Is Wahhabism to Blame for al-Qaeda and ISIS?

by Joseph Cozza and Giorgio Cafiero

Late last month, Microsoft apologized after online users observed that Bing’s translation of Daesh—what many Arabs call the Islamic State (ISIS or IS)—was “Saudi Arabia.” According to Microsoft’s official apology, Bing relies on a crowdsourcing translation method in which it promotes an alternative translation if at least 1,000 users suggest it. Despite Microsoft resolving the issue, which caused many Saudis to lash out against the multinational technology giant on social media, the episode highlighted an argument made by many pundits: Wahhabism (the kingdom’s dominant sect of Sunni Islam) and IS/al-Qaeda’s extremist ideology are one in the same.

Last year, The New York Times cross-published an op-ed by Kamel Daoud that illustrated this narrative:

Black Daesh [ISIS], white Daesh [ISIS]. The former slits throats, kills, stones, cuts off hands, destroys humanity’s common heritage and despises archaeology, women and non-Muslims. The latter is better dressed and neater but does the same things. The Islamic State; Saudi Arabia. In its struggle against terrorism, the West wages war on one, but shakes hands with the other.

According to conventional wisdom in Iran, Saudi Wahhabism is the ideological force responsible for ISIS. Mohammad Javad Zarif advanced this narrative before a Western audience in his own recent New York Times op-ed, titled “Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism”, in which the Iranian foreign minister wrote:

Though it has attracted only a minute proportion of Muslims, Wahhabism has been devastating in its impact. Virtually every terrorist group abusing the name of Islam — from Al Qaeda and its offshoots in Syria to Boko Haram in Nigeria — has been inspired by this death cult… The world cannot afford to sit by and witness Wahhabists targeting not only Christians, Jews and Shi’ites but also Sunnis. With a large section of the Middle East in turmoil, there is a grave danger that the few remaining pockets of stability will be undermined by this clash of Wahhabism and mainstream Sunni Islam… The attacks in Nice, Paris and Brussels should convince the West that the toxic threat of Wahhabism cannot be ignored.

America’s European allies seem to have already reached this conclusion three years ago when the European Parliament in Strasbourg identified Wahhabism as the primary source of international terrorism. Recently, two of Holland’s major political parties inquired about the legality of banning Wahhabi organizations, which would have required officials in Amsterdam to call on their counterparts in Riyadh to withdraw Saudi Arabia’s attaché for religious affairs in The Hague.

Wahhabism and the US Election

In this unique presidential election season in America, issues surrounding Saudi Arabia might actually be an area of agreement for the two candidates. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have both expressed the belief that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, known as “the other Wahhabi state,” bear a degree of responsibility for the outgrowth of extremism in the Muslim world despite Riyadh and Doha’s close alliances with Washington and other Western capitals.

Shortly after the June 12 massacre in Orlando (carried out by a U.S. citizen who pledged allegiance to IS while communicating with dispatchers during his attack) Clinton called on the world’s two Wahhabi states to “stop their citizens from funding extremist organizations” and “supporting radical schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path towards extremism.” Clinton’s statement about two of Washington’s close Arab allies in the Persian Gulf came after the Wall Street Journal reported that four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members—Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—collectively donated tens of millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation’s endowment drive. Saudi Arabia was, by far, the GCC’s top donor.

As the American public was coming to terms with the Pulse nightclub atrocity Trump wasted no time in tweeting: “Crooked Hillary says we must call on Saudi Arabia and other countries to stop funding hate. I am calling on her immediately return the $25 million plus she got from them for the Clinton Foundation!” In another post, Trump wrote: “Saudi Arabia and many of the countries that gave vast amounts of money to the Clinton Foundation want women as slaves and to kill gays.”

Although many pro-George W. Bush conservatives in the U.S. made relatively little fuss over close ties between the Al Saud rulers and the Bush family, Trump’s attack on the Clinton Foundation’s relationship with Saudi Arabia quickly became a right-wing talking point as the nation was mourning the loss in Orlando. Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich of FoxNews were quick to back the real estate mogul’s attack on Clinton. Gingrich chimed in after Hannity cited Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s anti-homosexuality laws (in which he inaccurately stated that the latter executes citizens as punishment for homosexuality, although according to The Washington Post, “Sharia law in Qatar applies only to Muslims, who can be put to death for extramarital sex, regardless of sexual orientation”). “The degree to which our State Department, which [Clinton] was in charge of for four years, is totally passive in the face of terrible human rights violations is truly breathtaking and that’s one of the things I think that a Trump presidency would radically change,” said the former House speaker.

