(National Post, October 26, 2001). This article seems to be so perceptive that it needs no comment.
For years, the world's largest producer of petroleum has also been one of the world's most important exporters of Islamist extremism. It has provided both the financial backing and the extremist ideology that has fueled the growth of Islamist terrorist groups in central Asia. Today, Saudi Islamists have also gained such a powerful foothold in Saudi Arabia that they are threatening to destabilize the government.
After weeks of investigation, FBI officials confirmed on Wednesday that 15 of the 19 hijackers suspected of carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia.
Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the attacks, is a native of Saudi Arabia and has long been a conduit for secret funds from members of the Saudi royal family to various Islamist groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan.
But bin Laden is merely the most visible aspect of a far deeper connection: The Taliban, the extremist ruling regime in Afghanistan that harbours bin Laden, is in fact largely a Saudi creation. Members of the royal family armed and financed the Taliban's rise in the 1990s and, until recently, were among its strongest allies in the Arab world.
"The Saudis have a great deal to answer for," says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. "They are the main backers of the Taliban and tried to expand Sunni Islam around the world by promoting narrow-minded groups."
Those "narrow-minded" groups took their inspiration from Wahabism, a harsh and puritanical subset of Sunni Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia.
The sect is named for Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahab, an 18th-century reformer whose descendants worked to unify the Saudi kingdom. Today, members of the Wahab family continue to occupy important positions in the country.
"Wahabism rejected other types of Islam and its reformist leaders imposed a puritanical order on the tribes they conquered," says Earle H. Waugh, a professor of religion at the University of Alberta. "Unlike other Muslims, the Wahabis said they would base society strictly on the Koran."
According to Prof. Waugh, Muslim societies were traditionally ordered through what he called "an intellectual consensus," which drew on precedents to establish laws and rules of governance. For instance, traditional Muslim legal scholars seeking to establish regulations governing landing rights at airports would bypass the Koran, looking for guidance instead to laws governing docking rights at medieval Islamic ports and adapting them to present-day circumstances. The Wahabis rejected this form of intellectual consensus and focused strictly on the Koran as the final arbiter.
"They were fundamentalists," Prof. Waugh says. "In this sense, the Taliban are very Wahabi because they have put into practice a return to the fundamentalism of the Koran."
Wahabism is, in fact, a kind of Islamist totalitarianism. It denies equal rights to women and invokes the death penalty as punishment for drinking or sexual transgressions. The sect rejects Western influence and does not permit mingling of the sexes, eating pork or interacting closely with non-Muslims. Wahabi mosques are traditionally simple, undecorated affairs, and Wahabis do not permit ostentatious displays of spirituality. Those who follow Wahabi teachings, such as bin Laden, believe their faith should be spread around the world and the Koran allows them to defend their brand of Islam by violence, if necessary. In the late 18th century, the cult was associated with the mass murder of all who opposed it. When the Wahabis took the city of Qarbala in what is now Saudi Arabia in 1801, they massacred 2,000 civilians in the streets and marketplaces.
Analysts say the impetus behind Saudi Arabia's recent export of Wahabism to central Asia came largely from a political decision on the part of the Saudi government to reduce the power of Wahabism at home by exporting it abroad.
The strong Wahabi lobby in Saudi Arabia has been vehemently opposed to the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil, which is also the site of Islam's holiest shrines, at Mecca and Medina. In order to defuse the Wahabi influence and quell the Islamist unrest, the Saudi government, which had welcomed U.S. troops after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, sought to get rid of their Islamist militants. In fact, when bin Laden began to criticize the conduct of the royal family and foment Islamist revolt in Saudi Arabia, he was promptly kicked out of the country by authorities, who revoked his citizenship in 1994.
"Saudi support for the Taliban has stemmed from Riyadh's determination to find an outlet -- as far away from Saudi Arabia as possible -- for the Islamist zeal of Saudi radicalized youth," says Yossef Bodansky, a military analyst and the author of Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. "Support for the propagation of Islamism also cleansed the collective conscience of the House of al-Saud ... for whatever infringements of Islamism's strict code of conduct they carry out in Saudi Arabia to ensure their own hold on power."
(The influence of Wahabism has even spread to the United States, where an estimated 80% of all mosques are under the control of Wahabi imams, or leaders of prayers, and subsidized by Saudi Arabia.)
Wahabism took hold in Afghanistan when Muslims from around the world joined forces to fight against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. These Arab Afghans, as they were called, received strong support from Saudi Arabia, which matched dollar for dollar the amount of support they received from the CIA.
"The CIA funding turned these Arab Afghans into militant warriors," Prof. Waugh says. "They felt that they had God on their side, and that it was God who was giving them money to fight. They didn't care that it came from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia."
After the war in Afghanistan, the Saudi influence was still strongly felt in the region, mostly through the Saudi financing of the madrassas, or religious schools, set up in Afghan refugee camps across the border in Pakistan. Many of the teachers and clerics who taught at the madrassas received their formal schooling and degrees in Wahabi schools in Saudi Arabia. The hard-core members of the Taliban emerged from these schools, and initially won converts to their cause in the early 1990s by adopting Wahabi methods of imposing harsh Koranic justice to combat lawlessness in post-war Afghanistan.
In 1996, following a ruling from the Wahabi ulema (Islamic scholars) in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government decided to support the Taliban in their final drive to seize control of most of Afghanistan. The Saudis provided money, vehicles and fuel for the Taliban attack on the Afghan capital, Kabul, in the summer of 1996. Furthermore, a great deal of Saudi business pressure was brought to bear on the government to back the Taliban, since two Saudi companies, Delta and Ningarcho, were deeply involved in building gas pipelines across Afghanistan to tap into the rich oilfields in the former Central Asian Soviet republics.
The Saudi government broke with the Taliban a few years later when Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, insulted the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki. But it was too little, too late.
"The Saudis have done so much damage in the Muslim world by promoting narrow-minded groups," said Mr. Rashid, the Pakistani journalist, who is based in Lahore. "If they [the Saudis] had set up an education fund instead of putting money into these groups, they would be loved around the Muslim world today."
Instead, analysts say, many Muslims view the Saudi government, which has become increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional, with suspicion. Today, the Saudi government's policy of exporting Wahabism appears to have come back to haunt it.
Wahabism, says Mr. Rashid, "is increasingly undermining the authority of the royal family."
In recent years, Saudi Arabia "has proved incapable of evolving a rational foreign policy which suits its national interests rather than merely appeasing its domestic Wahabi lobby."
This policy of appeasement has prevented the Saudi government from co-operating too closely with the United States on investigations into a number of recent terrorist attacks, some of them committed on Saudi soil. Saudi authorities have only grudgingly complied with U.S. law enforcement officials over investigations into the 1996 suicide attack on the Khobar Towers, a military compound housing U.S. troops, which left 19 U.S. servicemen dead and hundreds injured.
They have also been slow to help U.S. investigators probe the Sept. 11 attacks despite the fact more than half of the suspected hijackers were Saudi nationals.
"It's difficult for the Saudis right now because they have to walk a fine line between American support and being the custodians of Mecca and Medina," says Sean Maloney, a professor of war studies at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont.
Having exported Wahabi extremism that helped to create the current climate of terror in the world, the Saudi government is now faced with containing strong Islamist fundamentalist pressures in their own country.
These extremist pressures could topple the ruling royal family, which is itself increasingly unstable due to infighting and corruption.
"All of this could eventually destroy them," Prof. Maloney says. "The
Saudi regime could collapse, and be replaced by a more radicalized structure
inimical to Western interests."