The Saudis’ Preaching Inspired Terror, and Then It Turned on Them

Photo Illustration by Daily Beast / Boko Haram Handout / Sahara Reporter via REUTERS
If you recognize the term "Wahhabi" or "Wahhabism", the conservative state religion of Saudi Arabia, it is probably due on September 11th. After this attack, institutions such as Freedom House began publishing reports on the "Wahhabi ideology" that seemed to provide an intellectual context for a senseless event. The same applies to Salafism, for which there was not even a standard spelling in 2001: The Guardian dealt with "Salafee" in an article after September 11th.
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The terms are still being thrown around by non-Muslims with new vigor after the rise of ISIS, as examples of Saudi Arabian-sponsored "fundamentalist Islam" that vaguely corrupted the Muslim world and was often adopted by jihadist terrorists. Understanding the Saudi religion and its activities abroad, however, requires considerably more nuances. It is true that for decades the Saudis have used their strict religious vision as an instrument of soft power to promote their interests among Arabs worldwide, as well as in Indonesia, Nigeria, Kosovo and almost everywhere else with a sizeable Muslim community. But over the course of six decades, the beliefs that the Saudis used so lavishly to spread had unpredictable effects on the ground, and its most violent apostles actually turned against the kingdom.
The Saudi brand began to deteriorate during the Gulf War from 1990 to 1991, when U.S. non-Muslim troops were admitted to the sacred soil of Arabia to protect them from Saddam Hussein. This move and the perceived hypocrisy of the Saudi clerics, who illuminated him green, impaired the cultivated image of Saudi Arabia as the leader of Muslims everywhere. And it ended the golden age of the Saudi Dawa, which literally means "the call" or the "invitation" to Islam and more generally refers to proselytization.
But September 11th was different. Fifteen of the 19 kidnappers were Saudi nationals, and people's opinions about the kingdom quickly deteriorated. Just six months after the attack, 54 percent of Americans agreed that "the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a state that supports terrorism". The Gulf War was a blow to Saudi Arabia's desire to lead the Muslim world, but 9/11 brought it to its knees.
The 838-page joint investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees into the September 11 attacks, published in 2002, includes a 28-page section on Saudi funding that was not released until 2016, and revealed that some of the hijackers were in contact Individuals and have received or received support from anyone who may be associated with the Saudi government. "
While Saudi Arabia was in the spotlight, something else happened: it had its own September 11th. Al-Qaida, led by former Saudi citizen Osama bin Laden, attacked key targets within the kingdom and destroyed a residential area in Riyadh in 2003 and Saudi oil fields in 2004.
The stunned Saudi government established a joint task force to investigate terrorist financing with the United States and introduced banking regulations in May 2003 that temporarily prevented all private charities from sending funds abroad. These shock waves would be felt in the Muslim world, where Saudi charity had become an integral part of education and development. In 2003, the kingdom briefly considered recalling its religious attachés, diplomats from the Saudi Ministry of Religious Affairs, Dawa and Guidance, who oversaw Dawa's activities in about two dozen countries. A royal decree was issued in 2004 to centralize all Islamic charities.
So September 11 briefly imploded the transnational Saudi Dawa apparatus. When we talk about Saudi money today, it is important to keep this dynamic in mind. It is no longer right to refer to a kind of omnipotent, centralized, ideologically coherent global project. We have to estimate it at face value: piece by piece, diluted, opportunistic.
Saudi Arabia's mid-century ambitions to define orthodoxy in the Muslim world, fight revolutionary ideologies from Iran and Egypt, and support besieged Muslim minorities abroad have expanded their global campaign into a project in the 1990s that openly exceeded their capacities.
For the respected Saudi scholar Madawi al-Rasheed, who lives in self-imposed exile in London, the phenomenon of jihadists like Bin Laden, a Saudi born citizen, perfectly embodies the tension between the kingdom's rhetoric of "obeying their current rulers at home while promoting the spirit of jihad abroad. “This brings us to the point of why Saudi Dawa has such a chaotic impact outside of the kingdom's borders.
Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative religious movement founded by the fiery Arab preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab from the 18th century. It focuses on eliminating idolatry and "deviations" in Islam. After Ibn Abd al-Wahhab signed a pact with the royal house of Saud, it became the official religion of the family and their successive attempts to consolidate a state on the Arabian Peninsula. The last of these came together in 1932 and is today's Saudi Arabia.
Salafism is a reviving Sunni Islamic movement that tries to revert to the traditions of Salaf, the first three generations of Muslims in the seventh and eighth centuries. It came from late 19th century Egypt, mainly in response to western colonialism.
In practice, Salafis and Wahhabis have a lot in common. Both religious tendencies tend to promote personal austerity and intolerance to other beliefs, not only those of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, but also Muslims who have not accepted what they believe to be true faith. Shiite Muslims are a special target. Wahhabism is closely related to Saudi royal authority, which makes little sense outside the Gulf. Therefore, Saudi-Dawa tends to start Salafi communities abroad.
