Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

‘Soft power’ financing of religious, cultural and educational networks that nurture the jihadi ideology: Wahabi propaganda

It was reported in September 2016 that the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM) wants to include some discussion of Salafi-jihadism in the next edition of the National Military Strategy, this being the ideology shared by IS and al-Qaeda and behind most global terrorism in the world today. The last National Military Strategy did not mention the ideological roots of terrorism.  “If you look at threat doctrine from that perspective, it’s a much bigger problem, because it’s not just the violent jihadists, it’s the non-violent jihadists who support them,” one person knowledgeable about the National Military Strategy told the Washington Times. “Pretending there is no relationship between the violent jihadists and Islam isn’t going to win.  We’re completely ignoring the war of ideas.”  Sources close to the team responsible for preparing the National Military Strategy said however that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s team was not persuaded that the term should be included.

The debate within the Pentagon over whether to link terrorism to a particular Islamist ideology highlights a genuine difficulty:  to what extent does the worldwide spread of non-violent Salafism produce an environment conducive to radicalisation, or even passively supportive of IED use?  As we have taken care to emphasise in Section 3, explosive violence in the world is not unique to Islam, nor indeed to Salafi-jihadism.  Moreover, not only are not all Muslims Salafists who seek to realise an Islamic state under Sharia law, but only a small minority even of Salafists espouse explosive violence as a strategy for accelerating progress toward that goal.

It is worth noting, however, that oil-financed indoctrination and propaganda for a fundamentalist, Salafist ideology – the Wahhabi creed that originated in Saudi Arabia – has profoundly impacted the Muslim world over the past few decades, and Gulf states are continuing vigorously to promote proselytisation in the West as well.  The disproportionate number of converts to Islam among suspected and convicted terrorists suggests that this phenomenon deserves closer study.  We will return to this topic shortly.

It is well documented that since the 1970s Saudi Arabia, through royal trusts and Islamic charities, and subsequently also through the Mecca-based Muslim World League, has spent billions of dollars on establishing and staffing thousands of mosques, madrasas, colleges, Islamic centres and publishing houses producing preachers, missionaries, scholars, textbooks and Qurans to export the strictly puritanical Wahhabi creed across the world.  Saudi influence has been consolidated by generous funding on easy terms for poor Muslim countries in Africa and Asia from the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank.  The propaganda impact of these efforts may be seen in parts of Asia and Africa where Wahhabism has been encroaching on or displacing the tolerant and non-violent Sufi Islam traditionally practised in these regions, and encouraging jihadi violence.

Islamic institutions in the Gulf – in Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular – have spent heavily on supporting minority Muslim communities, and expanding Wahhabi influence, in non-Muslim countries too.  Again, this has been seen as being at least partly responsible for the increasing vulnerability to radicalisation among sections of formerly quiescent Muslim communities, and the unexpected emergence of ‘homegrown’ jihadis in the West.  In the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks, academic Yousaf Butt declared that “the fountainhead of Islamic extremism that promotes and legitimises such violence lies with the fanatical ‘Wahhabi’ strain of Islam centred in Saudi Arabia…  If the world wants to tamp down and eliminate such violent extremism, it must confront this primary host and facilitator.”

Decades of Wahhabi propaganda

The modern world has become so familiar with the conservative Wahhabi strain of Islam that it is worth recalling the state of Islamic affairs before the 1973 oil shock, the vast increase in wealth of Arab oil-producing states, and the rise of what has been called ‘petro-Islam’.[i]  French political scientist Gilles Kepel wrote in 2003, in ‘Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam’:

Prior to 1973, Islam was everywhere dominated by national or local traditions rooted in the piety of the common people, with clerics from the different schools of Sunni religious law established in all major regions of the Muslim world (Hanafite in the Turkish zones of South Asia, Malakite in Africa, Shafeite in Southeast Asia), along with their Shia counterparts. This motley establishment held Saudi-inspired puritanism in great suspicion on account of its sectarian character. But after 1973, the oil-rich Wahhabites found themselves in a different economic position, being able to mount a wide-ranging campaign of proselytising among the Sunnis.  (The Shia, whom the Sunnis considered heretics, remained outside the movement.)  The objective was to bring Islam to the forefront of the international scene, to substitute it for the various discredited nationalist movements, and to refine the multitude of voices within the religion down to the single creed of the masters of Mecca. The Saudis’ zeal now embraced the entire world… [and in the West] immigrant Muslim populations were their special target.[ii]

In the coming decades, Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam became influential through (according to Kepel) the spread of Wahhabi religious doctrines via Saudi charities; increased migration of Muslims to work in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states; and a shift in the balance of power among Muslim states toward the oil-producing countries.  The House of Saud spent billions of dollars on mosques, schools and publishing houses that churned out religious and educational literature, which was distributed cheaply, or for free, across the Muslim world.

