The Saudi Connection: Wahhabism and Global Jihad

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not have problems with other creeds or sects,” then Prince (now King) Salman claimed in a conversation with outgoing US Ambassador James C. Oberwetter in March 2007. Salman went on to stress: “Terrorism and fanaticism have done more harm to Islam than anything else.” This is the party line of the House of Saud—that, in the words of its last king, Abdullah, Saudi Arabia stands “in the face of those trying to hijack Islam and present it to the world as a religion of extremism, hatred, and terrorism.” Such statements are meant to reassure, but they ring hollow in the face of evidence that the roots and spread of violent Sunni jihad lead back to Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi-centered clerical establishment. 

The Saudi kingdom’s inseparability from the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam, first espoused in 1744 and the fundamental creed of Saudi Arabia since its modern founding in 1932, has ensured that fundamentalism shapes domestic and foreign policies. Saudi Arabia is not the only source of resources for jihadism—public and private entities in Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and more recently Turkey have also been linked to collection and transfer of funds supporting terror groups. But the Saudis have been the most persistent source of support for global jihad by spreading Wahhabism abroad to radicalize foreign Muslims and then giving financial support to their violent struggles in countries as far-flung as Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya. 

The Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January, and those terrorists’ links to Islamist cells across Europe, show how far these tentacles spread. The killers—the French-born Kouachi brothers of Algerian descent—were radicalized by al-Qaeda operatives living in the city’s 19th Arrondissement, at a local mosque by an al-Qaeda preacher, Farid Benyettou, and even in a French prison by an al-Qaeda recruiter, Djamel Beghal. While incarcerated, Chérif Kouachi met Amedy Coulibaly, a Malian-Frenchman also being groomed by Beghal. The Kouachis eventually launched their attack in the name of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, while Coulibaly, who attacked a Jewish grocery store in Paris the same week, did so in allegiance to the Islamic State, based in Iraq and Syria, to take “vengeance” for alleged insults to Islam. Both al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, trumpeted the attacks. Weapons and ammunition used by the Paris attackers have been traced back to jihadis in Bosnia, where preachers at the King Fahd Mosque in Sarajevo who were trained and funded with Saudi support declare those attacks were staged by the West as an excuse to discriminate against Muslims.

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Likewise, Danish-born Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein, who soon after shot up a Copenhagen cafe where a cartoonist who had satirized the Prophet Muhammad was participating in a freedom of expression public meeting, and then went on to attack a synagogue, also had been incarcerated, radicalized in prison, and pledged allegiance to the Wahhabi-inspired Islamic State via Facebook prior to his rampage in February. On that same day, the Ansar al-Sharia, a Wahhabi group whose spiritual guide is the Arabian preacher Abu al-Baraa al-Azdi (a.k.a. Muhammad Abdullah) and which had recently allied itself to the Islamic State, released images of themselves decapitating 21 men on a Mediterranean beach in Libya for being “people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian [Coptic] church.” 

To be sure, Saudi Arabia condemned the Paris crimes as un-Islamic and denied any association with the purpose, planning, or execution of the attacks. Yet, just one day later, its Wahhabi-controlled judiciary delivered the first 50 of 1,000 lashes to a blogger—who also was sentenced to 10 years in prison—for “insulting Islam,” the same alleged crime committed by Charlie Hebdo staffers. That blogger was subsequently brought up on a previously dismissed charge of apostasy from Islam, which carries the possibility of capital punishment. The blogger’s attorney, a Saudi human rights monitor who was merely defending a client, received a 15-year prison term as well last year for challenging royal and clerical authority—allegedly for “antagonizing international organizations against the kingdom” and “inciting public opinion against authorities.”

It is all part of a familiar game in which diplomatic words intended for non-Muslims—shortly before his death in December, King Abdullah denounced the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State for “hijacking Islam and presenting it to the world as a religion of hatred”—diverge sharply from actions directed at Muslims worldwide and emanating from the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance. These diplomatic words are also given the lie by claims—said to be recorded in the still-classified portion of the US Congress’s 9/11 report, and more recently echoed by imprisoned al-Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui—that Saudi Arabia’s ruling elite distributed millions of dollars to Sunni extremists, including those within the US, in the run-up to the September 11th attacks, under the guise of support for Islamic charities.


