The Magazine

Wahhabis, Go Home

From the March 7, 2005 issue: Confronting Saudi evangelism in Kuwait, Europe, and the United States.

Mar 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 23 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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IN THE PAST FEW WEEKS, Kuwait has been waging its own war on terror at home. The police have engaged in five fierce and bloody gun battles with extremists since January 10, as reported by the Associated Press. Five policemen have been killed in these encounters, along with four security men and two bystanders; foreign observers described police conduct as "ham-handed." But the police also managed to kill 9 suspected terrorists and arrest more than 40.

Jolted by this first serious clash with Islamist terrorists, Kuwaiti authorities acted swiftly to tackle the root of the problem: They are closing down unlicensed mosques and barring Saudi imams, the tireless purveyors of Islamist extremism, from preaching inside the emirate. In addition, the AP confirms that Kuwaiti authorities are blocking Islamic websites that incite violence, seizing radical books from mosques, and purging textbooks of extremism.

Expressing the nub of the new policy, former Kuwaiti oil minister Ali al-Baghli wrote in the Kuwait daily Al Qabas on February 2: "What is needed is to cut off the snake's head, namely the masters of terror and all those who propagate terror in mosques and the media."

Yet even as tiny Kuwait, a Muslim country, confronts the problem of Saudi-funded propagation of extremism, European governments continue to treat it with something like benign neglect.

Or worse: In Germany, Wahhabi materials (produced by the extremist Saudis also called Salafis) are used to teach about Islam in public schools. To be sure, this came about by inadvertence. German law allows schools to offer optional religious instruction, so long as it is provided not by state authorities, but by the various religious communities themselves.

As Bernard Lewis, the doyen of Middle East scholars, explained recently at the Hudson Institute, when Germany's large Turkish minority applied for the inclusion of classes on Islam in schools, they offered to supply textbooks from Turkey. As these were government textbooks, they were deemed unacceptable by the German authorities, who requested materials produced by the local Islamic community. The result, Lewis says, were materials produced by private Muslim institutions--funded by Saudi Arabia. As always, he says, it was "the Wahhabis who had the necessary combination of passion, money, and a complete lack of scruples.

"So the Islam that is taught in Turkish schools is on the whole a modernized, secularized, sanitized version of Islam. The Islam which is taught in German schools is the complete Wahhabi version." And Lewis adds this footnote: "As an interesting result of that, of 12 Turks arrested so far who have active membership of al Qaeda, all 12 were born and brought up in Germany, none in Turkey, which I think is rather remarkable."

In Spain, where the very large Islamic Center of Madrid has been directly financed by Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism is on the rise. As long ago as 2002, the Spanish secret services were worried about the radicalization of the local Muslim community. It came as no surprise when, after the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid, a link was established between a Madrid mosque and the men arrested for the bombing.

Meanwhile in France--which hosts the largest Muslim community in Europe, somewhere between 5 million and 8 million people--the link between radical mosques and terrorism is strong. As Louis Caprioli, former head of the counterterrorism unit of the DST, the French equivalent of the FBI, put it, "Behind every Muslim terrorist is a radical imam."

One such, imam Chelali Benchellali, has been preaching jihad since 1991 in Vénissieux, a suburb of Lyon. Apparently his message is getting through. Three of the seven French prisoners held at Guantanamo are from Vénissieux, including Benchellali's own son. Two other men from Vénissieux were arrested by the DST on November 5, 2002, and charged with terrorism; both are relatives of Nizar Nawar, the suspected mastermind of the terrorist attack on the Djerba synagogue in Tunisia, which killed 19 people on April 11, 2002.

The DST finally arrested imam Benchellali on January 6, 2003, along with his wife, another son, and a Vénissieux pharmacist suspected of planning a major chemical attack in France. Only this month, the daily Le Parisien reported that a group of newly arrested Islamists have confirmed that Benchellali had installed a chemical lab in his apartment and was on his way to manufacturing bombs containing the deadly poison ricin.

Completing the picture, three young French Muslims died recently fighting the Coalition in Iraq, and three more were arrested by American troops in Falluja. All six had attended the same mosque in Paris and answered the call to jihad of the imam, who has since been arrested. The mother of one of them told a reporter her son had been brainwashed and manipulated by an Islamist guru.