Anti-terrorism plan must tackle ‘allies’ who also fuel radicalism

Troops conduct an anti-terrorist drill in front of a banner of one of the Saudi royal family. Despite the kingdom’s role in fostering extremism, the US sees Saudi Arabia as an ally against Islamic State. EPA/Saudi Press Agency

As Australia prepares to join combat operations, the coalition of nations stitched together by the US in response to the developing threat of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS or ISIL) is overlooking the sources of radicalism in the region. This plan not only has nothing to say about these sponsors of terrorism but even empowers fundamentalist groups by forging alliances with them.

The US-led alliance includes Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Both countries have been playing counter-productive roles by supporting regional and global Salafi Jihadi movements for a long time. They persist in provoking sectarian strife throughout the region.

Tracing the origins of Salafi radicalism

The emergence of Islamic State cannot be understood without studying its Salafist roots in Saudi Arabia and the financial and media support that has flowed from Qatar.

The historical foundations of the Saudi regime are not dissimilar to those of IS. Modern Saudi Arabia was formed during three periods between 1744 and 1932. Its founders were motivated by fundamentalist fervour. They massacred opponents, destroyed holy and cultural sites deemed anti-Islamic and perpetrated human rights violations on a vast scale both within the country and in neighbouring states.

One instance was the Wahabi attack on the Iraqi city of Karbala in 1802. Led by Saudi prince Saud bin Abdul Aziz, the attack claimed the lives of more than 1000 innocent people including women and children. British historian Stephen Hemsley Longrigg detailed the massacre in his 1925 book, Four Centuries of Modern Iraq.

King Abdullah greets US President Barack Obama in Saudi Arabia earlier this year. EPA/Saudi Press Agency

Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored religious curriculum remains the main source of Jihadi Salafi movements, including IS. School students are taught a very dogmatic and excommunicative ideology, which isolates them from other religions and branches of Islam, which are considered non-believers (Kafir). Saudi Arabia has supported Salafi movements internationally for decades by publishing, distributing and promoting extreme religious texts and views in Islamic and Western countries.

The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia continues to label Shiites as Rafidhe (“those who reject”). This is deeply offensive to them because it excludes them from the religion of Islam. In his recent fatwa against IS, the mufti mentioned that killing Muslims is wrong but this could imply that other IS atrocities against Shiites and minorities are sanctioned.

Saudi Arabia’s legal process has many parallels with IS. Both implement an extreme version of Sharia including beheadings, lashings and amputations on a frequent basis. Human rights reports continue to show Saudi Arabia’s status slipping, citing 66 cases of beheadings in 2013 alone.

The lack of progress in democratisation, minority rights and rights for women, such as driving, are other examples. A Saudi blogger was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes and fined 1 million riyals (A$307,000) for demanding democracy and freedom. Early this year, a video of King Abdullah’s daughters was released which showed them under house arrest for 13 years to force their divorced mother to go back to the king.

Failing to tackle extremism at its source

The strong, long-term US-Saudi alliance, in addition to the US economic stake in the relationship, has shielded the Saudi regime from serious pressure to undertake real religious and human rights reforms.

Qatar, despite historic hostility between the country’s ruling family and the Saudi dynasty, has offered financial and political support and media coverage for radical Islamic movements in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and other Muslim countries for more than a decade.

The Afghan Taliban opened a political office last June in Qatar, which now is also part of the US alliance. EPA

IS could not have emerged as it has without Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of global Salafism and the flow of support from Qatar for extremist religious opposition groups. Adding fuel to the fire was the role played by Turkey and several Western countries in their desire to depose the Syrian regime at any price. This included the empowering of extremists.

The US-led coalition was not envisioned until Islamic State began to pose a genuine threat to allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kurdistan. When IS restricted its atrocities to attacking civilians, eliminating minorities from Syria and conducting everyday suicide attacks and explosions throughout Iraq, there was no move to form the current alliance.

Fighting IS while remaining blind to the sources of radicalism in the region will ultimately be unsuccessful. It might restrict IS to particular territories and stop it spreading, but it will not eliminate the group or stop radical movements emerging in its place. The only long-term solution is to tackle the source of the problem.

This plan must include clear and realistic agendas to reform the education systems of countries in the region, evaluate these US allies’ democratic status and pressure them to improve their records.

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