Viewing the Islamic State from Riyadh’s Perspective – Fahad Nazer

Published: September 2, 2014

Editor’s Note:

Since the June campaign by the militants from the Islamic State, aka ISIS, ISIL and Da’ish, gobbled up large chunks of western and northern Iraq SUSRIS has compiled a large collection of articles, interviews, video panels (Focus KSA), and reference materials (see below). Today we are pleased to add one more piece to the compilation of insights and perspectives that give the story background, context and analysis. We would like to thank Mr. Fahad Nazer, a Northern Virginia-based political affairs analyst, who is becoming a regular voice on SUSRIS, for helping us understand developments in the Arabian Peninsula like the Islamic State phenomenon. In our snapshot Q&A interview this weekend he shared with us his assessment of recent reports about the evolution of Islamic State power and charges that Riyadh bears some measure of responsibility.


[SUSRIS] This week you Tweeted “International Saudi Arabia is responsible for ISIS week continues!” and cited an op-ed in The Guardian which stated in part, “Saudi Arabia is increasingly feeling the heat of Sunni hardline blowback.” Speculation about KSA responsibility has become conventional wisdom as your Tweet suggested. Meanwhile, Saudi Ambassador to the UK Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf has been in the forefront of official Saudis to rebut charges of Saudi support for the Islamic State forces. In early July you were part of a SUSRIS/SUSTG Focus KSA Webcast in which you pushed back against the assertion that the Saudi government had a hand in supporting the IS and the unrest in Iraq. What is your reaction to continued charges to the contrary?

fahad-nazer3[Fahad Nazer] As for ISIS, I think it is not in the least bit surprising that given its brutality and rapid advances in Iraq and more recently Syria, people are asking themselves “who’s responsible” for the emergence of arguably the most vicious – and perhaps most powerful – Al Qaeda offshoot yet. The tendency of some to “blame” one entity or to attribute such disturbing phenomena as terrorism to one “source” is certainly nothing new.

Last week, a number of commentators and analysts in the US and UK maintained that they have found the culprit: it’s Saudi Arabia. They posited that the kingdom “exported” an extremist brand of Islam – often pejoratively labelled as Wahhabism – and that it is this ideology that is responsible for the growth of ISIS. Some of those making this argument also suggest that Saudi Arabia has supported ISIS financially , although they all invariably qualify that claim by saying “there is no hard evidence” to prove it.

I think that scholars who have carefully studied the process of radicalization and the history of militant Islamist movements are virtually all in agreement that no single factor accounts for the spread of militant groups across the globe. Rather, the “answers” lie in a a multilayered complex combining historical, political, cultural, social, psychological and economic factors and that ideology/religious indoctrination is only one component of an often lengthy process. Some have even suggested that ideology plays a relatively minor role.


Fahad Nazer, panelist on Focus KSA special, on the “Crisis in Iraq,” June 24, 2014

A cursory look at many ISIS members appears to confirm that ideology played a secondary role in their joining of ISIS. As an example, a number of Saudi radicals who fought with ISIS in Syria and subsequently turned themselves in to Saudi Authorities and are now speaking publicly about their experience readily admit that they were not particularly “religious” prior to traveling to Syria.

Having said that, there seems to be little doubt that the civil war in Syria – a complicated conflict by itself – played a major , more immediate role in the emergence of ISIS.


I have argued elsewhere – as early as January 2012 – that the international community should pay closer attention to the then slowly but surely deepening quagmire that was emerging in Syria . I – and perhaps others – cautioned that Assad’s brutal suppression of the Sunni majority could furnish Al Qaeda with a Jihadist narrative that could resonate with the wider Sunni majority around the world and certainly with militants , who would find joining the “Jihad” in Syria almost irresistible. As it turns out, it wasn’t Al Qaeda central under the leadership of Ayman Al Zawahiri that was able to capitalize on Syria but this offshoot, which was formed in Iraq, then moved to Syria and is now controlling a wide swath along the border of both countries.


In addition, many astute observers of the war in Syria have noted that until fairly very recently, Assad did not seem very interested in bombing ISIS strong holds in Riqqa and Deir Al Zoir, focusing instead on other, more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition. Likewise, ISIS itself was more focused on fighting the opposition, including the “official” Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Nusrah Front, than the Assad regime. There are many who’ve long argued that Assad deliberately ignored ISIS to force the international community to choose between his regime or ISIS , completely disregarding the fact that there were many other moderate forces within the opposition who could have potentially presented a viable alternative to the false choice between a brutal dictator and a vicious terrorist group.


Islamic State (ISIS) forces in Iraq

[SUSRIS] Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer, told the Huffington Post that Saudi Arabia’s “ruling elite is divided.” He said, “Some applaud that ISIS is fighting Iranian Shiite ‘fire’ with Sunni ‘fire’.. while other Saudis are more fearful.” He called it “Saudi Duality.” Tell us what you think about the assertion of “Saudi Duality” vis a vis ISIS — is there a basis for that assessment — and how official and unofficial Saudis are reacting to the IS phenomenon.

[Nazer] As for Saudi Arabia, I think all senior Saudi officials – and many religious clerics – have made it clear that they consider ISIS to be a threat to the security of the kingdom, the Middle East, the Muslim world and the entire international community. In fact the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, the Grand Mufti – recently declared ISIS to be “the number one enemy of Islam.” In a recent meeting with ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah raised some eyebrows when he said that unless they’re dealt with quickly and decisively, ISIS will reach Europe, “in a month, and the US in two.”

King Abdullah Cabinet MeetingCustodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz

It seems clear that the Saudis feel that ISIS requires a well coordinated, international response. However, it is interesting to note that they have not publicly said anything about the ongoing US strikes in Iraq. I think that given their long strained relations with Maliki – whom they mostly blame for ISIS’ advance in Iraq – and the perception among some Saudis that while ISIS is obviously a menace, a wider “Sunni rebellion” against Maliki’s sectarian policies has taken place – it is not surprising that the Saudi government has not taken a public position on the US strikes. [See also: “U.S. Intervention in Iraq, A “Confounding” Decision”]

It’s also important to note that Saudi authorities seem to be frustrated with the lingering – and perhaps widening – perception among some in the West that Saudi Arabia is somehow supporting ISIS. The lack of evidence to support this contention hasn’t stopped many from repeating it. Some seem to treat it as an incontrovertible fact. For its part, the Saudi Embassy in the UK seems to have realized the damaging effect this perception could have on the kingdom’s relations with countries in the West and perhaps around the world. In response, it has launched a media campaign to correct this misperception and to highlight the many steps that Saudi Arabia has taken to combat terrorism and extremist thought.


Fahad Nazer is a terrorism analyst with JTG Inc, an analysis and intelligence company in Vienna, Virginia, that has government and private clients — including defense companies in the U.S. and abroad. Nazer is a former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy, Yale Global Online and Al Monitor. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.


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