Islamic State’s expansion model

ISIS MEMRIISIS continues to pursue its expansion model in Libya, Sinai, and other hotspots, raising new challenges that differ from those posed by al-Qaeda’s past franchise approach, says a leading analyst.

The Islamic State announced several months ago that it was “annexing” territory in Algeria, Libya, Sinai, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, notes Aaron Y. Zelin, the Richard Borow fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But there is one key difference between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s model for expansion, he writes for The Washington Post:

Al-Qaeda wanted to use its new franchises in service of its main priority: attacking Western countries to force them to stop supporting “apostate” Arab regimes, which without the support of Western countries would then be ripe for the taking. This has only truly worked out with its Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On the other hand, while the Islamic State does not have an issue with its supporters or grassroots activists attacking Western countries, its main priority is building out its caliphate, which is evident in its famous slogan baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding). As a result, it has had a relatively clear agenda and model: fighting locally, instituting limited governance and conducting outreach.

This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.


Obama visits a Saudi Arabia ‘in transition’?

Saudi ArabiaU.S. President Barack Obama sought to cement ties with Saudi Arabia as he came to pay his respects on Tuesday after the death of King Abdullah, a trip that underscores the importance of a U.S.-Saudi alliance that extends beyond oil interests to regional security, Reuters reports:

U.S. criticism of Saudi Arabia over its human rights record has normally been low-key and may remain so. Obama said in an interview with CNN that the United States had to balance its pressure on Saudi Arabia and other allies over human rights with its immediate concerns about terrorism and regional stability.

“With all the other countries we work with, what I have found effective is to apply steady, consistent pressure, even as we are getting business done that needs to get done,” he said.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister of Saudi Arabia, arrived at a meeting of security chiefs from across the Arab world in Marrakesh, Morocco, last March to deliver a call to arms, The New York Times reports: It was time, he declared, for a concerted effort to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Arab officials:

Several were stunned at his audacity. Brotherhood-style Islamists are an accepted part of politics in much of the Arab world, including Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and Morocco itself, to say nothing of their warm welcome in Qatar, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to anger the powerful Saudi prince.

“He is the strongest prince,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton University who studies Saudi Arabia. “He is the most powerful guy in the system. He is the pivot,” he told The Times:

Many took his appointment [as the new deputy crown prince] as an attempt to underscore the dynasty’s stability, laying out its rulers for decades to come…. Unlike King Abdullah or King Salman, who studied at the court, Prince Mohammed was educated in the West and graduated from Lewis & Clark, a liberal arts college in Portland, Ore…..Because of his Western education, Prince Mohammed is believed to favor liberalization on matters like education and opportunities for women. But he has made few public statements on social issues, and experts say his security mind-set makes him unlikely to push for changes that might endanger his family’s legitimacy as the guardians of the kingdom’s ultraconservative version of Islam.

saudi wahhabiSaudi Arabia remains the major source of Wahhabi ideology, which spreads outward to radicalize foreign Muslims, analysts Carol E.B. Choksy and Jamsheed K. Choksy write for World Politics Review:

The attacks in Paris earlier this month serve as a tragic example of Wahhabism’s influence. The Charlie Hebdo attackers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, were radicalized in France by Wahhabi tenet-holding al-Qaida operatives and preachers ….
The Saudi export of Wahhabism and jihad began in earnest in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. … it allocated $4 billion each year for the next three decades to build approximately 1,500 mosques and 2,000 madrasas (or religious schools), employ 4,000 preachers, enlist thousands of students andprint millions of textbooks to globalize the Wahhabi creed. Wahhabi institutions sprung up in Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbors, along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, in Afghanistan itself and across Central Asia and the Balkans.

The Saudi-funded Wahhabi expansion included North America and Europe, too. A charitable foundation established by the late King Fahd provides some of the funding for foreign mosques and other Islamic institutions, and is also a major funding source for Wahhabi publications, as the foundation’s website boasts. Disseminated widely, these publications spread an “ideology of hatred that can incite violence,” according to Freedom House.

But over the last decade, the country’s rulers have sought to moderate the sermons of some of the kingdom’s most radical clergy. More modern-thinking clerics have been promoted to senior state positions and some scholars from other branches of Sunni Islam brought onto the top clerical council, reports suggest.

