By William Van Wagenen
2016 saw a spate of terrorist attacks in the West, including in Brussels, Paris, and San Bernardino, all at the hands of militants claiming to act in the name of Islam. Indeed, just days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported how in London, a “suspected Islamist terrorist mowed down scores of pedestrians on a crowded bridge before crashing his car near the gates of parliament and stabbing a policemen, leaving three dead in an attack that struck at the heart of British democracy.”
Why such attacks happen is very difficult for many Westerners to understand, and have therefore given Islam a bad name in the West. Violence committed in the name of Islam dominates the headlines of Western newspapers and television news channels. News of such events is often the only exposure many in the West have to information about Muslims, which invariably leads many to conclude that Islam is an inherently violent religion, and that every Muslim, if truly living his/her religion, should be considered a potential terrorist.
Of course, Muslims struggle to understand why these attacks occur just as much as everyone else. Muslims are naturally horrified by such attacks committed by extremists, and cannot see how Islam could justify such violence. Importantly, Muslims living in Arab countries are themselves the primary targets of attacks committed by Islamic extremists, and suffer much more from them than those of us living in the West. While the Western press pays considerable attention to any terrorist attack occurring in Paris, London, or Berlin, terrorist attacks occurring in Baghdad, for example, are mentioned only in passing. This is despite the fact that terror attacks in Baghdad occur much more frequently, and are much more deadly.
But while the average person is confused as to why such attacks are happening, former US presidents and hundreds, if not thousands, of US intelligence officials surely are not. They know exactly why these attacks occur. This is because the US, along with its allies in the Gulf (in particular Saudi Arabia), has been supporting Islamic extremists off and on for decades in order to accomplish specific foreign policy objectives. Without financial and military support from US and Saudi intelligence, the groups that carry out terror attacks and espouse intolerant, violent interpretations of Islam would remain fringe movements with virtually no adherents or influence. When these groups at times turn their guns on their former sponsors, and carry out attacks in the United States and the West, US intelligence officials cannot be surprised.
Responsibility for the attacks mentioned above has been claimed by the terrorist group known as the Islamic State (referred to in the Western media as ISIS, ISIL, or IS), which is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda. Islamic State militants are adherents of an extremist version of Islam known as Wahhabism, which preaches hatred towards non-Wahhabi Muslims, in particular Sufis and Shiites, as well as Christians and Jews and anyone advocating for democratic governments.
Though Wahhabism has spread quickly and gained significant notoriety in recent decades, this is not because of increases in religiosity among Muslims, or because Wahhabism represents “true” Islam. Wahhabism is rejected by the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, and contradicts basic tenets of Islam. Considering Wahhabism to be an objectively correct interpretation of Islam and its holy scripture, the Quran, is akin to assuming the white supremacist version of Christianity advocated by the Ku Klux Klan is an objectively correct interpretation of Christianity. Wahhabism is a relatively recent religious innovation within Islam, dating back to the late 18th century only, while Islam as a religion dates to the 7th century.
Rather than spreading due to its merits (or lack thereof) as an objectively correct interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism is gaining strength for political reasons, in particular because the United States and its Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, have for decades promoted Wahhabism in an effort to exploit it as a political and military tool to accomplish certain foreign policy objectives.
Saudi Arabia has enjoyed US military protection since 1945, and began to propagate Wahhabism in earnest starting in the 1960s, spending tens of billions of dollars of its oil wealth to build mosques, colleges, schools and Islamic centers throughout the world.
These missionary efforts were both accelerated and militarized when the US (with the help of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) supported Wahhabi-inspired fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980’s (known then as the Mujahedeen) with billions of dollars in aid and weapons, in an effort to start a proxy war against the Soviet Union. Afghans suffered from a decade and a half of violence and civil war as a result, culminating in the rise of the Taliban in 1994.
Veterans of the US-backed Afghan Jihad later formed the core of what became al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden and his supporters turned against the US as a result of the 1991 Gulf war in which US forces fighting the Iraqi Army were based in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabis considered it unacceptable to have soldiers from a non-Islamic country (“unbelievers”) stationed in the heart of the Islamic world. After the Gulf War, al-Qaeda carried out a variety of attacks against US targets, including of course the attacks on the World Trade Centers on 9/11. In response to the 9/11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan, scattering al-Qaeda and eliminating its base.