The Wahhabi movement that animates Saudi policy from behind the scenes was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92), a Sunni theologian who called for a return to austere practices supposedly followed by the Salaf, or earliest Muslims, during the 7th century. He regarded images, saints, shrines, communal festivals, and secular lifestyles, with music, dance, and socializing, as distractions from true piety. Thus he rejected all changes since early Islam as bid‘ah, or heretical innovations and idolatry. He composed the “Kitab al-Tawhid” or “Book of God’s Uniqueness,” which became the guiding text for his followers, who consequently speak of themselves as Muwahhidun (total monotheists) or as Salafis (followers of the ways of the first Muslims). So as not to detract from those absolutist ideals, they usually do not even refer to themselves as Wahhabis or followers of Wahhab.

Wahhab’s calls for puritanical reform and his attacks on the tombs of early Muslims led to expulsion from his hometown of Uyaynah, 19 miles northwest of modern-day Riyadh. He found refuge at Diriyah, a city then ruled by Muhammad ibn Saud. There the two leaders established a religio-political pact during the year 1744 under which the Wahhabis aided the king in battle in exchange for imposition of Wahhabism as the official form of Islam. Diriyah, on the outskirts of Riyadh, became the center of Wahhabism; from there missionaries were dispatched to convert other Muslims in Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and Syria to the new sect. Jihad, or holy war, was initiated against Muslims in Arabia who refused to adopt the old Salafi ways as re-prescribed by Wahhab and upheld by King Saud, who was presented as Allah’s chosen monarch to whom all Muslims had to pledge baya, or absolute allegiance, so as not to face annihilation as foes of god.

Madrassas and preachers funded by the House of Saud instilled Wahhabism across the Arabian Peninsula after Saud’s troops gained control of much of the region and established the first Saudi kingdom. Between 1744 and 1818, Wahhabi preachers and fighters embedded their tenets and institutions into Arabian society so deeply that even the return of moderate Sunni ideas to the region when the Ottoman Empire demolished Saudi power did not eradicate extremism. Wahhabism survived and provided the ideological basis for the Saudi return to power as the Emirate of Nejd between 1824 and 1891, with the capital city at Riyadh, and as the third Saudi kingdom starting in 1932.

When he began conquering Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Saud (ruled 1932–53) deployed Wahhabism as a religio-political means of uniting the Peninsula’s restive tribes. Submission to Allah’s absolute will, as interpreted by Wahhabi doctrine and upheld by the House of Saud became a
rallying cry. Wahhabism served Saud’s descendants in the ruling family as a bulwark against Arab Nationalist rivals like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, who were turning to the Soviets during the 1960s and 1970s. Faced with that rise of secularism and fueled by oil money, King Faisal ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud (ruled 1964–75) decided the propaganda of Wahhabism, which proclaims the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the sole rightful defender of Islam, would become the long-term strategy for the monarchy’s survival.

When Afghanistan, another largely Sunni country nearby, moved from Soviet influence to Soviet control, in 1979, the House of Saud saw an opportunity to project itself as the global defender of Muslims. This view coalesced with the Cold War aims of the US, which saw the Saudi desire to weaponize Islamist ideology as tactically useful in the West’s struggles against the Soviet Union. As later described in testimony before the US Senate Judiciary Committee, and listed on the late King Fahd’s website, Saudi Arabia spent $4 billion per year on mosques, madrassas, preachers, students, and textbooks to spread the Wahhabi creed over the next decades. Thousands of Muslim centers sprang up along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and then in Afghanistan itself—training not scholars but jihadis equipped with Wahhabi ideology and American weapons. The madrassas in Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan produced al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The US did not foresee that foreign fighters drawn to the Afghan jihad might carry violence back to their native lands as al-Qaeda affiliates spread across the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and South Asia. 


The successful anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan came to be seen as divine confirmation of jihad as necessary for Islam’s global ascendance. Wahhabism in turn emerged as the “indispensable ideology”—as noted in the record of the US Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security—not just for the Saudi state but also for groups such as al-Qaeda, which took up the mission to enforce a purified form of Islam upon the world. According to the Saudi monarchy’s official websites, Wahhabi charities and royal trusts, including that of another Saudi ruler, the late King Fahd, spent millions of dollars recruiting students to more than 1,500 mosques, 210 Muslim centers, 202 Islamic colleges, and 2,000 madrassas and on staffing those institutions with nearly 4,000 preachers and missionaries in non-Muslim nations in central, southern, and southeast Asia, as well as in Africa, Europe, and North America. Adherents to Wahhabism used Saudi control of four-fifths of all Islamic publishing houses around the world to spread their fighting words into faraway places. 

