Wahhabism and ISIS — The Curse of the Middle East

A brief history of Saudi religious extremism

This is a guest post by Niall Kiernan


Muhammad ibn Abu Wahhab
In 1703, in the central wilderness of the Arabian Desert, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab arrived into this world.

The son of a cleric, he was tutored by his father in the Qur’an and the many other philosophical books of Islam.  Of course, being brought up in the Empty Quarter, where your world-view is shaped by the harsh, inhospitable lands of Najd (central Arabia), all he had in his early life were the teachings in the holy books. He had no exposure to the diverse milieu that resided in the streets of Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad or Istanbul.

Muhammad was sent by his father to Mecca to study under the tutelage of the Hanbali mufti. However, the mufti regarded him as a poor student, both arrogant and defiant, and so Muhammad consequently dropped out. His father was most displeased and even his own brother would later disown him when his teachings became known and understood for what they were.

Muhammad gained an introduction to the chief justice of Medina to see he if he could be educated in jurisprudence, as was his family tradition and the two men quickly became friends, since  al Sindhi, a ‘reformist’ saw the overlay of culture and tradition on Islam as a corruption.  After a number of years with Al Sindhi, Muhammad moved to the city of Basra in present-day Iraq where he formulated his ideology until he was happy that his new flavour of Islam was ripe for dissemination.

What Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab had produced was a cultureless, joyless and traditionless ideology where every word of the Qur’an was interpreted literally but essentially in an à la carte and DIY fashion. For him, the concept, of visiting people you are grieving for in a graveyard, enjoying music, theatre or anything cultural or traditional was anathema because this particular Muhammad believed it all to be a form of polytheism.

The worshipping of dead ancestor gods, musical or dancing gods, theatre and sculpture gods, was heresy.  This ideology demanded that all culture and tradition be destroyed and erased entirely as the world saw in 2001 with the Taliban’s destruction of the magnificent Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.

Upon returning to Najd Muhammad began to preach and attract some followers but after a spate of destructive acts in villages of the region such as destroying gravestones and cutting down ‘sacred’ trees, the local tribal bosses had enough of the upstart and expelled him.

The Grand Alliance

When Muhammad was exiled from his area of Najd, he was either invited or perhaps inveigled his way into Diriyah (the big smoke of Najd, so to speak) to stay with a clan leader going by the name of Muhammad ibn Saud.  Does the name sound familiar to you? It should, because this guy’s successors ‘own’ a very rich country, the only one in the world named after a family.

Both of these men had ambitions well beyond their status. Both wanted to control the Arabian Peninsula, one of them politically, the other religiously, so they formed a pact in 1744 that still survives to this day.

ISIS 1.0  The Birth of The Management of Savagery

From that date onward, the two amigos set about conquering, first the Najd region and then the eastern coastline of the Arabian Peninsula from Kuwait to Oman. The tactic was simple. Their jihadists did not follow Arab custom and tradition in warfare. They were zealots who were trained to kill anyone who didn’t suit their mindset. Christians, Shia, captured prisoners, women and children.  You name it, they’d murder it…
Fast-forward to 1801 and we see the successor of the Saud dynasty invading Iraq and sacking the Shia holy city of Karbala where the Imam Ali Hussein (the murdered grandson of the Prophet) had been laid to rest.

The Wahhabist jihadists slaughtered approximately 5,000 people (including women and children) in less than half a day, whilst plundering the city’s great wealth. Stories abounded about their special kind of cruelty towards pregnant Shia women. They where sliced open and their dead babies thrown into the disembowelled and dying women’s arms. Having destroyed all around them (including Hussein’s mausoleum along with his skeletal remains) they left the city with 4,000 camels laden down with their booty of gold and jewels.

Thus far, these jihadist have demonstrated quite a shocking appetite for murder and destruction of any and all that opposed them, coupled with a simple choice for the enemy, “convert or die” and also indeed, a voracious appetite for wealth.

The Ottoman Caliphate began taking notice when both Medina and Mecca were captured by ibn Saud. The Ottomans went on the offensive and ordered the Egyptian viceroy Muhammad Ali Pasha to use his Egyptian army to root these psychopaths out. The jahidists were eventually routed and the Ottomans took revenge on the Saudis by destroying every last building in their capital, Diriyah in 1818, which wasn’t rebuilt until the 1970s.

The Saudi/Wahhabi alliance was put back into its box in the wastelands of Najd for nearly 100 years. However, the alliance remained – welded together through marriage, beginning with al Wahhab’s two sons and ibn Saud’s daughters.  The family, for it was, by now, one family and their army of jihadists simply bided their time.