During the decade-long Afghan struggle against the Soviets in the 1980s, the Saudis lavishly funded the spread of madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The majority of the area’s (Sunni) Muslim population belonged to the Hanafi sect.  However, the theologians who have since pushed Pakistan towards Islamist radicalism, as well as those who founded the Taliban, espoused Wahhabi rhetoric and ideals.  These would already have been familiar, from the Saudi Hanbali theologians who migrated to India in the 18th century to help their Muslim brothers there against the British colonialists.  In 1867 the conservative Deobandi branch of Islam was founded in India on Salafist lines, and set up its own madrasas, which subsequently most of the Taliban leadership are said to have attended.  Later on, propelled by oil wealth, the Wahhabi worldview increasingly co-opted the Deobandi movement in South Asia.  The petrodollar-financed schools, located in rural communities where there was no other source of education, taught a militant form of Islam, telling students they had a sacred duty to fight infidels. Out of these schools came the radical students who eventually formed the Taliban, as well as many al-Qaeda recruits.  Today, many of these Pakistani schools draw students from Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere, and they return home radicalised.

A counter to political Islam in Morocco

The 1979 Islamic revolution in Shia Iran alarmed the governments of many Arab and Muslim states, especially those, such as Saudi Arabia, with substantial Shia minorities who, they feared, might be inspired to have revolutionary ideas of their own.  The model of an Islamic uprising to overthrow a pro-Western autocracy had its appeal to Sunni political Islamists too.  In the kingdom of Morocco, which followed the Maliki school of Islam, Wahhabism had had a marginal presence since the 19th century but began to get state backing after 1979.  According to Professor Mohamed Darif, a specialist on Islam in Morocco, the authorities were at that time facing the rise of political Islam, especially on university campuses and often under Muslim Brotherhood influence, and the Iranian revolution led them to rethink their mechanisms for confronting it.  Wahhabism, which denies the legitimacy of both political Islam – such as that of the Brotherhood – and Shiism, became key in preventing the spread of Khomeinist revolution to Morocco.  Saudi Arabia sponsored Wahhabi religious schools and distributed scholarships and religious literature to hundreds of students.  The schools attracted students from the rest of the Arab world, and hundreds of Wahhabi-trained preachers returned home to spread their theories.  Morocco was also receiving much-needed financial help from Saudi Arabia to support its military effort in the Western Sahara against the Polisario independence movement.  “When Saudi Arabia gave money [to Morocco], it had to welcome its ulema (religious scholars). There was a political price to pay,” according to Darif.

If this was the Moroccan kingdom’s strategy, it did not succeed as planned.  By 2003, when the terrorist group Salafia Jihadia, formed by Afghanistan veterans, carried out five suicide attacks in Casablanca, the state was struggling to maintain control of the country’s mosques.  Radical jihadism was taking hold.   Outside the mosques, banned CDs of sermons by radical Saudi and Egyptian preachers were widely available for sale, and Gulf-owned satellite TV channels providing conservative Wahhabi fare proved popular.  As political scientist Mohamed Tozy pointed out, before radical Islam became globalised with the return of former Afghan fighters and the popularity of firebrand preachers, the Moroccan state had “the monopoly of the production of religion”.  But then radicals started to condemn the prayers in state-controlled mosques, and distributed pamphlets and tapes denouncing the ‘infidel’ state from ‘garage mosques’.

