AFTER THE RECENT ISIS ATTACKS, there’s been plenty of discussion of how the United States should respond, many focusing on military intervention and revenge. But what many haven’t discussed is how U.S. ally relations have contributed to the spread of ISIS in the Middle East. Perhaps our most troubling ally in this regard is Saudi Arabia. There is reason to argue that the country has indirectly yet significantly influenced the empowerment of ISIS ideology and behavior. Here’s why:
One of the most terrifying aspects of ISIS is not their military power, but their ideology. This makes “fighting against ISIS” not only a question of sending troops or bombing strategic locations, but also combating the root beliefs and ideas that ISIS is founded on. As Charles P. Pierce wrote in his article for Esquire:
“American soldiers dying in the sands of Syria or Iraq will not stop the events like what happened in Paris from happening again… [They] will be dying there in combat against only the most obvious physical manifestation of a deeper complex of ancient causes and ancient effects.”
Saudi Arabia has played an important role in the development of these “ancient causes.” An article by Yousaf Butt in the Huffington Post argued how Saudi Arabia Wahhabism — a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam — has provided a foundation for ISIS extremist beliefs. Daniel Benjamin wrote in an article for Foreign Policy: “A solid line of causation from the slaughter in Islamic State-controlled Iraq and the tragedy of 9/11 traces back directly to Saudi evangelization and the many radical mosques and extremist NGOs it spawned.” In his op-ed article in the New York Times, Kamel Daoud argued that Saudi Arabia could be considered “the world’s chief ideological sponsor of Islamist culture.” He argued: “Daesh has a mother: the invasion of Iraq. But it also has a father: Saudi Arabia and its religious-industrial complex. Until that point is understood, battles may be won, but the war will be lost. Jihadists will be killed, only to be reborn again in future generations and raised on the same books.”
When ISIS beheaded journalist James Foley last year, the world was repulsed. And yet, Saudi Arabia is one of only four countries that still hold public executions (their company: Iran, North Korea and Somalia). Al Jazeera reported that in 2015, the country has executed at least 151 so far. In 2014, Newsweek reported that thirty-one people were beheaded between August 4th and September 22, an average of around one every other day.
Like ISIS, Saudi Arabia also practices crucifixion, even after a person is beheaded. In Janine Di Giovanni piece for Newsweek she describes the process:
“While the headless corpse is mounted, your head is placed in a plastic bag similar to the ones put on the ground to catch the blood. Your head is then raised above your body and appears to be floating and detached. Your corpse might be kept in that position for up to four days, as a grotesque warning to others of what might happen if they stray outside the law.”
These actions also aren’t necessarily reserved for extreme crimes. In Saudi Arabia, people have been given this sentence for charges like adultery, drugs, and even “sorcery.”
In 2010, a Wikileaks cable showed then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitting Saudi involvement with terrorist organizations. The Guardian quoted the cable saying the following:
“Still, donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
Later, it continues:
“More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT, and other terrorist groups, including Hamas, which probably raise millions of dollars annually from Saudi sources, often during Hajj and Ramadan.”
Then, just last year, an article in the Washington Post reported that Vice President Biden also acknowledged that our allies ultimately provided financial support for extremists in Syria. While speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the article quotes him as saying:
“Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria…What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad, and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied, [they] were al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world.”
Florida Sen. Bob Graham has also explicitly denounced Saudi Arabia’s connection with ISIS. In an article for Newsweek, writer Jeff Stein quoted Graham as saying: “ISIS…is a product of Saudi ideals, Saudi money and Saudi organizational support, although now they are making a pretense of being very anti-ISIS,” Graham added. “That’s like the parent turning on the wayward or out-of-control child.”
In October, Mother Jones reported that Amnesty International had called on the U.S. to end its arm deals with the Saudis. The organization based its response on the significant evidence from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights showing that Saudi attacks in Yemen had led to a troubling amount of civilian deaths. But by mid-November, the U.S. nonetheless signed a $1.29 billion arms deal with the country. Over the last five years, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have exchanged more than $100 billion in arms sales.
Of course, how terrorism develops and spreads is extremely complicated and responsibility cannot fairly be placed on any one country. But after years of human rights abuses, extremist ideology, and shady finances and military strategies, our refusal to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for their behavior can be seen as hypocritical at best and endangering at worst.