Indeed, 80 percent of the 1,200 mosques operating in the US were constructed after 2001, more often than not with Saudi financing. As a result, Wahhabi influence over Islamic institutions in the US was considerable by 2003, according to testimony before the US Senate. Hundreds of publications, published by the Saudi government and its affiliates, and filled with intolerance toward Christians, Jews, and other Americans, had been disseminated across the country by 2006, according to a report by Freedom House, a Washington-based NGO. That report concluded that “the Saudi government propaganda examined reflects a totalitarian ideology of hatred that can incite to violence.” By 2013, 75 percent of North American Islamic centers relied on Wahhabi preachers who promote anti-Western ideas in person and online through their sermons and through the Saudi-produced literature.

Since 2011, between 100 and 150 new mosques are at various stages of planning and construction across France. The Muslim Council of France claims that less assistance for such expansion comes from “foreign organizations,” but US government sources suspect that much of the funding is actually funneled from Saudi sources through difficult-to-track chains of bank accounts and person-to-person cash transfers. In Bosnia, too, Saudi financing has been central since the end of the civil war, in 1995, for construction of new mosques and cultural centers, such as the King Fahd Mosque in Sarajevo. Saudi and Qatari Wahhabi charities controlled  60 percent of mosques in Italy by 2009. In Kazakhstan, the Mecca-based Muslim World League, long associated with disseminating Wahhabism, is funding construction of mosques. The intelligence service of India estimates more than $244 million has been spent by Saudi Wahhabis during the past decade to set up 40 new mosques and four new madrassas and take over hundreds of others across the subcontinent, from Kashmir in the north to Maharashtra in the west and Kerala in the south.

Marginalized European Muslim immigrants and their descendants, like the Kouachi brothers, who lived in the blighted banlieues, or French suburbs, have become favorite face-to-face targets of Wahhabi
proselytizers and radicalizers, as documented in an extensive report by the Institut Montaigne, a French think tank. The laundering of funds from Saudi and other donors runs through the accounts of mosques to imams who then make distributions to organizations and individuals. Once radicalized in their Western and Asian towns, budding jihadis are sent to organizations like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State—groups which US and EU intelligence services regard as being financed by Saudi Arabian assets and continuing to draw upon the most extreme interpretations of Wahhabism.


When US-led coalition forces moved into Afghanistan and Iraq, in 2001 and 2003 respectively, the conditions had already been laid for them to be battled to the death by local and foreign fighters committed to the Wahhabi ideology. When Western troops withdrew, the ideologues attacked recently installed governments with renewed “substantial and sustained” Saudi support, in the words of Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service. The goal seems to be that of ensuring Sunni groups loyal to Wahhabism and allied to Saudi Arabia will control both those nations as well as neighbors wracked by unrest like Pakistan and Syria. Consequently, such countries become training grounds for al-Qaeda–affiliated groups and the Islamic State. Thus, over the past three years, in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and most recently Lebanon, the Saudi state has been able to utilize jihadis to launch a “proxy Sunni-Shia war” aimed specifically against Iran and its Shiite and Alawite allies, according to US Vice President Joe Biden. Saudi action was initially directed by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the kingdom’s former ambassador to Washington and ex–intelligence chief, who had warned Dearlove, even prior to 9/11, that “the time is not far off, in the Middle East when it will be literally, ‘God help the Shia.’ More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”

The full extent of resources that flowed from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and to the Syria-based al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front, is difficult to determine. But Biden estimated the illicit resource transfer to jihadis from Saudi Arabia at “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons.” In addition to ideology and training, for instance, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is reported to have provided $20,000 in cash directly to the Paris terrorists.