Changing the face of traditional Islam in Kashmir

Meanwhile, Saudi-funded Wahhabi propaganda was changing the character of Muslim communities in Africa and Asia, and allegedly making them more supportive of jihadi terrorism.  One example of this is the ‘Wahhabi invasion’ that has ‘radicalised’ the Kashmir Valley, according to the Times of India.  “The famed Sufi tradition and spirit of Kashmiriyat in the Valley, already ravaged by decades of insurgency, faces a new challenge,” Times of India reporter Asit Jolly wrote in 2011.  “Wahhabism, an austere, puritanical interpretation of Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia, is making deep inroads into Kashmir due to the efforts of the Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, which calls itself a religious and welfare organisation.”  According to Jolly’s report, Ahl-e Hadith had in recent years built about 700 new mosques, with their attendant madrasas, that outshone the hundreds of dilapidated mosques built over centuries in the age-old Sufi tradition. Unlike worshippers at the older Sufi shrines, Ahl-e-Hadith mosques are overtly more conservative: women wear burqas or at least a headscarf, while the men sport beards and don skull caps; their traditional salwars end just above the ankle in accordance with Wahhabi tenets.

Indian intelligence has said that between 2011 and 2013 alone, some 25,000 Saudi clerics arrived in the country with more than $250 million to build mosques and universities and hold seminars. With regard to the Kashmir Valley, police and central intelligence officers said Ahl-e Hadith’s funding came primarily from Saudi Arabia, but most of the Wahhabi and Ahl-e Hadith organisations involved were not registered with the Ministry of Home Affairs under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, so it was not possible to keep track of this money.  Intelligence sources said Saudi charities and private donors routed zakat money to Jammu and Kashmir through illegal hawala channels; a senior state police officer said the bulk of the illegal funds were smuggled into Kashmir in the form of real and fake Indian hard currency.  Of more concern to police and intelligence officials was the possibility of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen militants relying on Ahl-e-Hadith members to provide them with hideouts.  “Indoctrinated Wahhabis are the least likely to turn in Islamist militants to the police,” a senior official said.

Ahl-e Hadith is also believed to have funded 150 schools and several colleges, orphanages and clinics, and at one stage had plans to set up an Islamic university affiliated to leading Saudi institutions.  There were also grants and scholarships for students to go to Jeddah.  The organisation’s rapid proliferation and increasing popularity among young people was said to be making Kashmir’s predominantly Sufi-Hanafi Muslim community anxious.  The Jammu and Kashmir Peace Foundation (JKPF), a Hanafi organisation devoted to reviving historic Sufi shrines, believed a sinister process of “fundamentalist indoctrination” was under way in Wahhabi madrasas and schools.  Kashmir’s non-Muslim minority was also said to view the Wahhabi ingress as a “conspiracy to Talibanise Kashmir”.  Ahl-e-Hadith leaders vigorously denied all links to Islamist extremist groups. “We are more liberal than those that criticise us,” claimed General Secretary Abdul Rehman Bhat.  He said former Ahl-e-Hadith president Maulana Showkat Ahmad Shah had been assassinated by Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen militants because he opposed extremism.

Salafism and broadcast and online media

Saudi Arabia provides a platform to many radical preachers on domestic and satellite TV channels broadcasting across the Middle East and North Africa, something that counter-extremism projects see as a further threat to regional security.  The following sample of preachers and religious figures use a range of modern media platforms to spread intolerant or sectarian messages:

Nabil al-Awadhy

This Kuwaiti-born cleric has made a name for himself on Saudi TV channels such as Risala Channel and MBC.  Al-Awadhy is also a social media personality with more than eight million Twitter followers, half of whom are from Saudi Arabia. Although he has not directly supported any terrorist group, he has called for Muslims to either join or financially support groups active in Syria. He expresses violent sentiments with a vicious sectarian rhetoric, and has frequently attacked the Shia during the course of the Syrian war.

Muhammad al-Arefe

A Saudi preacher and ‘televangelist’, Al-Arefe also has a considerable social media presence, with over 13 million followers on Twitter. He has condemned IS, calling them apostates in a video shared on his Twitter and Facebook page.  Al-Arefe is a professor at King Saud University in Riyadh and has his own TV show on the Iqraa network.  Like al-Awadhy, he has told his supporters to join the jihad in Syria. His rhetoric is anti-Shia; he has called Shia Islam a ‘heresy’ and labelled Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shia authority in Iraq, an ‘infidel’. Like al-Awadhy, he is tolerated on Saudi channels.

Ahmad Musa Jibril

Ahmad Musa Jibril is an American-based preacher who has a history of encouraging people to join the Syrian jihad.  The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence has described him as a ‘cheerleader’ for foreign fighters, and stated that around 60% of them follow him on Twitter.