In Saudi Arabia, as recently demonstrated by the courageous steps taken by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to modernize civil society, the state can curb the excesses of the Wahhabi clergy when it deems it necessary. Outside, Salafi movements sponsored by Saudi Arabia are much more difficult to control.
Is Saudi dawa actively creating terrorists? Sometimes, but under very specific conditions, such as Afghan jihad when it sponsored people like Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden. Has Saudi Dawa inspired terrorists, jihadists and extremists? Much wider yes. But they are a subset of a wider universe. “Salafi jihadism,” the tribe of violent Salafism that includes Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, ISIS, and others, usually comes from a larger pool of non-violent Salafis in a particular region, and these broad communities often have direct ties to Saudi Arabia -Dawa.
The most notorious Salafi jihadist group, ISIS, has gained worldwide recognition and claimed to be the true Wahhabi state in the world. In 2014 she founded her own print shop in Mosul to publish Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's texts, much to the dismay of Saudi Arabia.
The surprisingly widespread phenomenon that hard Muslims destroy ancient holy sites from Palmyra to Timbuktu also follows a clearly Wahhabi logic of eliminating occasions for "idolatry" and "polytheism" by destroying shrines and graves. ISIS is the worst offender, but so do non-jihadists: In Bale, Ethiopia, fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia destroyed more than 30 Sufi shrines in the early 2000s. The worldwide growing anti-Shiite rhetoric also speaks in the clearly Wahhabi language of "deviation" and "polytheism". And even blasphemy beliefs often reflect Takfir's Wahhabi logic of "excommunicating" inappropriate Muslims.
Even when Saudi officials occasionally berate the violent effects of days gone by, they are in a difficult position as these actions are entirely in line with the ideas of the most famous Saudi preacher of all time.
Nigeria is an instructive example.
In December 2015, Abdullahi Muhammad Musa crowded into a limousine with six relatives to celebrate Quds Day, the international expression of solidarity with Palestine, for the five-hour drive from the Nigerian capital Abuja to the northern state of Zaria. The 32-year-old Abdullahi returned to Abuja alive. But all the rest of the car and at least 340 other civilians were shot by the Nigerian military in today's Zaria massacre.
All were supporters of an outspoken Shiite group, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, which has long been attacked by Sunnis, Salafis and the state. As in many other parts of the Muslim world, this anti-Shiite feeling was fueled by Saudi-oriented Salafis. But in Nigeria it has taken a particularly deadly turn.
It is estimated that roughly half of Nigeria's 191 million are Muslims, even though religious demography is so controversial that the question has not been asked in the census since 1963. The country is a huge arena for global competition for Islamic dogmas and in such a volatile environment. The religious climate and the rise of Saudi Arabia-related Salafism have stirred things up and then turned in unpredictable directions.
Saudi Arabia began its operations in West Africa shortly after Nigeria's independence from British rule in 1960. Within a decade, a generation of Salafis emerged in northern Nigeria, whose Muslims had previously been predominantly Sufi or non-denominational. Salafis created the Izala movement to "maintain virtue" and was instrumental in the decision on the form of Sharia law, Islamic law, which was implemented in northern Nigeria from 1999.
The most notorious Nigerians who identify themselves as Salafis are the members of Boko Haram, the Salafi jihadist group that has been responsible for hundreds of terrorist attacks and the kidnapping of thousands of school children since 2009. At one point in 2015, Boko Haram even surpassed ISIS as the deadliest terrorist group in the world. But it was not created in a vacuum.
Boko Haram's founder, Muhammad Yusuf, studied with Jafar Mahmud Adam, the best-known Salafi in Nigeria, who was educated in Saudi Arabia, and even took refuge, like many Islamists under attack, in Saudi Arabia.
Boko Haram's Salafi jihadism, though an extreme fringe, arose from the rich Salafi tapestry woven in Nigeria over the past half century. Since the 1960s, Saudi public relations have maintained deep personal contacts in the post-colonial nation and opened up the possibility of studying in the kingdom. The resulting Salafis have clashed with both the ruling Sufi orders and the parallel Shiite movement affiliated to Iran. Some were integrated into government positions, while others laid the ideological foundations for Boko Haram.
In April 2014, Boko Haram courageously kidnapped 276 students from her school in Chibok in the northeastern state of Borno. The event appalled observers in Nigeria and around the world who were amazed at the state's inability to protect the girls or effectively negotiate with the terrorist group (112 of the 276 girls are still missing). In recent incidents, Boko Haram has kidnapped over 1,000 children since 2018 and only kidnapped 110 more girls from the city of Dapchi in 2018. Even during one of my visits in May 2019, a handful of employees were kidnapped by a girls' school in the state of Zamfara. Boko Haram is the most notorious Islamic movement in northern Nigeria today, and has also contributed to a devastating regional famine by preventing farmers from growing crops and blocking access to Lake Chad.