“The Wahhabis do not have the same grip over power in Saudi Arabia as they used to over the past centuries,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, a Cairo-based political analyst. “The power of politics has overtaken the influence of religion on governing the kingdom, and King Abdullah should be the one taking the credit.”

The more that King Abdullah’s health declined, the higher the number of people being threatened and imprisoned by the Ministry of Interior grew, a Saudi observer writes for Politico:

raif-badawi-cropped-internalInitially, the threats, while harsh and unwarranted, were against activists who were truly outspoken in their demands for political rights and freedoms. In 2012, for instance, Mohammed Al Bajadi was tried and sentenced in a secret court on charges of disobedience of the rulers, speaking to foreign media, demonstrating and owning prohibited books on democracy. In 2013, Mohammed Al Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years in prison for documenting political prisoners and calling for a constitutional monarchy. Mikhlif Al Shammari was sentenced in the same year, for promoting anti-sectarianism. Raif Badawi (left) established a web forum called The Saudi Liberal Network that facilitated the discussion and criticism of the radical Islam taught in Saudi schools. In return, he was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes. His lawyer, Abulkhair, was sentenced to 15 years for establishing an independent human rights organization. The list goes on and on.

Under Abdullah, the kingdom’s regional dominance has receded, says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress.But the diminished clout he leaves to his successors is not entirely a consequence of the late king’s actions, he writes for The Atlantic:

The Middle East as a whole is fragmenting as more countries and non-state groups like ISIS compete for power. In addition, technological and demographic changes, such as the rise of a new generation in the Middle East’s current youth bulge (15- to 29-year-olds constituted about one-third of the region’s population as of 2008), have limited the ability of traditional institutions to enforce conformity or influence events. These dynamics are not unique to Saudi Arabia, but they are perhaps nowhere more clear than in the kingdom, which has the highest number of active Twitter users in the Arab world, and where a liberal blogger was recently sentenced to a prison term and 1,000 lashes for criticizing the authorities.

islamists nytHuman rights activists might be ready to turn the page on tributes to Saudi Arabia’s deceased leader. But the U.S.’s top military officer said he’d like to see a few hundred pages more, in the form of an essay contest honoring King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz and his close security ties to the U.S., The Wall Street Journal reports:

Human rights activists and others have pointed to some of the more unsavory aspects of his rule, including limiting free expression, a harsh justice system where beheadings are a common punishment and serious limits on women’s rights. In the last weeks of King Abdullah’s reign, a Saudi blogger began undergoing a sentence of 1,000 lashes for writing articles critical of Saudi Arabia’s clerics on a liberal blog.

The Saudi regime is eager to stress continuity and stability to both its allies and its citizens, say analysts

“They have told the people of Saudi Arabia that everything is going to be stable for the next 30 years, so don’t worry about the transition,” said James B. Smith, a former United States ambassador to Riyadh. “And it is a strategic message to everyone else who wants to try to second-guess the whole transition idea.”

“None of these people are ideological,” Professor Haykel said. “There is no commitment to anything beyond their interests.”

Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks portray Prince Mohammed as personally motivated to fight militant Islam and in tight cooperation with the United States.

But Adam Coogle, who monitors Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch, said that while law enforcement under Prince Mohammed’s father had often been arbitrary, Prince Mohammed had professionalized and formalized it, The Times adds.

“He is the architect of the crackdown on and jailing of these activists with ludicrously harsh sentences,” said. “This is all on his watch.”

Neil MacFarquhar, with The Times’s reporters Helene Cooper and Rod Nordland, wrote a news analysis about Saudi Arabian-American relations in the wake of King Abdullah’s death. MacFarquhar provides a short list of books or articles for those who’d like a larger context for understanding the situation, history and consequences:

“Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change.” A brand-new primer on the many facets of Saudi Arabia from religion to oil to women’s rights, with individual essays by some of the best academics in the field.

