is Saudi Arabia complicit in the Isis takeover of much of northern Iraq, and is
it stoking an escalating Sunni-Shia conflict across the Islamic world? Some
time before 9/11, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once the powerful Saudi ambassador
in Washington and head of Saudi intelligence until a few months ago, had a
revealing and ominous conversation with the head of the British Secret
Intelligence Service, MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove. Prince Bandar told him:
“The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be
literally ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had
enough of them.”
Kerry and Binder Sultan, ex-Saudi Ambassador to the United States
moment predicted by Prince Bandar may now have come for many Shia, with Saudi
Arabia playing an important role in bringing it about by supporting the
anti-Shia jihad in Iraq and Syria. Since the capture of Mosul by the Islamic
State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) on 10 June, Shia women and children have
been killed in villages south of Kirkuk, and Shia air force cadets
machine-gunned and buried in mass graves near Tikrit.
Shia shrines and mosques have been blown up, and in the nearby Shia Turkoman city
of Tal Afar 4,000 houses have been taken over by Isis fighters as “spoils
of war”. Simply to be identified as Shia or a related sect, such as the
Alawites, in Sunni rebel-held parts of Iraq and Syria today, has become as
dangerous as being a Jew was in Nazi-controlled parts of Europe in 1940.
no doubt about the accuracy of the quote by Prince Bandar, secretary-general of
the Saudi National Security Council from 2005 and head of General Intelligence
between 2012 and 2014, the crucial two years when al-Qa’ida-type jihadis took
over the Sunni-armed opposition in Iraq and Syria. Speaking at the Royal United
Services Institute last week, Dearlove, who headed MI6 from 1999 to 2004,
emphasised the significance of Prince Bandar’s words, saying that they constituted
“a chilling comment that I remember very well indeed”.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan
not doubt that substantial and sustained funding from private donors in Saudi
Arabia and Qatar, to which the authorities may have turned a blind eye, has
played a central role in the Isis surge into Sunni areas of Iraq. He said:
“Such things simply do not happen spontaneously.” This sounds
realistic since the tribal and communal leadership in Sunni majority provinces
is much beholden to Saudi and Gulf paymasters, and would be unlikely to
cooperate with Isis without their consent.
Dearlove’s explosive revelation about the prediction of a day
of reckoning for the Shia by Prince Bandar, and the former head of MI6’s view
that Saudi Arabia is involved in the Isis-led Sunni rebellion, has attracted
surprisingly little attention. Coverage of Dearlove’s speech focused instead on
his main theme that the threat from Isis to the West is being exaggerated
because, unlike Bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida, it is absorbed in a new conflict that
“is essentially Muslim on Muslim”. Unfortunately, Christians in areas
captured by Isis are finding this is not true, as their churches are desecrated
and they are forced to flee. A difference between al-Qa’ida and Isis is that
the latter is much better organised; if it does attack Western targets the
results are likely to be devastating.
Sir Richard Dearlove – ex-head of MI6
forecast by Prince Bandar, who was at the heart of Saudi security policy for
more than three decades, that the 100 million Shia in the Middle East face
disaster at the hands of the Sunni majority, will convince many Shia that they
are the victims of a Saudi-led campaign to crush them. “The Shia in
general are getting very frightened after what happened in northern Iraq,”
said an Iraqi commentator, who did not want his name published. Shia see the
threat as not only military but stemming from the expanded influence over
mainstream Sunni Islam of Wahhabism, the puritanical and intolerant version of
Islam espoused by Saudi Arabia that condemns Shia and other Islamic sects as
non-Muslim apostates and polytheists.
Iraq crisis: The rise of Isis
says that he has no inside knowledge obtained since he retired as head of MI6
10 years ago to become Master of Pembroke College in Cambridge. But, drawing on
past experience, he sees Saudi strategic thinking as being shaped by two
deep-seated beliefs or attitudes. First, they are convinced that there
“can be no legitimate or admissible challenge to the Islamic purity of
their Wahhabi credentials as guardians of Islam’s holiest shrines”. But,
perhaps more significantly given the deepening Sunni-Shia confrontation, the
Saudi belief that they possess a monopoly of Islamic truth leads them to be
“deeply attracted towards any militancy which can effectively challenge
governments traditionally play down the connection between Saudi Arabia and its
Wahhabist faith, on the one hand, and jihadism, whether of the variety espoused
by Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida or by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Isis. There is
nothing conspiratorial or secret about these links: 15 out of 19 of the 9/11
hijackers were Saudis, as was Bin Laden and most of the private donors who
funded the operation.
Sunni Ahmed al-Rifai shrine near Tal Afar is bulldozed
difference between al-Qa’ida and Isis can be overstated: when Bin Laden was
killed by United States forces in 2011, al-Baghdadi released a statement
eulogising him, and Isis pledged to launch 100 attacks in revenge for his
has always been a second theme to Saudi policy towards al-Qa’ida type jihadis,
contradicting Prince Bandar’s approach and seeing jihadis as a mortal threat to
the Kingdom. Dearlove illustrates this attitude by relating how, soon after
9/11, he visited the Saudi capital Riyadh with Tony Blair.
remembers the then head of Saudi General Intelligence “literally shouting
at me across his office: ‘9/11 is a mere pinprick on the West. In the medium
term, it is nothing more than a series of personal tragedies. What these
terrorists want is to destroy the House of Saud and remake the Middle
East.'” In the event, Saudi Arabia adopted both policies, encouraging the
jihadis as a useful tool of Saudi anti-Shia influence abroad but suppressing
them at home as a threat to the status quo. It is this dual policy that has
fallen apart over the last year.
sympathy for anti-Shia “militancy” is identified in leaked US
official documents. The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in
December 2009 in a cable released by Wikileaks that “Saudi Arabia remains
a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT
[Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups.” She said that,
in so far as Saudi Arabia did act against al-Qa’ida, it was as a domestic
threat and not because of its activities abroad. This policy may now be
changing with the dismissal of Prince Bandar as head of intelligence this year.