The Saud Family and the British ‘Godfather’

After nearly 100 years the jihadists were back in business. The (so-called) Great War began. However, the Saudis held back when the Hashemites of the western peninsula began the Arab Revolt in 1916  while the Ottomans had their hands full with the Brits in Sinai and Palestine.

The House of Saud had other ideas and decided it would supplant the Hashemites.

Then, early in 1917, Harry St John Philby was dispatched by the British Army in Mesopotamia to meet a representative from a new generation of Wahhabist Sauds by the name of Abd-al-Aziz.  Philby’s mission was to find out whether the Sauds would assist the Hashemites in western part of Arabia in the Arab Revolt. Britain had long had a pact with the Hashemite Sharif Hussein that he would control an empire stretching from Egypt to Persia.  (Incidentally, Philby’s son, Kim,  went on to become a famous KGB double-agent).

The Hashemites were mortal enemies of the Saud clan and Abd-al-Aziz waited to choose his moment.

It seems Philby was hand picked by MI-6.  According to Wikipedia…

Gertrude Bell of the British Military Intelligence Department was his first controller and taught him the finer arts of espionage. In 1916 he became Revenue Commissioner for Occupied Territories.”

Philby was an ambitious, self-serving opportunist as well as a committed Zionist and when he arrived in Najd in early 1917 and it seems he liked what he saw.  When he arrived in Najd he was well received and immediately began immersing himself in the Arabian culture. At some remove from the powers that be in London, he went native and before long was wearing the full-length white thobe,  the tagia, gutra and igal on his head, the beard and all of the other paraphernalia.

Philby became a senior and trusted advisor to Abd-al-Aziz, even sitting at council meetings all the while urging Abd-al-Aziz to annex territories to the north (even when London forbade it).  His influence only waned in Saudi Arabia after the death of Adb-al-Aziz.  By the early thirties Philby had himself converted to Wahhabism and in 1945, at the age of 60, married a 16 year-old girl purchased at a slave market in the town of Taif, near Mecca.  Oddly enough, this MI-6 agent who had been ‘turned’ by his subject and would normally be regarded as treasonous, had a son who also rose, years later, to a high-ranking position in the very same organisation to, yet again betray them. All very strange indeed.

ISIS 2.0 – Ikhwan (Brethren)

Already, by 1913 groups of nomadic Bedouin who were classed as ‘kafir’ by the Wahhabis (because of their nomadic lifestyle) were drafted into the Saudi army and indoctrinated in Wahhabism and thereafter allowed to become nomadic jihadists by instruction from Abd-al-Aziz.  The new Wahhabist zealots set about their conquest with the same vigour as they had done 100 years beforehand. They murdered all and sundry in their attacks (male captives had the pleasure of having their throat cut). Forceful conversion of Shias in the north was tolerated and (more importantly) Ikhwan ultimately prevailed against the Hashemites in 1926.

However, the Saudis were beginning to lose control of the creature that they created and by the time Saudi Arabia came into being the new al-Saud regime were firmly in Ikhwan’s sites (plus ça change).

Abd-al-Aziz was advised by Philby that the time that he had come to ‘appear’ to be civilized to the British and the Americans who came courting due to their reserves of oil.  Ikhwan had to be put into cold storage.  For their part, the Ikhwan believed the House of Saud to be far too lax in their religious standards, what with the schooling their children in the infidel western lands and by drinking and whoring their way around Europe.

In 1927, an open revolt by the Ikhwan began with raids into Iraq, Kuwait and Trans-Jordan. The British bombed Najd and although the instigators of the revolt were captured and executed by Abd-al-Aziz, in order to appease the British, the attacks by Ikhwan continued. The Brits joined with Abd-al-Aziz and by 1930 Ikhwan had surrendered and their leaders in the field were executed by machine gun fire (a humiliation in jihadist terms).

The ‘Civilising’ of Wahhabism 1930 – 1979

Once Abd-al-Aziz regained full control by 1930 he decided that Wahhabism would be forcibly changed from a jihadist movement of proselytizers to a conservative social, theological and political movement that would be used to justify the institutions that uphold the Saudi royal family and al-Aziz’s right to absolute power.

By 1938 the sheer extent of Saudi oil reserves had become known and the Saudis readily sold the oil to the Allies during World War Two but it was not until after the  Yalta Conference in February 1945, when Abu-al-Aziz met Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy, that the alliance with the west was fully cemented.

Aziz and Roosevelt aboard Quincy

As part of the deal, the Saudis would use their growing oil wealth to project their version of Islam throughout the Middle East. The Saudis argued that western interests would be best served in the region by having one dominant strain of Sunni Islam that would bow to Saudi demands, rather than the myriad of versions that could not be controlled.  Additionally, The spreading of Wahhabism in the region would serve as a counterweight to Pan-Arabism, socialism, Ba’athism as well as Soviet and Iranian influence.

