Revulsion over British complicity in Saudi war crimes has put Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia under welcome scrutiny. But government and business links between the countries are deep-rooted and will not easily be loosened. Attention is likely to be deflected onto Britain’s Muslim communities. They are at risk, yet again, of being scapegoated from the outside and de-politicised from the inside. A Scottish initiative is a world leader at doing just that.
Saudi Arabia’s use of British arms to commit war crimes in Yemen is the latest in a long line of scandals afflicting the UK-Saudi relationship.
In July the High Court dismissed a claim by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and other organisations that arms sales should be suspended. Part of the hearing was held in secret. The judgment – which CAAT says it will appeal – is instructive. It combines masterly legal fudge with some breathtaking statements. For example, it says: “The UK is a bystander in this volatile conflict”.
The judgment takes for granted the Government’s position that it is not a party to the Yemen war. At the same time, it argues that the UK’s strong links with Saudi Arabia and the support given to the Saudis by UK personnel mean that the Government is well placed to decide whether there is risk that war crimes are being committed. The judges say:
“The reality of the position is that the Secretary of State has available to him and his advisers a significant amount of information relating to the conflict in Yemen and the conduct of Saudi Arabia as part of the Coalition.”
The Saudis’ Yemen war is Britain’s war too
The effect of this reasoning is to allow the concept of the UK as a bystander to quietly cohabit with the fact that the Saudis’ Yemen war is Britain’s war too. The judges then reverts to the reticence that British courts have traditionally felt about meddling in war and high international politics.
The judges are clearly impressed by the effort the Government is making to monitor the situation. It seems that the Government is taking a lot of trouble to provide British arms manufacturers with the cover they need to profit from the catastrophe in Yemen. The capacity of governments for narrow venality should never be underestimated. But it might be more realistic to suppose that the Government is in fact pursuing the grander venality of imperialism.
Saudi Arabia is a pillar of US-UK policy in the Middle East. Like Israel, it is a demanding ally. It can insist on policies that might not be preferred approaches in Washington and London and it can often rely on its friends there to put a damper on public criticism of it. But it cannot count on a permanent bottom line of support in the way that Israel can. The US-Saudi special relationship didn’t stop some US hawks from dreaming, in the heady days before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that after Baghdad they would take not just Damascus and Tehran and Tripoli, but Riyadh too. And it hasn’t stopped the US fracking its way through an oil price war with Saudi Arabia. But Donald Trump’s visit to the Middle East in May appeared to mark a fresh start for US-Saudi relations and a new rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The dowry that the Saudis bring is Palestine
The rapprochement is built on shared hostility to Iran and dependence on the US. Whether the relationship will work out depends on the untested capacity of the US to help the Saudi government through the problems that grassroots opposition to the new alignment will bring. The dowry that the Saudis bring to the relationship is Palestine. It’s nothing new for Arab states to sell the Palestinians down the river. But what they are trying to sell this time is the final vestiges of hope for a viable Palestinian state.
Saudi Arabia remains a public relations liability for the British Government. The Manchester bombing on 22 May and the London Bridge attack on 3 June triggered a search amongst commentators from left to right for something to blame besides policies that all the main political parties are implicated in. The general election was imminent. No one wanted to be soft on terror. No one wanted to be unpatriotic. Everyone outside the Tory party wanted blame to fall on the Tories. And everyone outside the Tory party wanted to appear to be exploiting the bombing less shamelessly than the Tories were themselves.
The Government’s relationship with the ever-unpopular Saudis – close, because of Yemen, even by the cosy standards of traditional British policy – was just what was needed. The Saudis have a reputation for funding terrorism and “extremism”. David Cameron had commissioned a report on the funding of extremism and radicalisation in exchange for Lib Dem support in the December 2015 Commons vote on bombing ISIS in Syria. People naturally wanted to know what had become of the report.
The Home Office told the Guardian at the end of May that the report was “very sensitive” and would not necessarily be published, and that a decision would be taken “after the election by the next government.” On 27 June Theresa May wrote, in response to a written question from Caroline Lucas, that the Government was “considering advice on what is able to be published and will report to parliament with an update in due course”.
The reactionary Henry Jackson Society has added fuel to the fire by bringing out its own report, at the beginning of July, into foreign funded Islamist extremism in the UK. On 12 July Amber Rudd made a written statement to Parliament announcing the main findings of the report and saying that the report would not be published “because of the volume of personal information it contains and for national security reasons.” She says: “The review did not include either the funding of terrorism (which is a better understood area) or funding of extremism overseas from UK sources.”
