The Magazine

Jihadists in Iraq

From the February 2, 2004 issue: An unwelcome Saudi export.

Feb 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 20 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

EVIDENCE continues to build that the terrorist "resistance" in the Sunni Triangle, far from being a spontaneous response to new frustrations, has a history and an ideology. The correct name for the main influence inciting Sunni Muslim Iraqis to attack coalition forces is Wahhabism, although its proponents seek to disguise it under the more acceptable name Salafism. It is financed and supported from inside Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with southern Iraq.

Iraqis, as well as coalition commanders on the ground, are quick to admit this fact--which military and political planners in Washington, ever concerned not to offend the Saudis, have sought to evade. Iraqi informants, however, are reluctant to be publicly identified, out of fear for their lives.

"The Fallujah region is filling up with Wahhabis," a tribal representative from that section of the Sunni Triangle said in a late December discussion in Washington. He had come to the capital in hopes of brokering a new agreement between his people and American troops, following disorders in the town. "They are streaming in, exploiting the confusion and misunderstandings between the local residents and the U.S. forces."

Iraqi Muslims generally express a loathing for Wahhabis, Salafis, or Saudi-inspired ultrafundamentalists under any other name. Shia Muslims are particularly known for this attitude, rooted in the memory of Wahhabi attacks on the Shia shrine of Karbala beginning some 200 years ago. "We believe every recent bombing at a Shia shrine or mosque in Iraq can be traced to the Wahhabis," says a Shia leader in New York.

But numerous Sunni Muslims also express disdain for Wahhabis. "When we were growing up in Iraq, to call someone a Wahhabi was a serious insult," a leading Iraq-born Sunni religious figure told me. "They were held in contempt because of their ban on praying in mosques that had graveyards or saintly tombs on their grounds." Opposition to honoring the dead is a major Wahhabi tenet.

Through much of the Saddam era, the Baathist regime, showing its secular and modernist faces, and inspired by the dictator's resentment of the Saudis, repressed the Wahhabis. But they organized underground and obtained arms and military training; now they are prominent both in terror attacks they coordinate with the leading Wahhabi organization, al Qaeda, and in attacks by other Sunni troublemakers.

Recent reporting from Iraq has even described outreach by Wahhabis to Sunnis who follow the Islamic mystical Sufi movements, although Wahhabis and Sufis have typically undergone bloody confrontations. Wahhabism, which proscribes music as well as various traditional Islamic customs, has sought to extirpate Sufism from the faith.

From the beginning of the Iraq intervention, Kurdish Sunnis, whose region is overwhelmingly dominated by Sufism, expressed fear of Wahhabi penetration. They reported Wahhabi desecration of cemeteries--always an early sign of the Saudi-backed infiltration that has been going on since the early 1990s, from the Balkans to the borders of China.

An individual calling himself Mullah Krekar, religious mentor of the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam, which first operated in Kurdistan and then moved to the Sunni Triangle, declared defiantly last year, in a television debate broadcast on the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, that he was proud to be described as a disciple of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the eponymous movement. From his Nordic sanctuary, the flamboyant mullah has long sent others to kill and die in Kurdistan. On January 13, a Norwegian court ordered Mullah Krekar held in prison in Norway while an investigation of his links to terror activities continues.

Just two months ago, a report from Iraq by Vernon Loeb, in the Washington Post, included the following significant comments: "Division commanders also said they now have solid evidence that Baathists loyal to Hussein are cooperating with Iraqi Islamic radicals whom the military refers to as Wahhabis, a particularly puritanical sect of Muslims dominant in Saudi Arabia. 'The Wahhabis love Osama bin Laden, the former regime loyalists love Saddam, they both hate us, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend,' said one officer. 'They are in cahoots 100 percent.'"