This Isn't Saudi Arabia's First ISIS Problem

Image: Ikhwan in Saudi Arabia. Public domain.

The radical Ikhwan, who helped unify the country but then rebelled, echo today.

Since the appearance of the self-described Islamic State—formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—many analysts tried to trace its political, historical, and ideological genesis. In this article I will draw the attention to some striking parallels between ISIL and the Saudi Ikhwan, another group of terrorists who tormented large populations in the Middle East between 1912–1930, and finally turned against their own patron, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founder of today’s Saudi Arabia, after many years of working together to promote their mutual interests: Ibn Saud’s quest to subdue the Arabian Peninsula and the Ikhwan’s mission to impose their rigid interpretation of Islam on its defenseless communities.

In his quest to restore the lost rule of his ancestors, Ibn Saud (1875-1953) initiated a military campaign that successfully helped him in conquering Riyadh in 1902 and large areas in Najd, the central area of today’s Saudi Arabia. The magnitude of his ambition to conquer vast territories required a strong and extremely loyal army. He then began to recruit the Bedouins of Arabia into a militant religious cult called the Ikhwan and turned their nomadic lifestyle into living in group dwellings called the hujer. The term is derived from the Arabic word for migration (hijrah) and represents a strong invocation of Prophet Mohammad’s migration from Makkah to Madinah. These Bedouins were subjected to rigorous religious education according to the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, founder of the extremist Wahhabi school of Islamic practice, which is currently the state religion in Saudi Arabia. The Ikhwan became Ibn Saud’s merciless army that went with him on a rampage throughout Arabia to fight the “unbelievers”, meaning all Muslim groups that believed in non-Wahhabi interpretations of Islam.

Like ISIL, the Ikhwan began as a mysterious movement whose genesis remained a puzzle for foreign observers. Not only Ibn Saud’s rivals, like King Hussein of Hijaz, were unsure about the group’s identity, but even the British could not get the exact facts about it despite their close relations with the region and ability to penetrate its communities with their intelligence assets. As the British political officer in Kuwait recalled from his visit to the eastern region of the Arabian Peninsula, all his efforts to find any detailed information about the Ikhwan went in vain as people refused to talk and it was clear that someone with high authority and influence gave them orders to remain silent. He assumed that would be Ibn Saud himself.

It is also important to note the conflicting theories concerning the loyalty of the Ikhwan. As the case with ISIL, the Ikhwan were thought to be loyal to the Turks, while Emir Feisal Ibn al-Hussein (later King Feisal I of Iraq) argued that they were linked to the Bolsheviks. As the declassified archive of British intelligence documents revealed, this latter opinion was shared by some British officials in the region, citing a great disenchantment among the Muslims of Central Asia with the Muslims of the Arabian Peninsula “who sold their souls to the Christians”—that is, the British and their Arab allies in Hijaz. All these are remarkable parallels between ISIL and the Ikhwan.

These suspicions always lacked the supporting evidence and remained weak theories against the strong historical evidence indicating the role of Ibn Saud as the founding patron of the Ikhwan. They were convinced by his allies, the Wahhabi clergymen, that they were in a state of ignorance about the right religion and were reeducated to carry the desired belief system: a combination of Hanbali-Wahhabi literalist interpretation of Islam and a bitter hostility to all the nonbelievers. In their small world, all the “non-believers” were Muslims with beliefs that contravened Wahhabism. In addition to the list of foods, drinks, and practices which are banned by Islam, the Ikhwan, like ISIL, banned smoking and actively went after astrologists and all practitioners of witchcraft and destroyed all the buildings associated with the graves of religious personalities and those of historical significance. And like ISIL, the Ikhwan completely neglected their hygiene, left their hair extremely long and filthy, went on for weeks without washing their bodies, and wore their clothes for a very long time without washing them. Although water was precious in their desert dwellings, this conduct was extreme nevertheless. The teachings of Prophet Mohammad, who also lived in the Arabian Peninsula, mandated an excellent level of personal hygiene for the Muslim.

Another striking similarity between ISIL and the Ikhwan is their extreme fanaticism. The Ikhwan took particular interest in targeting their own blood relatives, whom they deemed unbelievers, before targeting strangers. The recent flare of ISIL members and sympathizers killing their brothers, parents, and cousins is a perfect duplicate of what the Ikhwan did to their own kin. And both groups were taught that the blood, the property and the women of the “unbelievers” are theirs to take and possess, so they went with great enthusiasm to kill the “enemies of Allah” and enrich themselves in the process.