by Zafar Bangash (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 5, Ramadan, 1435)
The Saudis may have created a monster that is likely to bite them as well. Should the ISIS invade Saudi Arabia, it will be a fight of a lifetime. Muslims will have a ringside view of a blood-curdling duel between ideological twins.
Based on a combination of factors, the inappropriately named group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has made considerable gains in Iraq. The reasons for its success range from treachery in the Iraqi army where former Ba‘thist officers ordered troops to drop their weapons and abandon posts to the tribal leaders providing support for the terrorist outfit. The shortsighted policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have also contributed to loss of tribal support for his government facilitating ISIS’s takeover of large swathes of territory including the second largest city Mosul.
Izzet Ibrahim al-Douri, the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain’s number two, who has a death sentence over his head but has eluded capture so far, has also mobilized former Ba‘thist army officers to undermine the government in Baghdad. Thus, it was not so much the military prowess of ISIS but a carefully laid plan to undermine the Iraqi army and government that have contributed to developments in Iraq.
It must, however, be admitted that al-Maliki also bears responsibility for his army’s debacle regardless of what other factors are involved. Instead of being the prime minister of all Iraqis, he has favored his cronies and indulged in sectarian politics. Sectarianism must be condemned whether it is Sunni-instigated or Shi‘i-instigated. This is a destructive tendency and will not only lead to divisions in the Ummah but also to horribly negative consequences.
The ISIS may have been somewhat successful in Iraq although it did not make much headway in Syria where it was confined to a small sliver of land already abandoned by the Syrian army. It is the future plans of the group that have sent shivers down the spine of rulers in the region. And it is not ISIS’s thrust eastward that worries them; they welcome it. The group has hinted that it plans to move west toward Saudi Arabia. Should that materialize, it will be a totally different ballgame.
The ISIS has taken control of large swathes of northwestern and western parts of Iraq. This has come about because the Iraqi government has concentrated its resources on defending the capital Baghdad as well as the religiously important cities of Najaf and Karbala. Samarra, the other important city has a mixed Sunni-Shi‘i population and could well play a much larger role in shaping future developments. In 2006, the terrorist group Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) blew up the Askari Mosque almost triggering a sectarian war. This is precisely what the Saudis and other backers of the terrorists want.
It is, however, ISIS’s presence on the border with Jordan and Saudi Arabia that has caused anxiety about what could happen next. With most of Western Iraq under ISIS control, its fighters have reached Rutba, on the Jordanian-Saudi border. Arar, the nearest Saudi town that has a large military base is about five hours’ drive from there.
Messages from ISIS have appeared on the Internet claiming they are on the border with Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, another message from ISIS member/supporter countered: “We are not on the border. We are here in Saudi and this is our land.” This would definitely give the Saudi rulers sleepless nights. The regime has declared the group, along with several others, a terrorist organization but that does not mean Riyadh has staunched the flow of funds to it.
The ISIS adheres to the same ideology—Wahhabism—that is imposed in Saudi Arabia. The only difference is this group’s interpretation is even more extreme. For ISIS anyone, Muslim or Christian who does not abide by its narrow literalist interpretation is branded a kafir and, therefore, legitimate target for execution. The mass execution of soldiers in Mosul and Tikrit that had already surrendered as well as civilians is meant to instill fear and terrorize the population into submission. Human Rights Watch has confirmed the discovery of mass graves of people executed by ISIS in Mosul according to a report in the British daily, The Guardian on June 27.
Even while the Saudi regime has officially designated the ISIS a terrorist group, there is huge support among Saudis for its murderous campaigns in Syria and Iraq. Not only have thousands of Saudis joined its ranks, there are many more inside the kingdom that send donations to the group. In order to circumvent Saudi restrictions, money is first sent to Kuwait that has emerged as a major sponsor of terrorist groups, from where it is rerouted to ISIS and other terrorist groups.
