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Naming Names

A GAO report unabashedly names America's foe in the war on terrorism: Islamic extremism.

3:20 PM, Sep 21, 2005 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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FOUR YEARS AFTER September 11, 2001, the United States government has passed a significant turning point in the war on Islamist terror. In an official report the federal authorities have directly and identified the enemy as "Islamic extremism"--one of the few instances in which they have dared to commit to print this term, to which apologists for radical Islam so heartily object. More, the document forthrightly identifies the main threat: the Wahhabi cult that is the state religion in Saudi Arabia.

This breakthrough in policy nomenclature comes after four years of waffling about the Saudi problem.

The GAO's report, Information on U.S. Agencies' Efforts to Address Islamic Extremism, is dated this month and was submitted to intelligence agencies, the Departments of Defense, State, and Treasury, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The document is paired with a classified report on the same topic, to be released later.

These works originated with a congressional request to GAO and so far, the results are sobering. The non-classified report begins by admitting that "U.S. agencies do not know the extent of the Saudi government's efforts to limit the activities of Saudi sources that have allegedly propagated Islamic extremism outside of Saudi Arabia." The inclusion of the word "alleged" in this sentence seems perfunctory since the GAO report reads like a criminal indictment of the kingdom's government. Echoing last year's 9/11 Commission Report, the GAO emphasizes, "Saudi Arabia has been a problematic ally in combating Islamic extremism."

In the view of the GAO, "Islamic extremism" as a broad category "is the pre-eminent threat to U.S. interests"--rather than al Qaeda, which is a single exemplar of the phenomenon. Further, the GAO is admirably clear on what Islamic extremism consists of: "an Islamic ideology that denies the legitimacy of nonbelievers and practitioners of other forms of Islam [aside from the Saudi version] and that explicitly promotes hatred, intolerance, and violence." The report takes into account the differing definitions of Islamic extremism: "militant Islam," "radicalism," "fundamentalism," "jihadism," "Wahhabism," and "Salafism."

Nearly all these definitions lead back to the Saudi kingdom. Among the leading factors in the growth of the problem, the GAO notes is "external funding and propagation of fundamentalism and extremism, especially by Saudi Arabia." In an appendix reviewing its methodology, the GAO discloses that it reviewed 100 State Department cables written from 1998 through 2004, selected through computer searches focusing on "extremist ideology," "intolerance," "hatred," "Wahhabism," and "Saudi charities." The cables monitored activities in Afghanistan, Albania, Bangladesh, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the Saudi kingdom.

It is disturbing, however, to observe in the inventory of cables that the State Department generated only 100 documents in seven years dealing with these topics, when thousands of communications could and should have been dispatched. Nevertheless, the report cites government and nongovernmental sources attesting that "Saudi funding and export of a particular version of Islam that predominates in Saudi Arabia has had the effect . . . of promoting the growth of religious extremism globally." The GAO links official agencies of the Saudi regime such as the Muslim World League (MWL), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), and the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), along with privately sponsored charities and educational foundations, to "the global propagation of religious intolerance, hatred of Western values, and support to terrorist activities."

The GAO report emphasizes that whatever measures the Saudis have adopted to cut off terrorist financing have lagged in application. The State Department "continues to stress, in its discussions with the Saudis, the need for full implementation of charity regulations, including a fully functioning (oversight) commission." That State has to push for implementation, and the establishment of effective supervision over charities, speaks for itself. But the GAO also affirms that "appropriate regulatory oversight" of MWL, IIRO, and WAMY "is absolutely necessary."

As a pragmatic check on its findings, the GAO traveled to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, where its representatives interviewed government officials along with leaders of two massive Islamic organizations, Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, and the reformist Liberal Islam Network (see In the Shadow of a Fatwa). Using Indonesia as a control on the data was wise; Southeast Asian Muslims are forthright in analyzing the problems of the global Islamic community, and are unafraid to describe Saudi-Wahhabi ambitions accurately, as religious colonialism.

The desert kingdom still owes us a Saudi version of the 9/11 Commission Report fully elucidating the involvement of their subjects in the terrorist assault on America; they owe the world a cutoff of support to Wahhabism; and they owe themselves the establishment, with our help, of the institutions of civil society. In other words, a clean slate that can reestablish the U.S.-Saudi alliance on a firm basis of transparency, honesty, and trust.

Stephen Schwartz is the author of The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role in Terrorism.