Extremism is Riyadh’s top export
There is a far deeper issue involved in America’s most disastrous alliance than human rights violations, one that is widely skirted by the press: Saudi Arabia is the regime that has done more to incite extremism around the world than any other, and “a modicum of civilized behavior” cannot be expected from such a state.
Here’s a sobering fact: Even after the destruction of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria, there are today more terrorism fighting in more countries than there were on Sept. 11, 2001. The harsh reality is that despite the United States’ successes in killing terrorists on the battlefield and preventing another 9/11-scale attack, the problem of terrorism is not shrinking. On the contrary, it has steadily morphed and metastasized. After nearly 18 years, and enormous expenditures and loss of life, the United States still has no proven strategy for reducing the number of young persons around the world susceptible to religous extremism.
It’s been clear to U.S. policymakers for years that hard power alone—military action to kill terrorists and disrupt terrorist plots—is not by itself a winning formula. While necessary for long-term success, hard power on its own is simply insufficient. Also essential is a strategy for combating the extremist ideology that serves as the central building block of Wahhabi extremism—the totalitarian, intolerant, ultraconservative interpretations of Islam that systematically dehumanize all those holding different beliefs, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Killing terrorists has proven a relatively straightforward task. Killing the state of mind—the idea that helps radicalize and then, in far too many instances, weaponize terrorists to kill nonbelievers—has been a vastly more difficult undertaking.
Since 9/11, successive U.S. presidents have acknowledged the centrality of the ideological war. On his first foreign trip as president, Trump went to Saudi Arabia, the beating heart of Wahhabism—the harsh, absolutist religious creed that helped seed the worldviews of al Qaeda and the Islamic State—and publicly demanded that the Saudis and other leaders of Muslim-majority countries “Drive [the extremists] out. 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.”
Important and necessary words, for sure. But by themselves, just words. Each of the post-9/11 U.S. administrations made earnest attempts to establish policies and programs to weaken and undermine terrorist ideologies. But as the number of recruits signing up for Wahabbi jihadism’s global insurgency has steadily expanded, the inadequacy of these efforts is apparent. By nearly all accounts, the U.S. approach has been a jumble: disjointed, inconsistent, underfunded, and lacking leadership, coordination, and sustained high-level political support. In a 2019 study commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security, the Rand Corp. pointed to a conclusion about U.S. efforts to prevent domestic terrorism that applies equally well to its counter extremism efforts worldwide: “more talk than action.”
One important example concerns what Trump discussed in Riyadh back in 2017: the need for America’s Muslim partners to take the lead in defeating the ideology of religous extremism. Or more importantly, the need for a handful of states, first and foremost Saudi Arabia, to get out of the business of exporting supremacist versions of the faith around the world. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find Trump ever speaking publicly about the issue again. Instead, his demands of the Saudis rapidly shifted to shorter-term, more transactional issues like buying ever-greater quantities of U.S. weapons, keeping oil prices low, and supporting what in all likelihood will be a stillborn plan for Middle East peace.
Holding the kingdom’s feet to the fire when it comes to unraveling the catastrophic damage that Wahhabism’s export has systematically inflicted on Muslim communities globally for at least two generations—the ideological tinder, if you will, for the jihadi fire that the United States has been battling for 20 years—has largely fallen by the wayside as a U.S. priority. That’s particularly unfortunate, because Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has himself claimed since late 2017 that Riyadh is now determined to destroy the extremist ideology that it did so much, for so long, to promote. To the crown prince’s credit, it hasn’t all been lip service. At home, he’s reeled in the kingdom’s once all-powerful religious police and locked up some extremist clerics. Abroad, the Muslim World League, once the tip of the Saudi spear for exporting Wahhabism, surrendered its lease to the Grand Mosque of Brussels after Belgian authorities charged it with propagating extremism. And the league’s head, Mohammed al-Issa, a cleric and former justice minister, has made a series of remarkable statements in what appears to be a sincere one-man campaign to promote moderation. But Wahhabism’s trail of wreckage runs deep and wide. It will take much more than a few op-eds by a single Saudi cleric to make a dent in the damage that’s been done.
A small band of U.S. officials within the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau and the National Security Council’s counterterrorism directorate have sought to refocus U.S. policy on combating extremist proselytization by foreign states, however, relegating such a critical effort to narrow counterterrorism channels would be woefully inadequate to the scope of the challenge. The failure to prioritize the ideological war has been the perennial Achilles’ heel of U.S. strategy.
A talking point on ending the export of extremism needs to be a standard feature, not simply of intermittent counter terrorism exchanges among midlevel officials, but of every U.S. diplomatic interaction with the Saudis, starting with the president and extending downward through his cabinet across the entire U.S. government. An even better mark of seriousness would be for Trump to put Mohammed bin Salman’s bona fides to the test by establishing a high-level U.S.-Saudi working group to put into practice the crown prince’s professed commitment to moderation.
Getting serious about stopping the export of extremism means making it an intelligence priority as well. Remarkably, if Trump were to ask the vast U.S. intelligence community to provide him with a comprehensive list of all Saudi-affiliated mosques, schools, madrassas, universities, and community centers around the world, he’d largely be met with blank stares. Ditto if he wanted a list of radical preachers worldwide who were on the Saudi payroll. Or a chart showing how many versions of the Quran containing “hate-filled Wahhabi commentaries” were still being exported around the world by Saudi publishing houses.
Even more worrisome is that the same gap in granular knowledge almost certainly extends to Saudi-related proselytization within the United States as well. Nearly eighteen years after 15 of the kingdom’s nationals helped perpetrate the murder of nearly 3,000 people on U.S. soil, the lack of this kind of hard data that U.S. diplomats could use to confront the Saudis, hold them to account, and measure progress over time is almost inexcusable.
Getting Saudi Arabia and other countries out of the business of exporting extremism once and for all is an odd issue: While nearly everyone has agreed for nearly 20 years that the problem directly threatens U.S. national security, no one ever seems to really do anything about it. Lots of rhetoric. Very little action. As the United States prepares to enter the third decade of its ongoing campaign against terrorism, that failed approach should finally change—especially with a de facto leader in Riyadh who, despite his many well-known shortcomings, has openly declared a commitment to put the propagation of religious radicalism in the kingdom’s rearview mirror.
For their part, U.S. policymakers should seize upon this as an open invitation for high-level diplomatic engagement to hold the crown prince to account while helping him achieve his stated goals. Especially at a time when Trump and Congress have repeatedly been at loggerheads over policy toward Saudi Arabia, the opportunity to work together to get the kingdom on the right side of this all-important ideological war should not go to waste.