West’s Mistake: Focus on Al Qaeda
CURRENT AFFAIRS, 23 July 2012
by Dr Robin-Edward Poulton – TRANSCEND Media Service
The Real Big Problem Is Saudi Arabia
One of our really big foreign policy mistakes in the West has been to focus on Al Qaeda, as if it were an isolated phenomenon.
The story starts in Saudi Arabia (named after the al-Saud tribe). The Saudi royal family has always been politically weak: they are disliked by many of the Arabs in Arabia, as well as elsewhere. If you look at the founding of the country, one tribal leader did a deal with the British: and to reinforce his tenuous claims to primacy over other tribes, al-Saud used the salafist ideology of Wahabbism to make his tribe sound religiously more motivated and more reformist than any of the other tribes.
In November 1979 a coup d’etat led by Captain Juhayman of the Royal Guard almost brought down the Royal House of al-Saudi. The king’s reaction to the coup meant that his Muslim credentials were henceforward discredited. The Saudi king saved his throne by calling on the French, who sent in Christian military police and paratroops to take back the great mosque of Mecca where Juhayman was ensconced. Non-Muslims and foreigners entered the Holy Kaaba with guns, for the sole purpose of killing Muslims. Heresy ! The al-Sauds had committed heresy.
Al Qaeda is simply one facet of Saudi radical Islamic politics. It was founded by a Saudi (Osama ben Laden) and a radical Palestinian professor (Sheikh Abdullah Youssef Azzam – a Palestinian born in 1941 in Jenin, who broke away from the nationalist Palestinian struggle in favor of a broader pan-Islamic jihad. Azzam was teaching at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, and Osama was one of his students. They both went to Pakistan in early 1980, to fight the atheist Soviets who had just invaded Muslim Afghanistan…. and to get away from the Saudis who had just massacred Juhayman and hundreds of his supporters using French troops.
Osama Ben Laden and other Salafists sharing his belief system went into open revolt. The Ulema were bought off by the al-Sauds (and they were also paid to issue a FATWA to justify the terrible events of Mecca) with the vast Saudi wealth that emerged following the 1973 oil crisis. After 1973, Saudi oil revenues went up something like 1000 times! The money was limitless, and thus the deal was sealed. Wahabbism has been expanding ever since as a matter of Saudi State policy.
Osama’s personal crusade against the Saud royal family explains in large part the policies of Al Qaeda, including 9/11 which (in my opinion) had very little to do with US as the Great Satan and everything to do with Saudi politics and the fact that US troops were stationed on Saudi soil (since the Kuwait invasion orchestrated by Saddam, and then the counter-invasion organised by President George H.W. Bush).
From the ideological point of view, this was sacrilege to Osama : foreign ‘infidel’ troops on holy Muslim soil, etc.
From the political point of view, it was more serious still: the US troops guaranteed the stability of the Saudi throne. Osama dreamed of overthrowing the Sauds and becoming the Sheikh of Arabia – rather as the Ayatollah Khomeini had overthrown the Shah of Iran. Of course, Osama was no erudite Ayatollah: he was simply a building contractor – but if the Sauds could rule by bribing the Ulema, while still drinking whisky and frolicking with US troops, then Osama could easily have brokered the same deal with the same oil revenues. If Juhayman – a mere captain in the Royal Guard – could almost overthrow the Sauds in 1979, why should Osama not manage it with the Al Qaeda armies he had at his disposal?
The answer is that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney bombed him out of his hideaway in Kandahar and into hiding in Pakistan. Al Qaeda went on the defensive, but the Saudis, Wahabbists, Salafists and Deobandists did not. They carried on spreading their poison exactly as before.
While we have all been watching Osama, the Ulema have been funding teachers, madersas and mosques all over the world. They have used the annual pilgrimage to Mecca as a political tool: subsidising the Haj on a grand scale in order to bring masses of pilgrims for free and ‘re-converting’ Muslims to their salafist way of thinking. They have been spreading the Wahabbist salafist ideology to Muslims who feel victims of poverty, American aggression, and Western imperialism. West Africa is full of these preachers. All over Africa and Asia (and also in pockets of Europe and America) they are working. In 2002 in Cambodia, an extremist madersa was closed and the Pakistani and other teachers were expelled from the country.
In 1998 in Canada, an African friend of mine (a Protestant from Rwanda) married to a Malian university professor at McGill was told by her husband that he wanted her to wear a scarf. To please her husband, she did so. Then – in the house of a friend of her husband’s, she found herself eating in the kitchen with the women. Because she loved her husband, she put up with it. When her husband asked her to eat in the kitchen in her own house, while he and his friends ate in the dining room, she drew a line at the Salafist extremism that had infiltrated her own family, and sued for divorce.
Such is the creeping cancer of Salafism. We have seen its influence emerging as a worldwide political influence. Al Shabab in Somalia is an extremist armed Salafist movement linked to Al Qaeda, which also supports and is funded by piracy in the Indian ocean. Yemen has become a hub for Al Qaeda. Extreme Salafist elements are known to live all along the Swahili coastline. The Muslim Brotherhood which has taken power by the ballot box in Tunisia and in Egypt. We must remember that Ayman al-Zawahiri, now head of Al Qaeda, was originally a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to take power by force of arms in Syria, using Qatari and Saudi money and weapons and the al-Nusri terrorist group that is fighting the Syrian Alawite (therefore Shia) regime is linked to Al Qaeda.
For reasons I am unable to comprehend, Western politicians are supporting the Sunni Fundamentalist agenda in Syria.
For ten years, Western leaders have been ignoring the creeping threat of Wahabbist extremism in Africa (and the cocaine and city gangs coming from Latin America). Suddenly, we find we have Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) running an independent Islamic Narco-State that is sitting in the Sahara Desert on reserves of oil and gas and uranium. Salafist nut-cases are destroying Islamic tombs in Timbuktu. How did we all allow this to happen?
The leaders of the EU and the AU do not know what to do next. They are in thrall to the Saudi and Gulf oil supplies. Wahabbism has us by the throat, and we are choking.
Robin E Poulton:
President, V-Peace Virginia Institute for Peace and Islamic Studies
Vice-President, Virginia Friends of MALI
Adjunct Professor, University of Richmond 2001-2007
Visiting Professor in International Studies 2002-2004 at VCU
Professor of French West Africa Studies (affiliate), School of World Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University 2012-2014.
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