“Awakening Islam,” by Stephen Lacroix, who helped edit the primer above, examines the Islamic revival movement within Saudi Arabia that gave birth to the global jihadists…





Saudi Arabia’s way forward: transition smooth—‘for now’


Saudi ArabiaSaudi Arabia’s King Abdullah will be remembered for his relatively reformist mindset and bold foreign policy initiatives, notes Bilal Y. Saab, Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. But the Saudi leader’s passing will have little to no impact on the Kingdom’s future, especially given the set of increasingly difficult challenges the country will have to face at home and abroad, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

Leadership matters, especially in the Middle East, where institutions are weak and often nonexistent. But charisma and talent, on their own, won’t be enough to dig Saudi Arabia out of the profound generational problems that go beyond Abdullah, his successor Salman, or any leader who will preside over the Kingdom. Diversifying the economy, reducing unemployment, practicing good governance, further empowering women, combating the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), checking Iran’s advances, improving relations with Washington, stabilizing Yemen, and leading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—to name just a few—will require team work.

The question is whether the last year or two of drift, as King Abdullah grew ill, he will now be replaced with strong Saudi leadership, says Elliott Abrams, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Abdullah was widely respected at home and abroad, in part for his intelligence and in part for his piety, he writes for TIME. Whatever complaints were lodged against profligate Saudi royals did not apply to him, for his personal faith was very clear, notes Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

He was in his way also a reformer, for example establishing the Kingdom’s first coed university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. For decades, he and President Mubarak of Egypt were the two most powerful Arab leaders and key western allies. Mubarak fell in 2011, and Abdullah’s health began to fade soon after. The Arab world has lacked responsible leadership recently, although the Emiratis have tried to fill the breach.

raif-badawi-cropped-internalWhat remains to be seen is whether King Salman can now return the kingdom to its accustomed role, or is himself too old, Abrams adds.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, many pointed out that the baseline ideology for al-Qaida and other groups stemmed from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, AP reports.

And the attempts of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to style himself as spiritual leader of Muslims presents a challenge to the Saudi monarchy, which is responsible for Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, CNN reports:

“The Saudis fear it as a potential domestic threat, turning Salafism into a revolutionary political ideology rather than the pro-regime bulwark it has usually been in Saudi Arabia,” says F. Gregory Gause, III, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha, Qatar.

“If you look at the ideology of ISIS and if you look at the ideology of the ruling religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, there’s not a whole lot of difference,”notes one regional expert.

The Saudis are apoplectic that the U.S. administration is “flirting with the Iranian mullahs,” writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Max Boot, who believes outreach to Iran will not succeed:

Iranian revolutionaries who still chant “Death to America” will not make common cause with us. And the price of flirting with them is to drive Sunnis, especially in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, further into the camp of the jihadists.

From a moral standpoint, admittedly, there is little to choose from between Saudi Arabia and Iran: both are despotic theocracies that are anathema to American values. But from a strategic standpoint, Iran is much more of a threat to the U.S. and our allies.

A useful analogy here is World War II where we had to choose an alliance with the lesser evil (Stalin) to defeat the greater evil (Hitler), he writes for Commentary.

Jean-Francois Seznec, who teaches political economy of the Gulf at Georgetown University, said that the transition would probably not affect Saudi oil policy and the kingdom’s strategy of keeping production up despite falling prices in order to hang on to market share, the Times reports:

“I think for the time being that they will be careful not to change very much and to go for stability,” he said.

But dealing with the crisis in Yemen, which shares a long border with Saudi Arabia and harbors Qaeda militants who are hostile to the monarchy, will probably be Salman’s first task.

“I think it scares the hell out of the Saudis,” Mr. Seznec said. “It is a dangerous place for them, and their Yemeni policy has been a huge failure.”

Gulf oil officials say privately that Saudi Arabia and other OPEC producers have not completely ruled out a cut that might help calm the markets, The New York Times reports:

But the Persian Gulf producers insist that a wide range of countries, including Venezuela and non-OPEC producers like Russia, should participate — a long shot at this point.

“Saudi oil policy is set largely on a technocratic basis,” said Anthony Cordesman, a geopolitical expert who follows Persian Gulf affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There is no major international reason for Saudi Arabia to change its current approach.”

Simon Henderson, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was most likely that the reins of power, including over oil policy, would be held by a group of advisers now forming around the king.

