Donald Trump gave his first headline speech about Islamic terrorism last week, and so far so good. The president emphasized that violent extremism must be obliterated, but also insisted that our allies shoulder a greater portion of the weight. “Drive them out,” Trump instructed the nations of the Middle East. “Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land and drive them out of this earth.”
The problem was the setting of Trump’s speech: Saudi Arabia, the ancient Islamic holy land, whose monarchs afforded our president a royal welcome, even projecting a towering Trump visage onto the side of the hotel where he was staying. There was plenty of alluring pomp during the visit, but Trump shouldn’t be fooled.
While the Saudis were promising Trump they’d battle terrorism, they were also squashing a measure at the United Nations that would have designated Saudi Arabia’s Islamic State affiliate as a terrorist group. Why? As one official told the Washington Post, “They don’t want to admit they have an issue in their back yard.” It’s a fitting coincidence: Saudi Arabia’s approach to the terrorist threat has long been a PR-filtered double act, with its government loudly announcing the periodic arrests of extremists while continuing to incubate Islamic extremism — “both the arsonists and the firefighters,” as one expert told the New York Times last year.
Saudi Arabia’s promotion of extreme Islam ultimately traces back to its founding as a fusion between the House of Saud and the puritanical Wahhabis of the Arabian Peninsula. But the more recent history originates in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution deposed the Shah and implemented a theocratic government in Iran. As Iranian influence seeped into Syria through the Assad regime, and into Lebanon with the formation of Hezbollah, the Saudis, Sunnis to the Iranian Shias, became gravely concerned.
They did this on a remarkable scale, funding Deobandi seminaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan that they then injected with extremist Islam, sending Wahhabis south into Yemen, where they became a destabilizing force, and even intervening as far away as India. The result was a Frankenstein monster — spanning from Saudi Arabia itself east into Asia — that promulgated the most calumnious nonsense imaginable about Shias, Christians, and Jews and promised divine reward to any who carried holy war to the infidels. This new Saudi-funded and -exported extremism quickly turned against the louche Saudi monarchy, too — the princes lost control of their creation.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi, and that al-Qaeda later sought refuge in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What is surprising is that Saudi Arabia still hasn’t made enough of an effort to slay their beast, even after the World Trade Center attacks.
Wahhabism remains at the beating heart of their state; the money still sails from local donors to extremist academies and mosques. After traveling to 80 countries as America’s first special representative to the Muslim world, Farah Pandith concluded that Wahhabism had become the most malignant force in the Middle East, “displacing historic, culturally vibrant forms of Islamic practice” with its twisted ideology.
It shouldn’t surprise us that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi, and that al-Qaeda later sought refuge in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Saudis will sometimes tackle the jihadist threat (especially when it manifests itself inside their borders), and their efforts at squashing al-Qaeda financing and rehabilitating former terrorists have recently improved. But the overall regnant attitude in Riyadh is that terrorist groups like ISIS are America’s problem to deal with, while the Saudis focus most of their attention on Iran. Iranian power does need to be checked, and the Gulf States fill that role well — but too often it comes at the expense of Western efforts in the region.
Witness the Saudi air campaign against an Iranian-linked militia in Yemen, which has greatly bolstered the al-Qaeda affiliate there. Witness, too, Saudi weapons shipments to the rebels fighting the Iran-allied Assad regime in Syria, which overwhelmingly ended up in the hands of jihadists.
The Saudis opened their arms to Donald Trump because they want to conscript the United States into their sectarian cold war with Iran.
Washington historically has stood with the Sunni nations against Tehran, and Riyadh wants to secure that commitment. But is backslapping camaraderie with the Saudis really in our national interest if they continue to irrigate Islamic terrorism? Shouldn’t a beneficiary of so much American largesse be doing more to stop our enemies? These are the tough questions Trump needs to ask the royals the next time he’s in Riyadh — in between the necessary orb touching, of course.
— Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities and an editor at Rare Politics.