge.

Despite what the United States and the West wants, events in Arabia follow a different rhythm. Right now the local support for ISIL is just not there, but the Islamic radicalism that created centuries of Islamic terrorism outbreaks survives and will keep providing headlines for the rest of the world. 




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