“Now that he is older, he is likely to take a more hands-off approach, relying on a coterie of advisers, which will probably include several of his sons,” said Mr. Henderson, who has written extensively on Saudi succession issues.

Abdullah’s death marks the passing from the scene of the last leader with real stature in the Arab world, notes Marwan Muasher, the Carnegie Endowment’s Vice President for Studies:

It is difficult to think of any individual today who would be able to bring together peers from across the region to work collectively as he did with, for example, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The appointment of Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince is significant in two ways: it signals a generational shift in the line of succession, and he is not the oldest of the cousins, signaling a new method of choosing Saudi kings.

Frederic Wehrey, senior associate in Carnegie’s Middle East Program has argued that “Saudi Arabia is likely to continue to favor preserving its market share even as this means the decline of the price of oil.” Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center has written that Saudi Arabia can be expected to continue on the same foreign policy path it has been on for the past twelve months, but that “it can now do it more boldly because Mohammed bin Nayef has succeeded in formalizing his influence.”

“Their greatest worry is what’s going on in Yemen, which is very much their backyard,” said Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute.

The recent controversy over the draconian sentence against liberal blogger Raif Badawi (above, right), or the recent public beheading of a convicted murderer, demonstrate the gulf between official Saudi perceptions and most of the rest of the world, notes Hussein Ibish, Senior Fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine.

But while reforms under King Abdullah were limited and cautious, they did have some impact, he writes for Forward:

Among other things, there is an increasing pattern of prominent Saudis becoming far more publicly critical of official conduct. For example, last week the veteran Saudi journalist Khaled Almaeena complained in the New York Times that, “You reach a stage where you can’t defend the country… when someone is being lashed every Friday.” Special Dispatch No. 5943 – From The MEMRI Archives: Saudi Prince Salman: The Term ‘Wahhabi’ Was Coined by Saudi Arabia’s Enemies

Access Carnegie’s latest resources on Saudi Arabia here.

Women in Saudi Arabia: A Feather in the Wind

Maliha AlShehab saudiEver since his ascension to the Saudi throne in 2005, King Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz has been taking cautious steps in the field of women’s rights. Most notably in 2013, he allowed for the admittance of thirty Saudi women into the Consultative (Shura) Council, which proposes some Saudi laws. Despite such steps, the lives of Saudi women remain constricted by the guardianship system, a set of laws that explicitly discriminate based on gender and infringe upon human rights

The International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy 

cordially invites you to a presentation entitled 

“Women in Saudi Arabia: A Feather in the Wind” 


Maliha AlShehab

Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow 

with comments by 

Ali Al-Ahmed

Institute for Gulf Affairs 

moderated by 

Sally Blair

International Forum for Democratic Studies 

Thursday, February 12, 2015 2:00 p.m.–3:30 p.m. 1025 F Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20004 Telephone: 202-378-9675 RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Tuesday, February 10


Livestream of the event will be available here.

Twitter: Follow @ThinkDemocracy and use #NEDEvents to join the conversation.

In her presentation, Maliha AlShehab will present a rejoinder to the narrative of Saudi reform by illuminating the ways in which the guardianship system affects women’s rights to education, health, employment, and freedom of movement. She will offer recommendations for local and international action to redress the harmful effects of this system. Her presentation will be followed by comments by Ali Al-Ahmed.

Maliha AlShehab is an accomplished writer and outspoken advocate for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. A prominent social activist and community organizer with experience in the field of gender, human rights, and democracy, she has served most recently as program officer for a Washington, D.C.–based organization focusing on women’s rights. Between 2006 and 2010, she was a columnist for Al Watan, a leading Saudi newspaper, and other Arab newspapers, where her writings drew attention to the situation of women in Saudi Arabia. She is also the author of the bestselling book Saudi Woman: Image and Voice (2010). During her fellowship, Ms. AlShehab is exploring ways of bringing an end to discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia and providing them with opportunities to contribute meaningfully to civil society. As part of her efforts to raise awareness within the international community and call for change, she is writing a report on gender inequality in Saudi Arabia and developing a roadmap for empowering Saudi women. Ali Al-Ahmed is the director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs.