Adnan al-Aroor

This Syrian cleric appears frequently on Saudi Arabian TV stations such as the religious channel al-Safa.  He has frequently criticised minorities fighting on the side of the Syrian government in the Syrian war, and has called for armed action against the Assad government.  In a TV interview in 2013 he called Jabhat al-Nusra ‘our brothers’.[iii]

Abdelfettah Hamadache

An Algerian Salafi preacher who was previously a fighter for the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) during the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s, Hamadache has called for an Islamic state in Algeria, and has said that he would welcome the opening of an IS embassy in Algeria. He appears frequently on radio, but was sentenced to prison in March 2016 after having called for the death of Algerian author Kamal Daoud.

Targeting Muslims and non-Muslims

It has been argued that the Saudi regime “infuses its fundamentalist ideology in the ostensible charity work it performs, often targeting poor Muslim communities in countries like Pakistan or places like refugee camps, where uneducated, indigent, oppressed people are more susceptible to it”.  In some less developed countries, such as Mali, for example, it has been seen to be actively competing for influence with its Gulf neighbour Qatar, which, while also following the Wahhabi strain of Islam, has different political goals, and backs several branches of the Salafist Muslim Brotherhood organisation internationally.  Saudi Arabia is hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideology and political activism challenge its own claims to hold unique authority within the Muslim world.

However, the Saudis and Qataris are also nowadays investing heavily in promoting their favoured interpretations of Islam in Western Europe and the United States, both in support of existing Muslim communities and in reaching out to ‘call’ or convert non-Muslims to Islam.  It can be difficult to gauge in specific cases, and even harder to generalise, whether these mosque-building and missionary efforts (‘tabligh’ or ‘da‘wa’) are purely spiritual – however theologically couched – or whether they also serve directly to indoctrinate Muslims with radical ideas supporting violence.  A view sometimes expressed is that in Europe the larger mosques funded by foreign state sponsors tend to be more conservative and less radical than some smaller, informal and more extremist mosques and prayer rooms where the peddlers of jihadi violence are to be found (or not) below the radar of surveillance.

Counterterrorism consultant Marc Sageman argues explicitly that “[a]lthough a few Salafi mosques are sites of emergent terrorism, most fundamentalist mosques are not.  Mosques are as apt to constrain as to facilitate the global jihad.  Mosques are generally conservative institutions with a strong emphasis on the status quo… The Salafi jihad flourished in private mosques, unregulated by the state, where their brand of Islam was the only acceptable one.  Mosques, even fundamentalist ones, are generally not supportive of the global jihad even if the imam and the congregation sympathise with some of the grievances motivating the jihad.”[iv]

The content of Gulf-funded fundamentalist preaching nevertheless often remains disturbing, with a potential, which is hard to quantify, to encourage extremist action.

It has been estimated that 80% of the 1,200 mosques operating in the US were constructed after 2001, the majority with Saudi financing.  By 2005 hundreds of publications issued by the Saudi government and its affiliates, and filled with intolerance toward Christians, Jews and other Americans, had been disseminated across the country, according to a report entitled ‘Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Invade American Mosques’, published by the NGO Freedom House.  The report concluded that “the Saudi government propaganda examined reflects a totalitarian ideology of hatred that can incite to violence”.  By 2013, an estimated 75% of North American Islamic centres relied on Wahhabi preachers who promoted anti-Western ideas in person and online, through their sermons and through the Saudi-produced literature.

Meanwhile, Islamic charities based in the Gulf reportedly controlled 60% of mosques in Italy by 2009.  Qatar Charity alone claims to have built 138 Islamic centres in Europe over the past three decades, and, with Qatari government support, is currently fundraising to complete “the largest Islamic centre in Europe”, in Mulhouse, northern France.

This post is part of the report, “Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use”. To see the sections of the report please go here. This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.

[i] Kepel, Gilles (2006). Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. I.B. Tauris. p. 51. Well before the full emergence of Islamism in the 1970s, a growing constituency nicknamed `petro-Islam` included Wahhabi ulemas and Islamist intellectuals and promoted strict implementation of the sharia in the political, moral and cultural spheres; this proto-movement had few social concerns and even fewer revolutionary ones.

[ii] Kepel, Gilles (2003). Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. I.B.Tauris. p. 70.

[iii] Genevieve Abdo, Salafists and Sectarianism in the Middle East, Brookings 2016.

[iv] Sageman, M. Understanding Terror Networks pp. 143-4. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.