Funds for equipment and fighters also come from private donors and charitable endowments. Lax banking regulations, traditional money-transfer networks, and influential sympathizers on the Arabian Peninsula have been vital to subsidizing Sunni militants in the ongoing conflicts of Iraq and Syria. Fundraising is conducted in public for the most part within the Saudi kingdom by organizers soliciting contributors at dinners and auctions to make zakat (“purified”) donations to jihad. As with officially derived funds, the privately raised monies too are used to train militants who flock to Sunni jihadi-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq from across the world—Canadians, Americans, Europeans, Algerians, Malians, Nigerians, Somali, Kenyans, Israeli Arabs, Chechens, Kazakhs, Afghans, Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese, Malaysians, Indonesians, and even Australians. Those human resources are considerable: More than 11,000 Wahhabi-radicalized foreigners had joined the Syrian jihad by September 2014, with French and British citizens predominating recruits from Europe. It costs on average only $2500 to train each jihadi, fundraisers proudly inform potential donors when urging them to give more. After being bloodied in battle, many jihadis slip back into their native countries, just as one or both Kouachi brothers did after time in Yemen. 

The Saudi royals like King Salman have not only cast aside blame for such outcomes, but have even implied support for them: “If there are those who change some work of charity into evil activities, then it is not the kingdom’s responsibility, nor its people, which helps its Arab and Muslim brothers around the world.” According to US intelligence officials, in September 2013 “hundreds of millions” of dollars were still flowing to Muslim terrorists from private donors in the Arabian Peninsula. Those monies have impacted not only the Middle East’s ongoing religio-political struggles: Their effect was felt indirectly in the desecration of Sufi Muslim shrines in Timbuktu, Mali, by Ansar Dine militants, just as the Taliban earlier had blown up Buddha statues at Bamiyan, and in the kidnapping of Christian schoolgirls to be wives and sex slaves by Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria, copied by the Islamic State with Yazidi women in Sinjar, Iraq, a few months later.

Person-to-person contact has been the primary but not the only means of disseminating Islamic fundamentalism. Wahhabi extremism was already present in new media, including the Internet, prior to al-Qaeda’s attacks on the US in 2001. Now hundreds of websites, such as Salafi Talk, Islamic Awakening, and Sunni Forum, are easily accessed by would-be fundamentalists. Mainstream Muslims, especially parents, fear they are increasingly unable to combat the radicalization coming from Wahhabi and jihadi sites: “The biggest issue right now is the Internet—it’s Sheikh Google,” they lament. Indeed the Internet has increasingly given global jihad an existence apart from mosques, imams, and large-scale funds. Sermons are recorded and uploaded to a wide variety of sites, such as “The Revival,” based in Britain, to reach a diverse audience. As intolerant tenets drawn from Wahhabism and violence championed by jihadi groups become virtual, a degree of control slips away from the Saudis and their preachers, who hitherto have served successfully as jihad puppet masters. Similarly, as noted by US Treasury officials, the Internet facilitates long-distance fundraising from sympathetic Saudis through campaigns and merchandise sales on sites such as the Islamic State Report and Islamic State News of Al-Hayat Media Center, not to mention Facebook and Twitter. 

Both on and off the Internet, the money trail reflects the larger trend of the Saudi financing of Wahhabism abroad. Funds are funneled from Saudi sources through multiple, seemingly innocuous bank accounts—often via Qatar and Kuwait—reaching the accounts of mosques and imams who make distributions to Wahhabi organizations and individuals abroad. Only very recently has the Saudi monarchy sensed danger to its own continuity and, prudently, begun introducing more stringent rules for oversight of waqfs, or charities, to curb funds flowing to Islamists. Saudi Arabia joined the US in co-chairing an international meeting this March aimed at countering terrorist funding. The brutality by Islamic State and Nusra Front terrorists that Saudis are beginning to see, via electronic media and websites, is also compelling them to acknowledge the ugly secular underside of what has otherwise been justified as religious evangelism. The House of Saud is now even working with the US and EU to train Sunni Iraqis and Syrians to combat the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, however, in an attempt to quiet the 2011 Arab Spring’s impact upon discontent within his own kingdom, the recently deceased King Abdullah began allocating $350 million for Islamic institutions and authorities—funds over and above the approximately $100 billion expended during the previous four decades. These expenditures immediately began cushioning the monarchy from internal criticism by reinforcing its ties to Wahhabi leaders, who reciprocated by denouncing all displays of protest against the ruling class as “un-Islamic” and punishable by lashing, imprisonment, or death. 