But the change is very recent, still ambivalent and may be too late: it was
only last week that a Saudi prince said he would no longer fund a satellite
television station notorious for its anti-Shia bias based in Egypt.
problem for the Saudis is that their attempts since Bandar lost his job to
create an anti-Maliki and anti-Assad Sunni constituency which is simultaneously
against al-Qa’ida and its clones have failed.
seeking to weaken Maliki and Assad in the interest of a more moderate Sunni
faction, Saudi Arabia and its allies are in practice playing into the hands of
Isis which is swiftly gaining full control of the Sunni opposition in Syria and
Iraq. In Mosul, as happened previously in its Syrian capital Raqqa, potential
critics and opponents are disarmed, forced to swear allegiance to the new
caliphate and killed if they resist.
may have to pay a price for its alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf
monarchies, which have always found Sunni jihadism more attractive than
democracy. A striking example of double standards by the western powers was the
Saudi-backed suppression of peaceful democratic protests by the Shia majority
in Bahrain in March 2011. Some 1,500 Saudi troops were sent across the causeway
to the island kingdom as the demonstrations were ended with great brutality and
Shia mosques and shrines were destroyed.
used by the US and Britain is that the Sunni al-Khalifa royal family in Bahrain
is pursuing dialogue and reform. But this excuse looked thin last week as
Bahrain expelled a top US diplomat, the assistant secretary of state for human
rights Tom Malinowksi, for meeting leaders of the main Shia opposition party
al-Wifaq. Mr Malinowski tweeted that the Bahrain government’s action was
“not about me but about undermining dialogue”.
leader al-Maliki Western powers and their regional allies have largely escaped
criticism for their role in reigniting the war in Iraq. Publicly and privately,
they have blamed the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for persecuting and
marginalising the Sunni minority, so provoking them into supporting the
Isis-led revolt. There is much truth in this, but it is by no means the whole
story. Maliki did enough to enrage the Sunni, partly because he wanted to
frighten Shia voters into supporting him in the 30 April election by claiming
to be the Shia community’s protector against Sunni counter-revolution.
all his gargantuan mistakes, Maliki’s failings are not the reason why the Iraqi
state is disintegrating. What destabilised Iraq from 2011 on was the revolt of
the Sunni in Syria and the takeover of that revolt by jihadis, who were often
sponsored by donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates.
Again and again Iraqi politicians warned that by not seeking to close down the
civil war in Syria, Western leaders were making it inevitable that the conflict
in Iraq would restart. “I guess they just didn’t believe us and were fixated
on getting rid of [President Bashar al-] Assad,” said an Iraqi leader in
Baghdad last week.
course, US and British politicians and diplomats would argue that they were in
no position to bring an end to the Syrian conflict. But this is misleading. By
insisting that peace negotiations must be about the departure of Assad from
power, something that was never going to happen since Assad held most of the
cities in the country and his troops were advancing, the US and Britain made
sure the war would continue.
beneficiary is Isis which over the last two weeks has been mopping up the last
opposition to its rule in eastern Syria. The Kurds in the north and the
official al-Qa’ida representative, Jabhat al-Nusra, are faltering under the
impact of Isis forces high in morale and using tanks and artillery captured
from the Iraqi army. It is also, without the rest of the world taking notice,
taking over many of the Syrian oil wells that it did not already control.
Al-Qubba Husseiniya mosque in Mosul explodes Saudi Arabia has created a
Frankenstein’s monster over which it is rapidly losing control. The same is
true of its allies such as Turkey which has been a vital back-base for Isis and
Jabhat al-Nusra by keeping the 510-mile-long Turkish-Syrian border open. As
Kurdish-held border crossings fall to Isis, Turkey will find it has a new
neighbour of extraordinary violence, and one deeply ungrateful for past favours
from the Turkish intelligence service.
Saudi Arabia, it may come to regret its support for the Sunni revolts in Syria
and Iraq as jihadi social media begins to speak of the House of Saud as its
next target. It is the unnamed head of Saudi General Intelligence quoted by
Dearlove after 9/11 who is turning out to have analysed the potential threat to
Saudi Arabia correctly and not Prince Bandar, which may explain why the latter
was sacked earlier this year.
this the only point on which Prince Bandar was dangerously mistaken. The rise
of Isis is bad news for the Shia of Iraq but it is worse news for the Sunni
whose leadership has been ceded to a pathologically bloodthirsty and intolerant
movement, a sort of Islamic Khmer Rouge, which has no aim but war without end.
caliphate rules a large, impoverished and isolated area from which people are
fleeing. Several million Sunni in and around Baghdad are vulnerable to attack
and 255 Sunni prisoners have already been massacred. In the long term, Isis
cannot win, but its mix of fanaticism and good organisation makes it difficult
help the Shia,” said Prince Bandar, but, partly thanks to him, the
shattered Sunni communities of Iraq and Syria may need divine help even more
than the Shia.