Debate over the Charlie Hebdo attacks has centred on different problems that the tragedy speaks to – freedom of expression, integration of immigrants into French society, anti-foreigner sentiment, Western political and military involvement in the Middle East, the rise of the anti-Western phenomenon of jihadism. While it’s not entirely clear yet how the attacks came about and the motivations involved, it’s worth dwelling a little perhaps on the last. While it’s true that Western wars in the Middle East have provoked a desire for revenge, the modern jihadist is also a product of the politicking of Arab regimes. The political price for these involvements is largely paid by the West, however.
Three modern jihads stand out. The first, Afghanistan, was a new experience, the inaugural transnational jihad of the modern era in which Saudi Arabia and the United States jumped into the fray against the Soviet invasion. Each with different motivations, they poured some $20 billion into the fight and Saudi interior ministry may have facilitated travel for anything between 35,000 and 40,000 young men to join in. The motivations differed: Sensing Russian weakness, Washington wanted to take the fight to the Soviets, while Al Saud were keen to boost their Islamic credentials with the official Wahhabi religious establishment following the 1979 revolt at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The religious scholars were given wider powers over society, and the kingdom embarked on a programme of proselytization on a global scale (printing Qurans and funding mosques). The Mujahideen were public heroes.
Afghanistan had been a chaotic affair, with wide-ranging consequences. Egyptians returned to fight in Egypt, Algerians in Algeria. The United States was the target of al-Qa’ida in the 1998 attacks on embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salam and the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Saudi Arabia suffered a heavy blow to its reputation for 9/11 – since most of the attacks were Saudi and Osama bin Laden was also their countrymen – and worked assiduously to rebuild its standing in American eyes, and Saudis in Afghanistan formed the nucleus of the al-Qa’ida campaign in Saudi Arabia from 2003 to 2006. So when the cause for the export of jihad emerged in 2003 it was a much more calculated affair. With their government horrified to see a Shia dominated post-war Iraq under Iranian patronage, Saudis emerged as the main component of the Iraqi insurgency, or at least its jihadist element. Reports emerged of security officials telling al-Qa’ida sympathisers that they should take their fight to Iraq, and during the siege of Falluja in November 2004 a group of Saudi religious scholars issued a letter to the Iraqi people rallying them to jihad.
After US concern about the high numbers of Saudi jihadists became public and pointed in 2007 [any ref to al-q campaign in Saudi? Ie also threat to them? It’s mentioned in the paragraph above], the Saudi government took strong measures: interior minister Prince Nayef harangued religious scholars in a widely reported meeting, “do you know that your sons who go to Iraq are used only for blowing themselves up?” The Mufti, the state’s official spokesperson on religious matters, said Saudi youth had become a “commodity, bought and sold”. By 2006, increased security cooperation with US and other Western agencies had produced a victory over the al-Qa’ida insurgency and the security threat from “returnees from Iraq” became manageable. Indeed, the ongoing low-level militant threat had the advantage of tightening the relationship between the hyper-dynasty and its Western patrons.
With the Syrian conflict since 2011 this pattern of low-key jihad was repeated. Saudi Arabia and Qatar engaged in a war of choice, though for different reasons. For Saudi Arabia it was a chance to hit back against the Iranians by removing one ally (Syria) after they gained another (Iraq); for Qatar it was a chance to install another Muslim Brotherhood government. Both states sponsored Salafi jihadist groups, according to their tastes and whims. In Saudi Arabia jihad was shunned at an official level while security agencies again turned a blind eye to lower numbers travelling to Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon to make war on an infidel regime, while sectarian discourse freely dominated in Saudi media. There was no flow of fighters from Qatar to Syria – the government could be thankful it has such a small population – while Kuwait, which did not lead organisation, funding and arming of anti-Assad forces in the manner of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, saw many of its nationals join the war. Popular financial contributions, through charity funding-raising, sanctioned by the state, was huge in all three territories.
There has been little domestic political consequence to these involvements for the Gulf states, contrary to the situation Europe faces. The al-Qa’ida campaign came and went without threat to the regime in Saudi Arabia, allowing the ruling family to entrench its international position. Unlike the Madrid train bombings in 2004 or London’s 7/7 bombings in 2005, there was no government for angry publics to vote down or lobby to change after the mass suicide bombings in Riyadh in 2003, because there is no meaningful political process capable in the first place. The major political impact of the Iraqi adventure for Gulf states who backed the war and then tacitly sent in the jihadists was the Bush administration’s crusade for democracy in 2005, which cajoled the Mubarak regime to lower the level of rigging in parliamentary elections and persuaded the Saudis to allow men to take part in revived municipal elections. Thus nationals engaging in Syrian jihad are not the political trauma for these Gulf states that they are for the Europeans.
As for the ISIS threat it is felt most acutely by Saudi Arabia but Riyadh can manage the challenge through reapplying the policies used to handle militancy from 2003. It can rest assured of the full support of its Western allies, and reassert its claims to represent the true Sharia state with extensive powers granted to the clerics (thus the public flogging of liberal blogger Raif Badawi this week, despite remonstrations from Washington and rights groups in advance). ISIS and the Paris attacks have recreated a 9/11 moment when Western attention shifts to identifying the ideological fonts of radical Islamic thinking. Riyadh has so far done a good job of avoiding blame, as Western media and governments have focussed on Qatar and Turkey as facilitators of the more radical elements in Syria, while Saudi Arabia’s extensive cordon sanitaire in Arab media has assiduously produced narratives faulting US policy (for not taking out Assad), Sunni suffering at the hands of ascendant Shia in Iraq, and a general Arab civilizational malaise – anything but Wahhabism, which to Al Saud’s horror became a topic for Western media consumption after 2001.
Saudi Arabia’s rulers are savvy enough not to push their luck too far. They did not send bon vivant Turki al-Faisal or intelligence chief Khaled bin Bandar to the mass gathering on Sunday to protest the attacks, which would have attracted unnecessary attention, but did feel the need for the Paris ambassador to attend. No request to aid the Western campaign against jihadism will go unanswered – but neither will the requirements for keeping its religious allies at home pacified.