Elephants in the Room

It’s Time for Saudi Arabia to Stop Exporting Extremism

Trump should not waste his opportunity to begin repairing Wahhabism’s trail of wreckage.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump meet in the White House on March 20, 2018.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump meet in the White House on March 20, 2018. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Here’s a sobering fact: Even after the destruction of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria, there are today more jihadis fighting in more countries than there were on Sept. 11, 2001. The horrific Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka last month are simply exhibit A. The harsh reality is that despite the United States’ important successes in killing terrorists on the battlefield and preventing another 9/11-scale attack, the problem of radical Islamist 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 Muslims around the world susceptible to jihadism.

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 jihadism—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 young Muslims 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. President George W. Bush spoke about the importance of the battle of ideas and the need to win hearts and minds among pious Muslims. President Barack Obama called it countering violent extremism. President Donald Trump (though too often guilty of incendiary and counterproductive language that impugned all Muslims) made the struggle against radical Islamism a signature of his presidential campaign. As president, he promised to “combat the violent, extreme, and twisted ideologies that purport to justify the murder of innocent victims.” His first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, wrote extensively about the need to “wag[e] an ideological war against radical Islam.” 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. Yes, 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 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. Though accurate reporting is extremely hard to come by, there’s no doubt that U.S. spending to combat the ideology of Islamist extremism has made up but a tiny fraction of what’s been spent on the broader fight against terrorism—1 or 2 percent would be a generous estimate. In a speech in 2018, Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata, the senior official in charge of strategic planning at the National Counterterrorism Center, stressed that the resources devoted to fighting components of terrorism on and off the battlefield were badly out of balance. 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 counterextremism 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 Islamist 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, recently 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—including condemning Holocaust denial, promising to visit Auschwitz, and telling Muslim minority communities to “embrace the nations they live in,” strictly obey national laws, and positively integrate into society. In direct contravention of decades of Wahhabi proselytizing, Issa recently wrote, “It makes no sense to separate Muslim children and youth from the rest of society or to cloister them away in Islamic private schools.”

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. Last month, two potent reminders were on vivid display. In the run-up to Indonesia’s national elections, several reports detailed the troubling expansion of Saudi-backed Wahhabism in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, which is shifting its politics rightward and dangerously degrading longstanding national traditions of pluralism and tolerance. And in the aftermath of the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, article after article described the inroads that Wahhabism had made over decades, generating serious fractures within Sri Lanka’s Muslim community and establishing a fertile breeding ground for the kind of violent extremists who perpetrated the bombings.

Importantly, over the past several months, 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—starting with the Saudis, but also including the troubling activities of countries including Qatar, Turkey, and Iran. As I learned in recent conversations, the issue has become a regular item on their agenda for discussions with counterterrorism colleagues from Europe and Canada that constitute a forum referred to as “the like-minded group.” Greater information-sharing about the export of Islamic radicalism by the Saudis and others is being encouraged, as is the development of common diplomatic approaches to combat it. U.S. counterterrorism officials have also begun the process of directly engaging the Saudis on the issue—in particular by asking them to take action against a handful of individuals in countries outside the Middle East, mostly extremist preachers, who are believed to be operating with some degree of Saudi backing.

But 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 counterterrorism 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. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, with his long-standing interest in issues surrounding religious freedom, could be designated to co-chair such an effort alongside Mohammed bin Salman—ensuring that both sides had the stature to mobilize all elements of their governments and hold them accountable for results.

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 the 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. 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. The same goes for the activities of other countries, especially Qatar, Turkey, and Iran.

Making the export of extremism a collection priority should also apply to the State Department. In every country with a significant Muslim population, there should be at least one political officer at the U.S. Embassy whose job responsibilities include regular reporting on foreign proselytization efforts and their impact on local communities.

Congress, too, has an important role to play in pressing the executive branch to make the ideological war a real priority. Holding hearings to highlight the importance of ending the export of Islamist extremism, especially by U.S. partners, would be an excellent start. Expert witnesses could provide important information and insight on the continuing size and scope of the challenge. Administration officials could be called to explain in detail what the U.S. strategy is for dealing with the threat. Serious consideration should also be given to possible legislation that would require the administration to report annually on the role of foreign states in propagating Islamic extremism, U.S. efforts to combat such activity, and the progress being made to reduce it.

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.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.

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