The sensitivity of the Government report no doubt arises from Saudi involvement. The Government spins “extremism” as a pathway to terrorism. It is now faced by a collision between its own spin and realpolitik. It must somehow reconcile its domestic definition of extremism – opposition to fundamental British values – and the definition it implies in discussion with overseas partners like Saudi Arabia. At those conference tables, extremism means political views that threaten the existing international order and existing international borders. Philip Hammond made this very clear in a speech he gave in Bahrain as Foreign Secretary in October 2015.
Sir William Patey, a former UK Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, put it tactfully when he told a meeting in Parliament hosted by the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) on 13 July: “The Saudis [have] not quite appreciated the impact their funding of a certain brand of Islam is having in the countries in which they do it.” (quoted in the Guardian without mention of the CMEC meeting1 ). It might be more accurate to say that the Saudis have not quite appreciated how central the imputed linkage between certain brands of terrorism and Islam is to the British Government’s strategy for maintaining domestic support for its interventions in the Middle East.
A tilt away from Saudi Arabia would offer attractive political pickings for anyone interested in finding a way for a future UK or Scottish government to re-craft the war on terror while shedding the embarrassing history accumulated by Tony Blair and David Cameron. The re-crafting will not amount to much as long as imperialist habits remain, as long as Saudi Arabia avoids collapse, and as long as support for Israel remains the sine qua non of the “international community.” But it might generate enough chatter to allow Labour or the SNP to take the helm without alienating the domestic or international establishments or scandalising their own supporters.
Muslim communities will become lightning conductors
Muslim communities will become lightning conductors for the tensions these opposition tactics will generate, just as they are lightning conductors for Theresa May’s policies.
Amber Rudd’s summary of the Government report avoids naming any “extremist” organisations or any “brand” of Islam. Sir William Patey, speaking at the CMEC meeting about the crisis brought on by Saudi Arabia’s Qatar boycott, said:
“This [the Qatar crisis] is about the Muslim Brotherhood. It is a battle for the future of the Middle East.”
He was speaking in favour of diplomatic smartness, and in sympathetic criticism of Saudi policy towards Qatar. Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas is one of the issues that the Saudis themselves give as their reason for the boycott. Qatari efforts to soften the antagonism between the Saudi bloc and Iran are doubtless another reason. But what Sir William Patey’s remark hints at is a grand strategy aimed at marginalising and defeating attempts in the Middle East to build an anti-colonial movement rooted in Islam. In that sense, efforts to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood are part of the counter-revolution against the Arab Spring (though it would be giving the Muslim Brotherhood more credit than they deserve to call them revolutionary). For Sir William Patey, Saudi Arabia is evidently an ally in this.
The report by the Henry Jackson Society makes brief reference to the Muslim Brotherhood but takes aim mainly at Wahhabism and more broadly at Salafism, which it links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Wahhabism is the official ideology of the Saudi state, now more or less at war with the Muslim Brotherhood after several years of mutual antagonism2. This fact, apparently of central importance to Sir William Patey, is invisible in the report.
The report says:
“In a minority of cases, institutions in the UK that receive Saudi funding are also run directly from Saudi Arabia, as is the case with WAMY [World Assembly of Muslim Youth] and also reportedly the King Fahd Mosque in Edinburgh.”
One consequence of the Government’s secrecy over its own report (and the shyness of Muslim organisations) is the likelihood that institutions and organisations already reputed to receive Saudi funding will receive disproportionate attention.
Amber Rudd says that the Government review found that:
“The most common source of support for Islamist extremist organisations in the UK is from small, anonymous public donations, with the majority of these donations most likely coming from UK-based individuals.”
The wording might matter. The “most common source of support” is not necessarily the most valuable support. The facts remain obscure. If the controversy were to impede the supply of British arms for the Yemen war, or were to obstruct British support for Saudi efforts to isolate Hamas and sell Palestine down the river, that would be a good thing. But it is unlikely to do anything of that sort. It is much more likely to add to the burden of suspicion carried by ordinary Muslims, and perhaps to trigger an outright witch-hunt for Salafist and Wahhabi currents in Muslim community life.
Concerns about the linkage between Wahhabism and terrorism are not new. For example, in June 2013 the European Parliament published a report titled “The involvement of Salafism/Wahhabism in the support and supply of arms to rebel groups around the world” ( it can be downloaded here, pdf).
