Ali Shihabi is executive director of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank focused on the geopolitics of the Arabian Peninsula.
Terrorism is a problem that we all still struggle to understand. That challenge only increases when partisan politics are injected into the mix. This is what happened earlier this month, when President Trump visited Saudi Arabia, provoking the publication of a flurry of articles such as Fareed Zakaria’s “How Saudi Arabia played Donald Trump” criticizing the visit and describing the kingdom as the evil empire responsible for much of the world’s scourge of terrorism. If anything, such rhetoric only serves to further muddle a critical issue the world can ill afford to misdiagnose.
In making Saudi Arabia the villain, critics inevitably cherry-pick their evidence to suit their constructed narrative. Their data point of preference is a leaked Hillary Clinton email claiming that the Saudi government provided financial support to radical Islamic groups. Meanwhile, the critics ignore much more credible findings, like those of the joint congressional commission investigating 9/11, which observed as far back as 2004 that “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is now locked in mortal combat with al-Qaeda.” Or, more specifically, they ignore Daniel L. Glaser, the former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury for terrorism financing, who pointed out to Congress that “Saudi Arabia has emerged as a regional leader” in fighting terrorist financing.
So in attacking Saudi Arabia, why do critics insist on using a leak whose context is unknown and ignoring irrefutable evidence from experts in the U.S. government?
These same pundits inevitably go on to compare Saudi Arabia unfavorably to Iran. Zakaria claims that among terrorist attacks in the West, “virtually none has been linked to Iran.” None linked to Iran? Iran has been linked to, or suspected of involvement in, numerous attacks either directly or through organizations it funds. What about the 1983 bombing that killed 241 U.S. service personnel in Beirut? Or the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that murdered 63 people, including virtually the whole Middle East leadership team of the CIA (an attack described by the agency as the single most lethal attack on the CIA in its history)? Or the 500 U.S soldiers killed by Iranian improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan and Iraq? What about the bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Argentina, the killing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria and an assassination attempt against the Saudi ambassador in Washington, not to mention the arming and funding of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the sectarian militias in Syria and Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen?
Trump’s current pivot away from Iran is hardly an impetuous or uninformed act. It originates with his key advisers Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, both military officers who fought in Iraq and saw the true colors of Iran and its Revolutionary Guard. Mattis and McMaster witnessed how Iran cooperated with al-Qaeda from its early days, allowing members of Osama bin Laden’s family and other al-Qaeda leaders to escape Afghanistan and take shelter in Iran, as well as allowing the godfather of the Islamic State, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to transit through Iran to Iraq. The generals know that Iran also cynically positions itself with its allies, like Bashar al-Assad, as a “fighter of terrorism.” In fact, Assad has killed nearly half a million people “fighting terrorists” with the active support and participation of Russia, Iran and Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah. How can any commentators ignore that, not only as a fact but also as a root catalyst of Sunni anger and radicalization?
How can they also ignore the U.S invasion of Iraq as having contributed to the rise of radical Islamism? The Islamic State emerged from Iraq, a country the United States invaded against the advice of the Saudi leadership and with the active public support of policy intellectuals such as Zakaria.
Instead of addressing these uncomfortable facts, pundits fall back on simplistic attacks against “Wahhabism,” the conservative strain of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. While clearly intolerant and reactionary, Wahhabism has never taken root in Iraq or Syria, countries that had been ruled for decades by brutally secular dictatorships that strictly forbade any Wahhabi outreach to their people. Yet today those countries are the epicenter of radical jihadism. The same is true of Tunisia, which exports the highest number of fighters to the Islamic State — yet its secular leadership had also forbidden any conservative Islamic activity in the country since as far back as the 1950s. Finally, the claim that Wahhabism is uniquely intolerant also ignores other strains of Islam like the Deobandi school of India, which has given us the suicide-bombing Taliban.
Critics also choose to ignore the systematic efforts that continue to be made by the Saudi authorities to rein in their clerics, edit intolerance out of schoolbooks and control any proselytizing abroad. To cite Saudi funding and proselytism is to misdiagnose the problem while the cancer continues to spread.
Winning against groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State requires wisdom and understanding, not oversimplification and finger-pointing. This means avoiding hyperbole and the temptation to score points against Trump. Terrorism cannot be reduced to a single cause or blamed on a single actor. The terrorism we see today has been decades in the making, the result of an Islamic awakening provoked by the humiliating Arab defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967, the inspiration Islamists got from the successful Iranian Revolution of 1979, blowback from the jihadi war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. We also cannot ignore the decades-long wars and turmoil in the Middle East, Muslim immigrant alienation in Europe, intolerant and militant interpretations of Islam, as well as current bigotry against Muslims in the West. Deluding ourselves into thinking we have a convenient scapegoat in Saudi Arabia will certainly not help to eradicate this curse.