ver the long run, the key to winning the war against Islamist terror is helping moderates win the political struggle within Islam. The early stages of the war on terror showed much promise in this respect. In a remarkably short time, using a quiet but effective carrot-and-stick approach, Washington was able to effect an about-face in Pakistan's policies, transforming it from an al-Qaeda sponsor to a cooperative ally. Similar changes were secured by similar methods in some other countries known previously as havens for extremists, such as Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan.
Since then, however, the U.S. has failed to pursue a coherent political strategy aimed at de-legitimizing the ideology of Islamic terrorism and undermining the terrorists' sources of support. And it is becoming increasingly clear that the reason for this failure is Washington's unwillingness to risk a rupture with Saudi Arabia. But the Bush administration has to face up to the fact that Riyadh has been and remains the main ideological and financial sponsor of Islamic extremism worldwide, and is not at all interested in helping us combat it. Until the administration confronts this reality in a decisive manner, lasting progress in the war on terrorism is unlikely.
Nothing better illustrates the Saudis' intransigence and the administration's timidity in dealing with it than two cases of U.S.-Saudi "cooperation" that recently came to light. On March 11, the Treasury Department announced with great fanfare that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia had jointly blocked the funds of the Bosnia and Somalia offices of the "private, charitable, and educational" Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation because it was diverting funds to terrorists. This action, according to Treasury, "opened a new phase in international cooperation to destroy terrorist financing" and proved the "strength of the anti-terror coalition." In reality, Al-Haramain alongside the World Muslim League is the Saudis' largest Islamist front organization, controlled directly by the minister of religious affairs and in charge of spending huge amounts of (mostly government) money to promote the radical-Islamist agenda worldwide. It has offices in over 50 countries and operates through Saudi embassies in another 40; as for its Bosnia and Somalia operations, business even there is continuing as usual, despite additional evidence of terrorist ties unearthed by Bosnian police in a raid on June 3. Al-Haramain's director, Aqeel al-Aqeel, noted with satisfaction in early September that "America has tried to establish a link between terrorism and Islamic charitable societies and failed" and went on to assert that Al-Haramain's donations and activities both have intensified since 9/11. Indeed they have: Al-Haramain has opened three new offices since then.
The second case deals with Wael Hamza Julaidan. A Saudi citizen from a prominent family, Julaidan is known as having had a long and close relationship with Osama bin Laden and is often referred to as a co-founder of al-Qaeda. Though well known for his extremist views, he has also made a career as a Saudi functionary, for instance, as the director of a financial arm of the Saudi-sponsored World Muslim League called the Rabita Trust. Under his direction, the Rabita Trust has been implicated in funding al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. It was thus a pleasant surprise when U.S. authorities announced on September 6 that they in a joint action with Saudi Arabia had placed Julaidan on the list of people suspected of funding terrorism. Two days later, however, the Saudi interior minister publicly denied that his government was involved in this case, and implied that Julaidan was innocent.
What accounts for the Saudis' blatant unwillingness to cooperate, even as they continue to insist that they are our ally? The answer is very simple: Any genuine help by Riyadh in untangling the complex web financing extremism will inevitably implicate both the Saudi government and countless prominent Saudis. Saudi charities are no more private than were yesterday's Soviet-sponsored "peace-loving" organizations. In a dictatorship of a totalitarian bent like Saudi Arabia's, "private charities" exist for the explicit purpose of carrying out the policy of the state, and that policy will change only if the state is forced to change it. And this will not happen if Washington continues to speak softly and carry no stick.
The more interesting question here is why Saudi Arabia has for years pursued a policy that sooner or later was going to put it on a collision course with the U.S. and the West. The short answer is that by aiding and abetting radical Islam, Riyadh is simply following the logic of its state ideology.
SAUDI STATE AND WORLD WAHHABISM
Over the years, the Saudis set up a number of large front organizations, such as the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, the Al-Haramain Foundation, and a great number of Islamic "charities." While invariably claiming that they were private, all of these groups were tightly controlled and financed by the Saudi government and the Wahhabi clergy, and more often than not run by government officials. Money flowed, and even the most violent of Islamic groups, like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, could count on Saudi largesse.
The Saudis focused heavily on infiltrating Muslim communities in non-Muslim regions, especially the U.S. and Europe. These communities were relatively small and were made up mostly of poor emigrants uprooted from traditional Muslim societies, which made them particularly susceptible to Islamist money and indoctrination. According to official Saudi information, Saudi funds have been used to build and maintain over 1,500 mosques, 210 Islamic centers, and dozens of academies and schools in non-Muslim countries since the 1970s. A huge new printing complex in Medina churned out free copies of Wahhabi propaganda by the millions, and tens of thousands of Muslims were invited on all-expenses-paid indoctrination visits. Saudi aid to Muslims in other countries comes with strings attached, and most of the recipient institutions end up promoting Islamic fundamentalism.