The report gets off to a poor start. Its opening sentence is:
“Presenting a comprehensive picture of Salafist/Wahhabi organisations who have deliberately chosen to abandon non-violence for terrorism or who turned violent following major geopolitical transformations of the past decades would be a serious challenge as the number of jihadist movements increased.”
But of course Wahhabism, like most manifestations of Christianity, has never insisted on non-violence. Were it otherwise, neither Wahhabism nor Christianity could be the ideologies of nation states.
The report’s preamble goes on to say, without explanation, that the attacks on New York, Washington and Madrid are “‘exports’ of problems whose origin is located in the cradle of jihadist Salafism.”
The report does not explicitly say, as some some commentators have claimed for it, that Wahhabism is the main or primary source of global terrorism. But it does document extensive links between Wahhabism and terrorism, and says:
“Based on these findings and the extent of the involvement in terrorism of Salafist/Wahhabi movements we must conclude the risk of the perpetuation of the threat which above all menaces the local populations but also the political and economic interests of all nations present in those areas.”
One of the most visible global proponents of the “blame the Wahhabis” school is Azeem Ibrahim, a Glasgow man who is an adjunct professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Ibrahim has rubbed shoulders with George W Bush, Dick Cheney, John Negroponte and former Mossad head Shabtai Shavit.
Ibrahim set out his analysis at a March 2015 conference held in Prague and co-organised by the Prague Centre for Transatlantic Relations (PCTR) and the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) based at IDC College in Herzliya, Israel.
Ibrahim told the conference: (video) “There is no single cause for people to join an Islamic terrorist organisation.” He then added: “The primary cause is Wahhabism.”
He made the same points at a conference at Herzliya, Israel in June the same year. One of the other speakers at the conference was Benjamin Netanyahu. Ibrahim enlivened his own speech with some very critical remarks about Netanyahu, but showed no inclination to challenge a description of the Israeli apartheid system as “democracy”4.
Ibrahim explained to the Prague conference:
“Wahhabism went through a schism in the early 1990s when Saddam invaded Kuwait. Some Wahhabi scholars said, look, we cannot have US soldiers on Saudi soil.”
That’s a quaint way of putting it. Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait in August 1990 threatened Saudi primacy amongst oil-producing nations. Naturally, the Saudis supported US efforts to reverse the annexation. They continued supporting the US after it became clear that, for the US, war was not a bargaining chip but a plan.
It was the first full-scale war between modern Arab nations (though Arab states were involved on different sides in the North Yemen Civil War in the Sixties, and Libya and Egypt fought a brief border war in 1977). It involved “western” forces on a scale not seen in the region since World War 2. It weakened any sense that the Saudis’ custodianship of Mecca and Medina might place them above the fray in conflicts between Muslim countries. It placed them on more or less the same side as Israel, which was not part of the US-led coalition against Iraq but was nevertheless hit by Iraqi missiles.
Saudi participation in the US war inevitably created fault-lines. They were in the first place political fault lines, not doctrinal ones. And dissenters had to deal with the fact that they were confronting a repressive government allied to a global superpower going through a phase of exceptional hubris and belligerence.
The political possibilities were set by those facts. The possibilities would have been much the same whether the prevailing ideology in Saudi Arabia had been Wahhabi, Ismaili, Roman Catholic or socialist. Almost inevitably, a section of the opposition would have felt driven to adopt terrorist methods, to organise politically and militarily in places out of Saudi and US reach, and to seek global support amongst people who had common ideological ground with them. Almost inevitably, there would have been perplexing linkages between the government and some of the dissenters. Many thinkers within the dissenting wing of the prevailing ideology would argue that terrorism was strategically incorrect or unethical.
According to Ibrahim, George W Bush made a mistake when, after 9/11, he declared war on terrorism. He was declaring war on the symptom and not the cause, Ibrahim told the Prague conference. Comedian and former Python Terry Jones made a similar point in December 2001 when he asked: “How do you wage war on an abstract noun?”
What George Bush was serious about was war
George Bush wasn’t serious about that part of his vocabulary, and can’t have expected it to be taken seriously by serious people. Terry Jones presumably understood that; Azeem Ibrahim has made a career out of not doing so. The “t” word was candy of the sort that leaders use in war-time. What George Bush was serious about was war.