Many Wahhabi Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula take offense at the argument that their sect of Sunni Islam is responsible for the outgrowth of extremism. They view IS as deviant and point out the dozens of attacks that IS- and al-Qaeda-offshoots have waged in the kingdom since the mid-2000s. Maintaining that Saudi Arabia is truly a victim, not a sponsor, of IS, many in the kingdom believe that government officials and pundits in the West have failed to adequately recognize how Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other GCC states have backed the Washington-led military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria with Riyadh engaging in direct military strikes against the Caliphate and Doha playing a “supportive role.” Saudi officials fired back at Clinton’s post-Orlando remarks by pointing to the GCC’s contributions to U.S.-led international efforts to combat IS.

The next president will have to address the threat militant Salafist-Jihadist groups pose to both to the U.S. and Washington’s allies across the globe. Will Clinton or Trump view American allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar as committed to extinguishing the fires of extremism or as the original arsonists?

Links to Terrorism

Undoubtedly certain Salafist-Jihadist terror cells have used and perverted Wahhabism to recruit and radicalize Saudis and other Muslims. In the words of Chris Zambelis, Saudi Arabia’s “support for the militant Salafist and Wahhabist ideologies [have served] as the intellectual and ideological infrastructure of al-Qaeda’s branch of extremism.” Saudi Arabia’s “state-directed promulgation” and “endorsement” of Wahhabism, according to Zambelis, has “helped to incubate a host of violent extremist movements, including groups such as al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as well as [ISIS]” which “contributes to a climate of heightened sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi‘ites around the Middle East.”

According to the U.S. State Department, since the oil boom of the 1970s Saudi Arabia has spent over $10 billion on charitable foundations across the Muslim world aimed at spreading Wahhabism. EU intelligence officials have estimated that up to one-fifth of this money went to extremist groups such as al-Qaeda. There is widespread acknowledgement that wealthy Saudis and Qataris provided financial support for factions in Syria that morphed into IS as the country’s downward spiral coincided with the Islamic State’s meteoric rise to power.

Further complicating the relationship between Wahhabism and Salafist-Jihadist groups are the Middle East’s ongoing geopolitical instability and seemingly endless conflicts with deep sectarian undertones. At a time when Gulf Arab states have growing concerns about the expansion and consolidation of Iranian/Shi‘ite influence, Riyadh and al-Qaeda have cooperated, if only tacitly, against the Islamic Republic and its Shi‘ite/Zaydi Arab allies in the region.

Last year, David Ottaway, a Middle East Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, addressed this dynamic. “The Yemeni civil war is making for strange bedfellows. Who would have predicted that Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda might become allies despite the terrorist group’s near success in assassinating the current Saudi crown prince six years ago?” Ottaway continued:

The Saudi royal family has been a prime target of al-Qaeda for years, although both are Sunni fundamentalists sharing a zealous religious prejudice against the Houthis, who belong to a Shi‘ite offshoot known as Zaydism…. An integral part of the Saudi-devised strategy to roll back the Houthis has been to work with whatever Yemeni tribes or organizations are opposed to the Houthi takeover of the country. Both al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood fit that bill right now.

At this juncture, U.S. officials are increasingly critical of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Riyadh failed to achieve its objectives despite intense aerial bombardments of the fractured country for 18 months, which contributed to the chaotic conditions in which hardline Salafist-Jihadist groups flourished. The Obama administration would prefer that Riyadh pursue more urgently a diplomatic resolution to the Yemeni crisis while shifting its military resources toward the Washington-led campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria. Of course, Obama’s successor will have to address not only Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen but other issues that have fueled friction in the Washington-Riyadh relationship.

The remarks by Clinton and Trump in the Orlando massacre’s aftermath about Saudi Arabia and other countries may be merely populist rhetoric amid a presidential campaign. However, if either candidate believes that the world’s two Wahhabi states are behind the IS threat, how might they approach the Saudis in terms of counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East?