The 2003 US invasion of Iraq, while causing immense suffering for Iraqis (leading to the deaths of some 160,000 Iraqi civilians and combatants), also gave al-Qaeda the opportunity to resurrect itself there, allowing it to recruit new fighters, obtain additional financial support, and build its fighting capabilities as part of the broader Iraqi insurgency which fought against the US occupation. Indeed, US forces functioned as a magnet to draw militants from around the Muslim world to join al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), led by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
While some of these militants came to Iraq for Wahhabi-inspired ideological reasons to fight so-called Jihad against infidels, many came out of a legitimate desire to fight the American “occupiers” and in response to atrocities committed by US forces, in particular the torture of innocent Iraqis in US-run prisons such as Abu Ghraib. US policies in Iraq (in particular support for Shiite death squads which targeted Iraq’s Sunnis) also created an environment in which sectarian hatred between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite communities could flourish. This increased the appeal of AQI and its anti-Shiite ideology among Iraq’s Sunnis, further allowing AQI to grow. AQI then became the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS, or ISIL), led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and finally the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 after it took control of several major Iraqi and Syrian cities, including Raqqa, Fallujah, Ramadi, and most significantly, Mosul.
The terror attacks carried out against Western targets by Wahhabi-inspired militants that we are seeing now (and have since the 1990’s) in both the US and Europe are the blow back, or horrific side effects, of those US policies.
Despite the terrible consequences of their actions in Afghanistan, US foreign policy planners and their Saudi and Gulf counterparts once again began to support Wahhabi-inspired militants, this time in Syria and Libya in 2011, in an effort to exploit the Arab Spring protests and overthrow the governments of Bashar al-Assad and Moammar Gaddafi, respectively.
These efforts, in conjunction with a brutal NATO bombing campaign, were successful in toppling the Libyan government, murdering Qaddafi, and largely destroying Qaddafi’s home town of Sirte. Rather than leading to the establishment of a democratic, peaceful government, the US/NATO intervention has caused Libya to become a failed state ruled by competing militias, with sections of the country falling under control of the Islamic State.
In Syria, the US and its allies have been supporting armed rebel groups in Syria that, just like the Islamic State, espouse Wahhabism. These groups have been attempting to overthrow the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad and set up a Wahhabi-inspired government of their own in Syria, and to cleanse Syria of all religious minorities. From early on in the Syrian civil war, many of these US and Gulf-backed groups began carrying out joint operations with al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, and have now been incorporated into an umbrella rebel group led by the Nusra Front itself.
Though US-backed rebels in Syria were able to militarize and Islamize the Syrian uprising, they have not been able to overthrow the Syrian government or force Bashar al-Assad from power. Instead, the uprising has morphed into a bloody civil war that is now reaching its sixth year, with average Syrians suffering greatly as a result. Perhaps hundreds of thousands have died, and millions have been displaced, whether outside the country as refugees, or to other parts of Syria.
Many today ask, “What is wrong with Muslims? Why are they so violent? Why are they always murdering innocent people? Why is Islam such a violent religion?” Such questions are not surprising given that, as mentioned above, most Americans only experience with Muslims is through the Western media, which eagerly reports on violence committed in the name of Islam, without also discussing the role of the United States in promoting a deeply unpopular, fanatical version of the Islam which they, at times, find useful for accomplishing specific geostrategic objectives. Wahhabism would remain a fringe ideology of little consequence if not for the financial and military support provided by US and Saudi intelligence to groups espousing this extremist ideology over previous decades. Crucial to recognize is that Wahhabism alone was not sufficient to create armed terrorist movements in the cases listed above. Each time, it was state support which proved essential.
By way of comparison, imagine if Russia, with cooperation from Syrian intelligence, was covertly providing billions of dollars of cash and weapons to anti-government white supremacist militias from the Christian Identity Movement (espoused by the Ku Klux Klan) in the United States, in an effort to overthrow or simply weaken the US government.
Imagine if Timothy McVeigh (who notoriously bombed the Oklahoma City Court House in 1995, killing 168) and the few thousand other Christian White Supremacists in the US who think like him, had received billions in cash, weapons and training to spread their message and carry out additional similar attacks? In such a case, it would not be a surprise if McVeigh’s fringe version of white supremacist Christianity suddenly seemed to be gaining adherents and momentum. Attacks like the bombing in Oklahoma City would be occurring every few months, rather than once in a lifetime.
In such a case, many would suddenly be wondering, “Why do these Christians keep blowing things up all the time? Why do Christians keep killing innocent civilians in seemingly random acts of violence? What is wrong with Christianity? Why is Christianity such a violent religion?”
However, would Christianity itself, or the average Bible reading church-goer, really be to blame? No, it would be clear that the governments and intelligence agencies seeking to manipulate religion to achieve their own political and geostrategic goals are the ones actually responsible for so much senseless violence.