It was to be an ordinary war, not a metaphorical one. The war was to be waged in pursuit of the interests of the US elite and against material forces that threatened them. It was to be waged not just against those who posed the kind of direct and straightforward threat to wealth and life exemplified by 9/11, but also against any forces obstructive of US interests that the US could get away with waging war against. In 2002 Condoleezza Rice (then National Security adviser) said:
“… this is a period not just of grave danger, but of enormous opportunity. Before the clay is dry again, America and our friends and allies must move to take advantage of these new opportunities.”
The Bush administration was very clear about its objectives. There is no sign in its substantive policies that it confused causes and symptoms, though it must surely have underestimated the symptoms – more terrorism and fiercer inter-imperialist rivalry – that were to flow from its adventure.
The 2003 attack on Iraq was a war on terror only if Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction are counted as terror weapons. It failed because no such weapons existed. The rest of the story is one of wild ambition, reckless destruction and a tooth and nail attempt to turn Iraq’s oil reserves into an ATM for US companies. All this was underpinned by policies intended to exploit and amplify religious and ethnic divisions first to stop Iraq re-constructing itself along lines unhelpful to the US, and then to allow the occupying forces to survive, and finally to allow them to get out of the country in some semblance of good order. Along the way, al Qaeda took the opportunity provided by the chaotic US occupation and established themselves as a significant local power in Anbar province during 2005-6. Superior US firepower and local opposition dislodged them within a couple of years.
At the Prague conference, Ibrahim’s only comment on the Iraq war was to note that “by 2007, al Qaeda was almost completely defeated in Iraq.” This is revisionism, not history. It serves no purpose except to buy a warm relationship with the friends and successors of Bush and Blair.
Azeem Ibrahim went on to tell the conference how an actionable programme can be crafted from George W Bush’s ear-candy, provided that Wahhabism is identified as the source of terrorism. What sets him apart from most terrorism scholars is that he has acted on his own advice.
Ibrahim appears to have had substantial resources to hand. The Sunday Times Rich List valued him around £52 million in 2007, and £58 million the following year. His wealth apparently came from finance. According to his own media kit, he learned to spot good investments and trade on the stock market by reading the newspaper while working in his father’s shop in Glasgow. In 2009 he was predicting that his hedge fund would be worth £1 billion within 5 to 10 years.
An attempt by the Herald in 2012 to find out more about Ibrahim’s business operations added little to the story. He “declined to say where his bank or any of his other overseas financial businesses were registered and regulated.” He does not appear in the Sunday Times 2017 Rich List. His UK company, Ibrahim Associates Ltd, has been dormant for some time and was compulsorily dissolved in January. His charity, the Ibrahim Foundation, is registered in England and Wales and in Scotland and last filed accounts with the Charity Commission in March.
We set up an organisation in Scotland called the SOLAS foundation
Ibrahim told the 2015 Prague conference:
“We set up an organisation in Scotland called the SOLAS foundation and it has been described by the commander for counter-terrorism in Scotland Yard as the most effective anti-radicalisation programme in the world.”
“The strategy is very simple. It’s to use mainstream traditional Islam to innoculate, to immunise young Muslims minds against a radical narrative.”
He made similar points in a 2010 paper entitled “Tackling Muslim Radicalization: Lessons from Scotland”, published by the US-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding5. He wrote there:
“SOLAS seeks to prevent the production of radical Islamists.”
This is a very wide ambition. Whatever might be said about mainstream Islamic positions on warfare and terrorism, it is difficult to argue that mainstream Islam simply excludes “radical Islamism” as a political project.
“The clearest sign that a formal Islamic education prevents radicalization is the tiny percentage of violent Islamists – approximately 10% – who have actually been exposed to it.”
The “sign” proves nothing much, and certainly does not establish a causal relationship between Islamic education and immunity to radicalisation. It might as easily be argued that few recruits to the British Army have a background in the classics, and that anti-militarists should therefore promote such an education.
In the same paper Ibrahim wrote:
“Since radical narratives commonly regard the government as a ‘contaminated brand,’ its explicit involvement can discredit any educational program with which it is involved or even associated.”
The Ibrahim Foundation’s accounts show that it provides funding for SOLAS. Whether SOLAS or projects linked to it receive funding from the Scottish Government is unknown, since the Scottish Government refuses to disclose who most of its anti-radicalisation grants are given to.