There is great panic in Riyadh at the thought of having created a monster. It was intended to target others—Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Iraq—but will now attack the Saudis as well. Support for ISIS is widespread in the kingdom not only among ordinary Saudis but also within the armed forces. In May, an official statement from the military admitted that ISIS was operating in the kingdom and urged citizens to report to the authorities its presence and activities such as distributing pamphlets.
The Saudi masses may not be as forthcoming or cooperative. The regime is extremely unpopular because of its vicious crackdown on dissent. There are at least 30,000 political prisoners in the kingdom. The royal decree issued last February prohibiting any criticism of the regime, exposure of its corruption or even withdrawing ba‘yah from the rulers and punishable by long prison sentence has only added to people’s resentment. This is compounded by the immorality—drinking, adultery and stealing—among the pleasure-loving Saudi royals. While ISIS has had to face a hostile population in Syria and Iraq, its push into Saudi Arabia may be a lot easier.
The overwhelming majority of Saudis are likely to welcome ISIS riding Toyota pick-up trucks brandishing AK-47s. There is also complete ideological affinity between the group and the Saudi clergy. In fact, ISIS is the fulfillment of the Wahhabis’ wildest dreams but with a modern twist: brandishing kalishnakovs instead of swords and riding Toyotas instead of camels across the desert. This would be the modern equivalent of last century’s Bedouin raids by Nejdi marauders into the Hijaz. Initially, the ISIS raiders are likely to head to Riyadh to deal with the corrupt Saudi regime. What horrors will be perpetrated there is not difficult to imagine but nothing can be put past the thugs that have already shed a lot of blood.
Saudi Arabia holds great attraction for them. Syria and Iraq are ruled by people they hate but Saudi Arabia houses the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Taking the Haramain under their control would add enormously to their prestige among uninformed or misguided Muslims. This is an opportunity of a lifetime. After all, most Muslims respect the Saudi ruling family because of the presence of the Haramain in the Arabian Peninsula as if the family has something to do with them. Why should it be different in the case of ISIS of whose brutal methods most Muslims are largely unaware? Muslims have a romantic notion of noble warriors trying to right centuries of wrongs by striving to establish the Khilafah. What could be more attractive than that?
It is not difficult to imagine what would happen if ISIS were to make a push into Saudi Arabia? Since it has already penetrated the armed forces and the regime is extremely unpopular, many ordinary Saudis would not only welcome them but also join them. This would trigger two responses from the regime: first, the Saudi National Guards would be mobilized against them pitting Saudis against one another. Second the regime would immediately turn to its only reliable ally: the Pakistan army to protect it.
If these two developments were to materialize, here is the messy scenario that would emerge. ISIS ranks are filled with mercenaries from all over the world including Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan etc. Thus, Saudi National Guards supported by the Pakistan army and whatever portion of the Saudi armed forces remain loyal to the regime would be pitted against battled-hardened mercenaries of the ISIS, ordinary Saudis and breakaway elements from the Saudi armed forces. It will be a royal mess. Regardless of who wins, the regime will not be able to survive this bloodbath.
As far as deployment of the Pakistan army to save the Saudi monarchy is concerned, it will result in escalating the threat inside Pakistan as well as on its borders. The Pakistani military is already overstretched by engaging in a vicious fight against the tribesmen of North Waziristan as well as tribesmen elsewhere in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). The North Waziristan operation has resulted in hundreds of casualties and the displacement of nearly 700,000 civilians. Add to that the ongoing crisis in Balochistan, ethnic violence in Karachi, recent attacks at Karachi and Peshawar airports and political uncertainty in the rest of the country. All these point towards the precarious situation in Pakistan. Under such circumstances, sending any troops, however small in number to Saudi Arabia would be fraught with great dangers.
The Pakistani military may be able to prevent the collapse of the Saudi regime temporarily but cannot protect it indefinitely. In the process, it might endanger Pakistan’s own survival.
The lesson for the corrupt Saudi monarchy is clear: those that dig a hole for others are likely to fall into it themselves. Should this come about, the Saudi regime would face a fate that it richly deserves.