In the early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet empire occasioned another major Saudi offensive: an effort to establish a foothold for Wahhabi radicalism in the newly emancipated states, many of which had large Muslim populations. Huge amounts of Saudi money were spent in Central Asia, the North Caucasus, and the Balkans.
While exact figures on this spending are hard to come by, it is clear from what we do know that this is the largest worldwide propaganda campaign ever mounted. Official Saudi sources indicate that between 1975 and 1987, Riyadh's "overseas development aid" averaged $4 billion per year, and there is evidence that this level was maintained in the 1990s. While some of this aid did go to legitimate development-assistance activities, Saudi data show that at least half ($50 billion over two and a half decades) and perhaps as much as two-thirds financed strictly "Islamic activities." Compared to these numbers, the massive Soviet external-propaganda budget (estimated at $1 billion annually at the peak of Moscow's power) looks modest indeed.
As a result of these efforts, many Muslim religious establishments and institutions worldwide have fallen under the influence of radical Islamist doctrines and jihadist groups. It would be an exaggeration to argue that extremism has become the dominant idiom in Islam, but there is no question that Saudi money has been able to buy a significant foothold for extremist views and fanaticism unrepresentative of mainstream Islam.
Even a cursory look reveals the disturbing reality. In the U.S. and Canada an estimated 80 percent of all Islamic establishments are said to be supported financially by the Saudis. The majority of Muslim Student Associations at U.S. colleges are dominated by Islamist and anti-American agendas, as are most of the numerous Islamic centers and schools financed by the Saudis. Intolerance and outright rejection of American values and democratic ideals are often taught also in the growing number of Deobandi schools that are frequently subsidized by the Saudis. (The Deobandi sect is an extreme and obscurantist creed very similar to Wahhabism and long allied to it; their schools offer multi-year courses that consist of nothing more than Koran memorization.) Islamic donation activities are dominated by the U.S. branches of Saudi Arabia-based charities, at least a dozen of which are directly implicated in funding terrorism. The Saudis have also focused on spreading radical Islam in the American black community and have a special program aimed at converting blacks in prison.
Since 9/11, the vast majority of the nearly 50 Islamic organizations that have been raided, closed down, or had their assets frozen by federal authorities because of suspected terrorist ties have been either controlled or funded or both by the Saudis. These include the SAAR Foundation, founded by one of the richest Saudi families, which received $1.7 billion in donations in 1998 alone; the World Muslim League; the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, whose U.S. office was headed by one of Osama bin Laden's brothers; the Safa Trust; the Success Foundation; the Benevolence International Foundation; the Taibah International Aid Association; the Humana Charitable Trust; the Global Relief Organization; and many others. Numerous Islamic educational organizations have also been raided, for good cause; among them are the International Institute of Islamic Thought, the Fiqh Council, and the School of Islamic and Social Sciences.
Saudi infiltration in Western Europe follows a similar pattern. Today, virtually every major European city has a Wahhabi-sponsored mosque or Islamic center. These establishments almost inevitably become breeding grounds of extremism while playing the essential role of meeting, communication, and logistic centers for both resident and itinerant terrorists. Such was, for instance, the key role played by the Al Aqsa mosque in Hamburg in the terrorist preparations for 9/11.
In South Asia, the Saudis sponsor the estimated 10,000 madrassas in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, run by the Deobandi sect. These madrassas are little more than incubators for Muslim fanatics and terrorists and have contributed immeasurably to the ongoing destabilization of Pakistan, besides supplying most of the erstwhile Taliban recruits. The progressive radicalization of Islam in India is almost certainly going to lead to much greater instability and violence in the near future.
In the Balkans, the Saudis have made a major and costly effort to infiltrate the traditional Muslim communities in Bosnia, Albania, and Kosovo. In Bosnia alone, a country with a Muslim population of only 1.5 million, Riyadh has spent over $600 million on Islamic activities, according to official Saudi sources. Although it is not at all clear that the Wahhabis have succeeded on any large scale, there are currently radical Islamist organizations entrenched in virtually all Balkan countries; there was none before the Saudi involvement.
Like the Balkans, the countries of the former Soviet Union became the focus of intense interest on the part of Saudi Arabia after the Soviet collapse. A number of post-Soviet states have majority Muslim populations, as do several Russian regions. Evidence suggests that the Saudis began sending Wahhabi proselytizers and money to the North Caucasus and especially Dagestan and Chechnya as early as the late 1980s, when perestroika made travel easier and controls over religion relaxed. A backlash in both the Caucasus and Russia proper led to the banning of Wahhabism in Dagestan, and persistent calls for its prohibition in Russia. Last May, a group of prominent Muslim leaders sent a letter to President Putin accusing the Wahhabis of being "pseudo-Islamic provocateurs" and supporters of terrorism, and demanding that they be banned from Russia.