SOLAS projects include the iSyllabus Islamic studies programme, which provides courses in England as well as Scotland. SOLAS is centered on two Islamic scholars, Shaykh Ruzwan Mohammed and Shaykh Amer Jamel. They are widely respected and many people attest to the authenticity and value of their teaching. As Azeem Ibrahim put it at the Prague conference: “Not even Osama bin Laden could say that these people aren’t qualified.”
But eyebrows ought to rise at the fact that a man who was key in setting the Foundation up is a scholar not of Islam but of terrorism. Those eyebrows should paste themselves to the ceiling at his statement that its purpose is a political one: to prevent the production of radical Islamists.
The SOLAS website makes no mention of Azeem Ibrahim’s role or SOLAS’s anti-radicalisation goal. Neither does a 2012 video interview with Shaykh Ruzwan Mohammed and Shaykh Amer Jamel entitled “iSyllabus: the story behind the course.” People attending iSyllabus courses probably do not realise that a core purpose of the courses is said to be to innoculate them against “radical Islamism”.
But the secret is an oddly open one. SOLAS is celebrated in newspaper articles for its anti-radicalisation work. Azeem Ibrahim is described in these articles as a “founding member” of SOLAS. Ibrahim’s speeches are available on youtube. It’s clear that he is comfortable with representatives of the international counter-terrorism industry, and would like to be comfortable with people at the very apex of government. His website used to carry a photo gallery (now removed) that showed him posing with George W Bush’s arm around his shoulder, posing with Dick Cheney, posing with former Mossad head Shabtai Shavit and dining, apparently á deux, with former senior CIA lawyer John Rizzo. Rizzo provided the CIA with legal cover for its kidnap and torture programme in the years following 9/11. Because of this, the Senate Intelligence Committee blocked Bush’s attempt in 2007 to appoint Rizzo to the CIA’s top legal job, General Counsel. Rizzo remained in office as Acting General Counsel.
Very little happens in the main Scottish mosques unless the mosque administration believes that the police are content for it to happen. It’s quite clear that Police Scotland are, at the very least, content for people to attend iSyllabus courses. This raises awkward questions about the relationship between the state and religion.
as a prophylactic against terrorism it is snake-oil
The Islamic education offered by SOLAS projects is evidently of real value. But as a prophylactic against terrorism it is snake-oil6. An improved religious education will not stop a tiny number of people in the UK and much larger numbers of people in Iraq and Syria from turning to violence – including terrorist atrocities – as long as the political circumstances are productive of violence. It might possibly change people’s political outlook, but that is another matter.
Azeem Ibrahim has not explained what criteria the Metropolitan Police used in assessing SOLAS as “the most effective anti-radicalisation programme in the world”, or how they obtained the data on which to make their assessment. But there have been real changes in the political activities of Scotland’s Muslim community in the years since SOLAS was set up. During the UK Government’s drive towards war with Iraq and for a few years afterwards, significant numbers of Muslims participated in Stop the War demonstrations, often with Muslim Association of Britain placards. Possibly the Metropolitan Police regard this as “radical”.
Since then, Scottish Muslims have tended to be less conspicuous in openly confronting government. Many factors have contributed to this. The most important must surely be the attrition of a perpetual police presence around Muslim institutions and organisations coupled with erratic threats from the media and racist individuals. The demoralising effect of ISIS atrocities and the Government’s blatant exploitation of this to promote its own propaganda must certainly have contributed. The slowness of many left-wing organisations and movements to adapt themselves to Muslim participation must also have been a factor. And there has in any case been a trend across all communities for progressive politics to re-focus towards mass debate within and around the SNP and Labour. But if Azeem Ibrahim’s political outlook has been quietly transmitted to people alongside an Islamic education, it will inevitably have had a damaging and de-politicising effect.
The only effective community-based remedy for what the Government calls “international terrorism” is to unite against its real causes – imperialism, colonialism and racism.
Saudi Arabia designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation in March 2014. It is banned in Russia, but it is not banned in the UK or in other countries outside the Middle East ↩
Azeem Ibrahim carefully avoids any specific claim about preventing acts of terrorism, while emphasising very strongly that Wahhabism and an incorrect understanding of Islam produce terrorism. In Tackling Muslim Radicalization: Lessons from Scotland he writes “It is important to be clear that in terms of national security, the outcomes of a project like SOLAS will be difficult to measure. Since SOLAS’ goal is prevention, not de-radicalization, success will be represented by the quiet changing of minds; the gradual dwindling of traffic to radical websites; and, ultimately, the decrease of homegrown attacks being attempted, which means that fewer will have to be foiled.” ↩