The Saudi leadership has very real reasons to be worried about jihad against the regime becoming popular at home. Only 23 percent of Saudi citizens ascribe freely to Wahhabism, despite the munificent official support this ideology has received. Religious intolerance is reflected in Saudi Arabia’s standing on the International Human Rights Rank Indicator: 205th out of 216, behind Afghanistan. Yet the kingdom stands 34th of 185 on the UN’s Human Development Index, in the very high group with Lithuania and Estonia. The grand bargain made by the House of Saud and the champions of Wahhabism, to provide citizens a high standard of living in return for absolute power in the secular and religious domains, is fraying. Oil revenues—the backbone of Saudi expansionism not just economically but dogmatically—are tumbling, forcing an 18 percent cutback in domestic spending. The kingdom’s increasingly well-educated and globally savvy population, especially the youth who constitute 64 percent, are chafing at their lack of say in governance and resource allocation. Increasing numbers of ordinary Saudis, while not ready to reject a national religion, are ready for one more in line with modern lifestyles.


Because of these factors, the Saudi royal family, which has lately experienced transition to a new monarch, has an opportunity to abandon the harmful deal made so long ago between the state and the leaders of Wahhabism. But the new king, Salman, may himself be the main obstacle to change. Intelligence sources concur that Salman served as the royal family’s main fundraiser for jihadis in Afghanistan during the 1980s, and in the Balkans during the 1990s. He also served as the main conduit between the Saudi state bureaucracy and extremist clerics in the Wahhabi clerical establishment, in addition to directing the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been linked by NATO to al-Qaeda and other jihad organizations. More recently, after ascending the throne, Salman presented the 2015 King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam to an Indian Muslim televangelist infamous for describing the 9/11 attacks as “an inside job” led by President George W. Bush.

Not surprisingly, one of Salman’s first official acts as monarch was to dismiss two influential officials who had opposed Wahhabi clergymen—a reform-minded minister of justice and a relatively tolerant chief of the religious police. And he sought to placate the public by promising financial bonuses rather than political reform. Moreover, by appointing the anti-democratic Muhammad bin Nayef as both crown prince and as interior minister, an office that controls the internal and external intelligence agencies, Salman sent another chilling message. Other recent Saudi cabinet appointees include three descendants of Wahhabism’s founder, who will likely work toward ensuring the kingdom continues its absolutist adherence to this intolerant form of Islam. 

Instead of looking for the first shoots of a Saudi spring, the new regime seems to favor more of the same. Policies and resources have remained geared toward ensuring that absolute control remains with the descendants of Ibn Saud. So, for instance, US-educated Nayef focuses on suppressing internal terrorism while turning a blind eye to its export abroad. Likewise, King Salman’s Operation Decisive Storm, ostensibly a 10-country Sunni offensive against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, on the kingdom’s southern border, reinforces Sunni autocrats and widens the intra-Muslim rift rather than quashing Sunni extremists like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. It all fits squarely with current Saudi policy of ensuring the monarchy leads the world’s Muslims irrespective of negative consequences.

The issue is less what the Saudis will do than how the US will react to an extremism whose consequences can no longer be denied by strategic considerations. For decades, US administrations have tolerated Saudi Wahhabism and the jihad, instability, and death it has fueled across the globe. Whether President Obama stressed the need for ending such activities during his January visit to Riyadh is unclear. The Saudis seem to think it is business as usual, with the two nations agreeing to disagree about religious extremism as a result of shared interests in energy policy and containing Iranian regional aspirations.

Saudi Arabia complains that the US is no longer the reliable ally who agreed in 1945 to guarantee the monarchy’s security. But as the cradle of Islamist terror, it has become a duplicitous friend as well. It should no longer be allowed to use its oil wealth to take its terror connections off the table. Change has to come soon, either voluntarily from within Saudi society or through external pressure from the global community. Even diplomats from the United Arab Emirates, which share a border with Saudi Arabia along the Persian Gulf’s southern coast, now acknowledge they “know that it [countering terror] must be a cause led by those in the region—and on the ground—with the most at stake.” King Salman has observed that “extremism feeds extremism.” To ensure the survival of his realm, he should apply his words to moderating the kingdom’s actions. 

Carol E. B. Choksy is an adjunct lecturer on strategic intelligence at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing, as well as the CEO of IRAD Strategic Consulting, Inc. Jamsheed K. Choksy is a distinguished professor at Indiana University and a member of the US National Council on the Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities.





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