We should also take a closer look at various activities that were hushed up in the past for political reasons. In 1995, Treasury Department agents initiated an investigation into the shady dealings of a number of Saudi U.S.-based charities with suspected extremist groups. Inexplicably, the investigation was summarily shut down by political fiat of the Clinton administration. Had this and similar investigations been allowed to proceed, U.S. security might have benefited immensely; serious warnings of possible al Qaeda terrorist operations like 9/11 had been issued already in the mid 1990s.
We have to be aggressive and this means that conflict with the Saudis is unavoidable.
A second important implication of this analysis is that we have to wage a political struggle a war of ideas against Islamist extremism. There is incontrovertible evidence that radical Islamist ideologies have gained a significant foothold among American Muslims, courtesy of Saudi Arabia. Cracking down on Saudi infiltration should help us deal with the problem. It should be clearly understood that Islamic extremism is not a matter of religion, but a matter of criminal sedition that should not be tolerated any more than Nazi conspiratorial activities and indoctrination would have been tolerated during World War II. This means that we should make use of the full gamut of law- enforcement methods applied to seditious organizations.
Ultimately, though, radical Islam as an ideology is best dealt with by ideological and political means in other words, political warfare. And the extremists have two obvious and significant vulnerabilities we should exploit: the ideology of jihad and the nature of Wahhabi subversion worldwide.
The jihad ideology motivating radical Islamist terrorism is not only unrepresentative of the Islam practiced by the vast majority of Muslims, but in many ways runs counter to it. Despite claiming incessantly to represent true Islam, Wahhabis and their fellow extremists espouse violent doctrines that are often in conflict with the faith's tenets. They are also a tiny minority; fewer than 1.5 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims subscribe to the Wahhabi or similar creeds. All of this is easy to prove and well known to mainstream Muslim believers; the reason little of this is being heard in the media is simply money. In the U.S., virtually all organizations claiming to represent American Muslims are financed and controlled by the Wahhabis, who deliberately silence other viewpoints. The decades-long U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia has contributed in no small measure to the credibility of that state and, by implication, the reach of its ideology. A break with Riyadh would undermine both.
Mainstream Muslim groups feel no less threatened by Islamic extremism than we do, and will therefore be very helpful to our campaign to de-legitimize the extremists. The aggressive spread of Wahhabism has made the moderate Muslims' traditional hostility to it even more acute; among these groups, anti-Wahhabi polemics and denunciations already abound. In just one example, the leadership of the Naqshbandi Sufi order, which has millions of followers around the world, has for years exposed the Wahhabis' terrorist extremism. As early as 1999, the Naqshbandi leader in America, Sheikh Hisham Kabbani, persuasively documented the threat that Wahhabism posed to America; his warnings were met with vitriolic denunciations by the Islamic establishment, and indifference on the part of the U.S. government.
Groups like these are our natural allies. They are the voice of the faithful. That's why the U.S. must take the lead in forging a Muslim alliance against extremism and provide the resources to make sure their views are heard.
Just as important, any organized campaign to de-legitimize extremism among Muslims should be accompanied by assurances that we know and respect their religion. The extremists do everything possible to present the West's anti-terrorist struggle as a war against Islam. Unfortunately, they are occasionally assisted in this objective by intemperate and uninformed remarks by prominent and otherwise well-meaning people. A case in point is the spate of recent media utterances by leaders of the U.S. evangelical community accusing the Muslim religion of being intolerant, ignorant, or worse. This is grist for the mill of the extremists, and it doesn't even have the benefit of being true: A good case could be made that Islam, for much of its history, was both more tolerant and less obscurantist than Christianity. (It was, for example, the Muslim Ottomans who saved the Jews from the Inquisition in 1492.)
Our campaign should also expose the Wahhabis' aggressive tactics in penetrating Muslim communities around the world. Their activities are so extensive that they now threaten not only traditional religious establishments but, in some places, the government itself. A broad backlash is underway, and the U.S. should align itself with and manage lead that backlash. Such an alliance against extremism would make the coalition against terror more effective, by focusing on the very specific threats of extremism on our allies' home turf.
All of this is predicated on Washington's long-overdue realization that the failure to confront global Saudi subversion has grave security consequences. The evidence of Saudi misdeeds is so overwhelming that it will be more and more difficult to delay this realization. At some point, continued failure to face the problem will start to look like dereliction of duty.
The logic of the broader strategic vision of the Bush administration also argues against continuing to coddle Riyadh. The U.S. has at long last put both Arafat and the ayatollahs on notice that liberalization is the answer; the same message will be delivered soon to Saddam. We must apply the same logic to the House of Saud: A corrupt dictatorship with a subversive ideology and a failed economy one that denies basic rights to half of its population and beats people who are five minutes late for prayers would be no less out of place in the new Middle East than Saddam and the ayatollahs. Sooner or later it must, and will, go.
Alex Alexiev is an international business and policy consultant. A former senior analyst at the RAND Corporation, he has written extensively on national-security issues.