Yesterday I wrote a piece analysing the terrorist attack that took place in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and in that article I made the following prediction: “ISIS have previously made statements encouraging its supporters to commit violent acts during the holy month of Ramadan and with Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, approaching militants will probably seek to do as much damage as possible in the coming days”. Sadly I was correct. In the past 24 hours, two bombs have exploded in the centre of Baghdad which have killed between 85 and 125 people depending on reports, and wounded an additional 150 people. The timing of the attacks is not exclusively related to the end of Ramadan, however the location of the attack illustrates something increasingly common.
Iraq is reeling from another series of bombings, a statement which has become so common that to utter it is no longer surprising. Indeed Iraqi officials have estimated that since the sectarian insurgency began after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Baghdad has been struck by over 1,000 bombs (bare in mind that this figure relates to one city). Unlike Dhaka, in which the perpetrators were inspired by ISIS, the acts that were committed in Baghdad were confirmed by ISIS members as being orchestrated by the group’s central command.
The bombs went off late on Saturday night. A car bomb was detonated in the city’s Karrada district, which is a local shopping area, and was designed to target local Shia Muslims who were preparing for the end of Ramadan. The second bomb went off in the north of the city and was also designed to target Shia Muslims. Local officials have warned that the death toll may soon rise.
However the timing of these attacks is not only because it is the end of Ramadan. In recent days ISIS have completed their withdrawal from the Iraqi city of Fallujah, and in the north of the country the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga have continue to reduce ISIS’ influence. Although the timing is primarily due to the end of Ramadan, it could also be the case that the increasing number of attacks is a last ditch attempt to inflict losses on the Iraqi capital. If this is the case, it should be encouraging however this does create another problem.
What differentiated ISIS out from other jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda was that joining ISIS involved a pilgrimage of sorts. For example in order to truly become a member of the group, one had to physically travel to Iraq or Syria in order to be officially inducted. This was the case because ISIS held territory. Joining a group like Al-Qaeda was more difficult as this involved travelling to Pakistan or Afghanistan to get into contact with fighters in a group like the Taliban, who were protecting Al-Qaeda, and then possibly going to Saudi Arabia or Yemen for training etc. Although radicalisation was the same result, one had to be secretive about all these details because the end goal was to become part of a terror cell. In the case of ISIS one would attempt to migrate to these areas because the person/people in question would share a belief in ISIS’ ideology. The question that I would then pose is: if ISIS loses lots or all of its currently held territory, what differentiates it from groups like Al-Qaeda?
It’s important to ponder this question for a little bit because such a transition would have to involve a dramatic change in policy. There have been a number of attacks around the world in which the perpetrators have claimed to have been inspired by ISIS, but this has been because they believed they were ‘taking the fight’ to places other than Iraq and Syria. In many cases ISIS have come out after these attacks had taken place and essentially thanked the perpetrators for committing these acts of terrorism, rather than claiming that this part of a grand plan. Sometimes ISIS does claim to have orchestrated the attacks but most experts in this field believe this to be a way of adding to their propaganda narrative of ‘being everywhere’.
Again to draw comparison with Al-Qaeda, nobody definitively knew where they were headquartered. Some people thought Iraq, which was one of the main reasons behind the 2003 Iraq War, some thought Afghanistan, hence the US-led invasion in 2001, and others thought Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was eventually killed. The point is Al-Qaeda was essentially an umbrella organisation with individual terror cells conducting their operations against targets local to these cells’ locations. On the other hand, where is ISIS’ headquarters? It’s in Raqqa. Where is their second stronghold? Mosul. Everybody knows where ISIS is based, and this is what makes them different from groups like Al-Qaeda. So we then return to the question I posed above, what if they lose this territory? Raqqa can’t be ISIS’ headquarters if it is overrun by Syrian soldiers. The point is that what differentiates ISIS from other jihadist groups on a fundamental level is ideology.
Although there is an important distinction between the tactics of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and there is an important discussion to have about the importance of doomsday prophesies in ISIS’ ideology, the unifying root of most of these groups is largely the same: Wahhabism. Wahhabism was named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and is an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam. When al-Wahhab was alive, in the eighteenth century, he became close friends with the local ruler of a nearby town, Muhammad ibn Saud, and the two men came to an arrangement- Saud would support al-Wahhab’s missionary work, and al-Wahhab would support thee authority of the House of Saud. The two worked together to propagate this new sect of Sunni fundamentalism and created a nation-state by the name of the Emirate of Diriyah. This territory would later be colonised by the Ottoman Empire but following the end of WWI the map of the Middle East was redrawn. This included the creation of new countries including the Sultanate of Nejd and the Kingdom of Hejaz. After a period of instability in the region, the King of Hejaz, Abdulaziz ibn Saud (who was the direct descendent of Muhammad ibn Saud), unified the two territories and declared the new state as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
With this brief history lesson over we get to my overarching point. The ideology that is the foundational belief of groups like Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, and ISIS is Wahhabism. In order to defeat ISIS people from around the world need to diagnose the problem correctly and also look at the root cause, and history shows us where the root cause is based: Saudi Arabia. Again I’m not trying to oversimplify this as I haven’t gone into depth about the importance of doomsday prophecies, the use of Salafism, the differences between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban etc. but no progress on the issue of terrorism can be made without challenging Wahhabism.
People who are starting to become politically conscious of this fact are beginning to pay lip service to the idea of ‘getting tough’ with Saudi Arabia, but this is not enough. Since the Emirate of Diriyah was created in 1744 the House of Saud and this poisonous ideology have been inextricably linked. Without taking serious actions against the Saudi government, including economic sanctions and boycotts, terrorism will continue at its present rate.
Terrorism is a very complicated issue, and to say otherwise would be ludicrous, but I am sick and tired of politicians and media figures refusing to articulate the problem. This ranges from thinking that the problem is with all Muslims to believing that Saudi Arabia is influencing the fight against ISIS. The Saudi government’s limited actions against ISIS have been to preserve their own power, and a part of their power is derived from the puritanical ideology that it shares with groups like ISIS. Around 125 have been killed in Baghdad for no reason other than they believed something different to these militants. In Dhaka 20 people were slain for not supporting an ultraconservative view of Sunni Islam. Around the world people are being killed by terrorists who share an ideological conviction that is propagated by Saudi Arabia. This is a country spreads this poisonous ideology around the world but remains an ally of the West and is chair of the UN Human Rights Council. This has gone well beyond a joke, and something has got to give.