Since Boko Haram is known as a Salafi-jihadist group, the question arises how closely it is connected to the larger Salafi movement in the region and whether this Salafi movement would have flourished in northern Nigeria without Saudi Dawa. In a word, the answer is no.
Saudi proselytization was an integral part of Salafism in northern Nigeria, and Boko Haram's ideology stems directly from the Salafi body that was used there by Saudi-trained Nigerian preachers. But in an ironic twist, the majority of Nigeria's mainstream Salafis are against the jihad group and have even attempted public debates with their leaders, albeit with little effect. The resulting situation is typical of how Saudi proselytizing often looks in the wild, full of unstable by-products.
Boko Haram has praised Al Qaeda and committed to ISIS in 2015, but it remains a local uprising rather than a transnational jihadist group. In fact, it existed as a nonviolent fundamentalist group for six years and only became violent in 2009 when its founder was killed.
Its context is very local in Maiduguri, the northeastern state where it is headquartered. And Salafism would never have entered Maiduguri if it hadn't been for a preacher named Jafar Adam, the most popular and charismatic Saudi-trained Salafi in modern Nigeria. He founded a group called Ahl Al-Sunna, which considered itself a pure Salafi and was less politically charged than Izala in the new millennium. And Adam's star pupil was a young man named Muhammad Yusuf. Adam even appointed him head of Ahl Al-Sunna's youth wing. But just as Adam branched off from Izala in a harder direction, Yusuf did the same with Adam, whom he rejected as insufficiently Islamic.
In 2007, Yusuf published the basic manifesto of Boko Haram: "This is our creed and our method of preaching," which consisted mainly of quotations from Saudi Salafi texts. Boko Haram was not his own name for the group. He called it Jama'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Dawah wa'l Jihad, the Sunnah people group for preaching and jihad. The Nigerian media developed the shorter cognome, which held Yusuf's central idea that western education or "boko" is prohibited in Hausa.
This newer, more charismatic tear-off movement attracted hundreds of young people. Everyone in Maiduguri knew Yusuf and vice versa. "When I met him at a gas station, he recognized me immediately and asked if I was still part of Satan's army," said one resident. Yusuf eventually attracted thousands of followers in the northeastern states and even from neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon. But within a few years, this volatile Salafi coterie, headquartered in Maiduguri, became an Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail.
In 2007, Jafar Adam, the most influential non-violent Salafi preacher of the decade educated in Saudi Arabia, was murdered under mysterious circumstances - most likely on the orders of Boko Haram. And then, in 2009, Boko Haram collided with the Nigerian military on charges of building bombs. A thousand people died, 700 in Maiduguri alone. Among them was Muhammad Yusuf, who was interrogated by the police and then executed.
The persistent military confrontation was the immediate cause of Boko Haram's use of violence, but on the whole, it is obvious that Boko Haram could not be formed as a group without its ideological background and that did not create its popular base across multiple states Charismatic Salafi preachers in the core.
Boko Haram's material connections to Saudi and Gulf actors are fundamentally opportunistic. Around 2002, Osama bin Laden was reportedly sending a $ 3 million adjutant to Nigeria to distribute to local groups such as Boko Haram. In 2015, Boko Haram changed loyalty to the Islamic State and re-formed the "Islamic State in West Africa". It is worth noting that, in its current violent repetition, Boko Haram regards Saudi Arabia as a state of unbelief.
Led by Abubakar Shekau, who replaced Yusuf in 2009, Boko Haram declared his hostility to literally every other imaginable Islamic group and entity, including the Sufis, Shiites, Izala, the Nigerian government, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In a video message that was shot in December 2014, Shekau shouted with a rifle that he regularly fired to underline his address to emphasize: “The Saudi state is a state of unbelief because it belongs to the Saud family. and they do not follow the Prophet ... the Saudi Arabians, since you have changed Allah's religion, you will enter the hellfire! "
From 2012 to 2013, Saudi Arabia was the scene of an attempt to negotiate between Boko Haram and the Nigerian state. Perhaps not surprisingly, the peace talks there did not make much progress.
Given the ongoing cracks and fragmentation among the Nigerian Salafis, it is not surprising that Boko Haram experienced its own internal split in 2016, in which a rival named Abu Musab al-Barnawi asked for leadership over Shekau and linked his faction more closely to ISIS.
There is no chance that Saudi Arabia foresaw one of these chaotic effects in 1965 when contact with Nigeria began. Indeed, each successive fragmentation of Nigerian Salafism is increasingly moving away from the original Saudi soft-power project, which was created through close personal contacts between Nigerian and Saudi leaders, but has become increasingly local over time. Spreading such a charged ideology abroad was like opening a can of worms. That is why so many jihadist groups today value Wahhabi theology and vilify the kingdom itself.
So today’s central paradox: Even if Saudi Arabia is embarrassed by its reputation for spreading extremism and the unsavory effects of its campaign, it is no longer a problem that the Saudis can solve.
This excerpt comes from The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project by Krithika Varagur.
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