A Clinton presidency is unlikely to significantly shift the Obama administration’s foreign policy strategies. Trump, however, is a wild card. One of his foreign policy advisors, Walid Phares, has accused Wahhabi Muslims of infiltrating the U.S. government. In his book, Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies Against America, Phares wrote: “[T]he Wahhabi influence was so profound and subtle that it made its arms within the State Department, CIA, and information agencies think that they, not the Wahhabis, were in control of policy.” Would Phares, known for his anti-Islamist convictions and affiliations with right-wing Christian causes in Lebanon, represent this view of Wahhabism at the table in a Trump administration?

Despite a number of pundits and politicians in Washington who maintain that Saudi Arabia’s religious identity itself bears much responsibility for the outgrowth of al-Qaeda and IS offshoots across the globe, the U.S.-Saudi alliance is not about to expire any time soon. But the next president will have to decide whether the European Parliament was correct to identity Wahhabism as a root cause of global terrorism.

Joseph Cozza is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.



  1. All well and good, but regardless of Al Qaeda’s and Daesh’s relationship to Saudi Arabia (or to the Muslim Brotherhood), the Bill Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama Administrations – all of them- worked with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar (and Israel) behind the scenes- including in the setting up of madrassas- to recruit, train, arm and supply the jihadists- while making a big public show of opposing them, and pretending that the atrocities they were committing were committed by the Syrians and others we sought to overthrow.

    What and whom of Al Qaeda and Daesh that we have created and/or facilitated we now own (and can one honestly dispute that we are not continuing to use them, as they are using us- and not only in Syria), even if our leaders are hiding in weeds and denying it.

    As for Yemen. the Houthis, whether or not they are Shiites, are not directed by Tehran- nor, perhaps are they even the most important force opposing the Saudis’ puppet government in Yemen. Former President Saleh (who is not a Houthi), commands strong popular support in the country.

  2. Wahabi Saudi Arabia has brought so much anguish and embarrassment to Muslims the world over..

    It will take decades to redress the wrongs of the Saudi cultists and the seeds of discontent . Sown even in saudi-Frindly countries .

  3. Obama just announced that he is going to veto the Congress’s Bill which would allowing the affected people by 9/11 taking Saudi government to the US courts! Why is that? Why the American politicians appear to be kissing up to the Saudis?
    1. Does Obama know more than what he is revealing? Is the Saudi involvement in 9/11 “smoke screen” and other never mentioned state(s) or individuals are responsible?
    2. Is our political system broken so bad that our politicians do need Saudi cash so bad in order to compete?
    3. Are the politicians pressured by the IMC to bring in Saudi cash for Arms and their business purposes?
    4. Or all the above
    Wahhabism is a dangerous ideology and should be put back in the genie’s bottle! Unfortunately there’s no indication that the west is ready to deal with this cancerous ideology!

  4. I fully agree with this article. Yet I think that in the last few years the USA has been discreetly undermining Saudi Arabia by throwing it in the Yemen quagmire and in the costly Syrian war.
    The deal with Iran has been another blow. The Saudis are now in a state of panic. They realize that the USA is no more a unconditional ally and that the Americans have no more sympathy of tolerance for their religious creed. In addition their economy totally depending of oil is drying up.
    They are now in the weakest situation they have ever been. The wild card of the US election is even more troublesome.
    Russia that they hated because it was ‘godless’ and communist is now a power in the region with whom they have no contacts.
    The USA has isolated Saudi Arabia and kept it in its dependence. It made it a puppet and its leadership would be dumped at the first sign of internal unrest. King Salman and his son could end up like other “USA best friends”: the Shah of Iran, Mobarak, Qaddafi and Ben Ali.

  5. A good article, one question though, the author summarized that, “the next president of United States must decide if the Europeans were correct in identifying Wahhabism as the root cause of global terrorism.”

    I would venture to say in doctrinaire sense what Wahhabi sect espouses, as evidenced by the Saudi’s grand Mufti’s recent comments, and what the driving ideology of Islamic terror groups is; there should be no vagueness or questions in the central role of Wahhabism and prevalent Islamic terror groups the world has witnessed. Perhaps the author’s summary statement is geared more towards political aspects of the issue, not ideological?

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