US senators urge Saudis to halt ‘barbaric’ flogging of blogger

raif-badawi-cropped-internalA high-powered group of U.S. senators is demanding that Saudi Arabia cancel the “barbaric punishment” of a blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes for criticizing the country’s clerics, saying the floggings are particularly troubling in the wake of terror attacks driven by “religious intolerance,” reports suggest:

Blogger Raif Badawi (left) has been ordered to endure 20 weekly sets of 50 lashes until he is whipped 1,000 times. Saudi authorities postponed the second round, after a doctor concluded his wounds from the first 50 lashes had not yet healed. …Eight U.S. senators, in a letter to Saudi King Abdullah, warned that “further violence” against Saudi citizens expressing themselves peacefully “will unfortunately be a source of continued divergence between our two countries.”  

The Jan. 16 letter was signed by: Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Jeanne Shaheen, R-N.H.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Mark Kirk, R-Ill.; and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Saudi ArabiaEuropean soccer champions Bayern Munich returned from a training camp in the Middle East to a barrage of criticism over a friendly played in Saudi Arabia, with some politicians and fans claiming the club had turned a blind eye to human rights violations, The Guardian reports:

The German champions spent just over a week at a training camp in Qatar earlier this month before playing a friendly against Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia on Saturday and returning to Germany a day later.

Qatar, where the 2022 World Cup will be staged, has been under scrutiny over widespread reports of human rights violations against migrant workers building the infrastructure for the tournament. Bayern’s game in Saudi Arabia also coincided with the uproar over the flogging in the country of activist and blogger Raif Badawi.

If there is one point of consensus from the many Middle Eastern freedom fighters I’ve spoken with over the last decade, it is that Saudi Arabia is the root of all evil. Everywhere one looks, the fruits of Saudi-backed extremism are clear, rights advocate David Keyes writes for The Daily Beast:

Intolerance is Saudi Arabia’s greatest export. The country’s highest religious authority called to burn down all churches in Arabia. Saudi textbooks call Jews the decendents of “apes and pigs.” Christians are forbidden from wearing crosses, building churches or bringing in Bibles….

One of the main excuses for supporting Saudi Arabia is that they are needed to combat Iran. Relying on one hate-mongering, xenophobic tyranny to combat another is a very bad bet. Iran is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous regimes on Earth and the free world must apply enormous pressure against it, but backing Saudi Arabia is not the answer. Iran can be undermined without relying on the Kingdom of Hate.

I am told over and over that Saudi Arabia has no liberals. It is true that Saudi culture is deeply conservative and liberalism is not exactly teeming over. But what are democracies doing to support those few Saudi democrats who risk life and limb for a more tolerant future? The answer is next to nothing.

“Flogging harms the country’s reputation because it is old and medieval,” said Abdullah Alweet, the author of a book last year on reform and renewal in Islam. “It is unnecessarily humiliating,” he told the Wall Street Journal:

The Quran and Prophet Muhammad’s teachings list three crimes as punishable by flogging: adultery, falsely accusing someone of adultery, and drinking alcohol. Even in those cases, flogging isn’t meant to cause physical harm. Instead, it is intended in Shariah, or Islamic law, as a symbolic act to signal society’s anger at immoral behavior, said Abdulaziz Algasim, a former judge who now runs a law firm in the capital Riyadh.

“In Shariah, flogging as punishment was meant to be very mild and doesn’t aim to cause pain. That’s why the stick must have a specific description. It doesn’t leave a mark on the skin. This indicates that the punishment is symbolic. But it is now being used as a tool of torture,” Mr. Algasim said.

The leaders of the free world have abandoned Saudi liberals, but you need not, adds Keyes: 

Raif Badawy’s wife posted on, Advancing Human Rights’ new crowd-sourcing platform, to alert the world that her husband could die if the lashes continue. Global pressure led the Kingdom to postpone the lashes. But if his life is to be saved, much more must be done. No Saudi diplomat should be able to leave his embassy without being confronted with Badawy’s name.


David Keyes is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and a contributor to The Daily Beast. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and Reuters and appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg TV and Al Jazeera. He can be reached at is a crowdsourcing platform created by Advancing Human Rights which connects activists from dictatorships with people around the world with skills to help them.