But the Ikhwan approach to Islam did not die in the 1930s. It simply retreated.

Two major events occurred in 1979 that changed the entire politics of the region.

They were the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The former caused a massive shockwave especially as the Iranian revolutionaries were calling for the overthrow of the “corrupt” Gulf State monarchies and began supporting Shia groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.  The latter caused the revival of the spirit of Ikhwan in the guise of the Arab Mujahideen who helped fight the Soviets to a standstill within 10 years.  As these fighters began to drift back to their countries of origin in the early 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal, a whole series of nasty events ensued.  Algeria was plunged into a vicious civil war; Egypt suffered a wave of attacks on the tourism industry and in Yemen, the mujahideen were recruited by the then President in order to unite the country. Look where that got him!

Later on came 9/11 and all that followed from it.

ISIS Max: The Revival of the Management of Savagery

How anyone in the West thought that getting the Saudis and Qataris to assist ‘moderate’ Sunnis in the Syrian civil war could work is symptomatic of a failure to understand the ideology of Wahhabist jihad along with its history.  What transpired was a cynical attempt by the Gulf States to export their more troublesome citizens into a war zone and hope that they never returned. To that end, the Saudis turned a blind eye to the financing of the new mujahideen by Saudi business interests.

Qatar went one step further and directly funded the group that became the al-Nusra Front.

All this raises the question – Is the western body politic really that unaware of Arab and Muslim history?

If history tells us one thing in this whole saga, it is that, even  after the deliberate unchaining of these rabid homicidal zealots, once the tap of financial support is turned off, this phenomenon can be easily put back in its box.  However, by allowing Saudi that soft power that enabled them to export Wahhabism around the globe, the West has also become deeply infected by the Wahhabi virus. The thousands of European-born Muslims flowing across the porous Turkish borders into the combat zone are evidence enough of this.

The Saudis’ adopted ideology was derived from one very many small sect from one of the four schools of Sunni Islam but they decided that their version of Islam is true and that ALL others are ‘kafir’, apostate or infidel. They have grown and expanded their belief system using vast amounts of cash from various Gulf benefactors.

The current reign of ISIS is beginning to resemble that of Pol Pot but is also eager to both publicise and promote its savagery, mainly in order to recruit new members.

This is the ISIS  manifesto.  It’s well worth a read.



Here in Ireland, we had Dr Ali Selim’s remarks about primary schooling. He called for changes (a “revolution” was what he termed it) to the curriculum in relation to PE, whereby boys would be separated from girls and where music would be restricted to beating an “un-tunable drum”, as reported in the Irish Times in August of this year.  This is again symptomatic of the spread of this virus that has infected large swaths of the (mainly) younger Sunni Muslims’ consciousness. However, I’m glad to read that those responsible leaders of the Islamic society here have lined up to condemn his views via the same organ.

I went to Marseille last April for Munster’s clash with Toulon and saw for myself, in areas just 500 metres north of the port, a ghetto comprising largely North Africans who seemed to be dirt poor, to the point of destitution, either living in squats or the vast banlieues throughout the northern part of the city. To all intents and purposes, northern Marseille looks like some South American shantytown.

Therein lies a perfect cesspit, ripe for such an extreme ideology to breed in.

Libya is now a basket case along with Yemen and Somalia, Aleppo in Syria now resembles Stalingrad in early 1943 without the snow, Boko Haram in Nigeria …

Need I continue…?

The genie is out of the bottle and my belief is that this is no accident. The dogs of war were unleashed in Libya and Syria in 2011 and they rage on to this day because of what I would call “The Great Fraud of the Arab Spring” the ‘fruits’ of which, failed to be delivered as promised by the Gulf States to Obama.

The result has been irony in motion; a new jihadist-controlled Caliphate in Syria/Iraq with its sights set on Mecca, Medina and beyond – to those that brought them into existence in the first place.

Yes, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle.  There is no compromise to be had with Wahhabist jihad. As an ideology, it is well beyond reason, but can it be destroyed, or put back in its bottle?


However, the US might do well to have a long, hard, cold look at what it amusingly calls its “foreign policy” in light of all of this.

14 thoughts on “Wahhabism and ISIS — The Curse of the Middle East

  1. Very informative! Getting a historical perspective on the present is what is missing in the general media discourse.

  2. Quite informative.
    Murder and mayhem for profit.
    Who’d have figured that?

    Did this particular story have anything to do with the reason your site was banned by United Airlines?

  3. Since Wahhabism apparently follows the edicts of the Koran down to the letter, you could say the Koran is in itself a Weapon of Mass Destruction. The most commonly utilised WMD in the Middle East right now?

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