ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria) is all over the news these days. Not bad for a bunch of Sunni Arab nationalists who lost their jobs, power and wealth when Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party were overthrown in early 2003. Saddam Hussein was a secular dictator, who tolerated Islamic terrorists if they attacked his enemies and behaved while hiding out in Iraq. After Saddam’s forces were thrown out of Kuwait in 1991 his policy changed and he declared that he was actually religious and he backed Sunni Islamic terrorist groups as long as they helped him keep the Shia Arab majority of Iraq under control. This Sunni Islamic terrorists were willing to do because Islamic conservatives consider Shia heretics worthy only of torture and death. The Iraqi Shia had staged a major rebellion against Saddam right after Saddam’s army get chewed up trying to hang onto Kuwait in 1991. That rebellion festered throughout the 1990s and Saddam had to make nice with the Sunni tribal leaders and Sunni Islamic terrorist groups, who had for decades been forced to keep their heads down. Once Saddam was out of power in 2003 the Sunni tribes and Islamic terrorists lost the financial and military support Saddam provided for the last decade. The Sunni Arab minority (about 20 percent of Iraqis) also lost control of the Iraq economy and all that oil money. This came as a big shock. Many of these Sunni Arabs wanted their wealth and power back and were willing to do anything to accomplish that task.
A Sunni Arab minority in what is now Iraq had long dominated the area. They were wealthier, better educated and more vicious. They also believes they had divine approval for their power. Sunni Islam is the what the majority (over 80 percent) of Moslems believe and in Arabia itself (where Islam first appeared in the 7th century) the locals believe they are more Islamic than other Moslems. After all, the Koran was written in Arabic and all the founders of Islam were Arabs. For over a thousand years there has been a tradition of different factions in Arabia trying to be more Islamic than all other Moslems. This gave rise to the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam which is very conservative and hostile to those who are not Moslems, especially not Sunni Moslems. This meant little to the non-Moslem world until lots of oil wealth appeared in Arabia after World War II. Suddenly it became possible for Moslems to show how pious they were by funding Wahhabi missionaries to go to other Moslem (and many non-Moslem) nations and preach, establish Wahhabi religious schools and mosques. Billions was spent on this and the policy of getting the young boys into these free religious schools and turn many of them into hateful (of non-Sunni) Islamic religious fanatics led to a major outbreak of Islamic terrorism in the late 20th century. Saddam had kept this out of Iraq until 1991, when he sought to coopt local Islamic radicals for his own purposes. Many secular rules of Moslem countries (like Syria and Libya) had done that and regretted it when they ran into problems. Saddam managed to keep a lid on the Islamic terrorists until, after he was out of power, his unemployed and suddenly impoverished followers decided to join forces with the Islamic radicals to put Sunni Arabs back in charge.
The Iraqis Sunnis were sure they could regain power. They had history on their side. Even when the Turks controlled the area for centuries before the Turkish Empire fell apart after World War I (1914-18) it was the Sunni Arabs of Baghdad the Turks depended on to keep the Shia majority in the area under control. The oil wealth and independence came in the 1930s for the next 70 years the Sunnis did quite well for themselves. Losing it all in 2003 encouraged the Islamic terrorist groups to make common cause with the Sunni nationalists (including the Baath Party) to put Sunni Arabs back in charge. What was left unresolved was whether the new Sunni dictatorship would be secular (like Saddam) or religious (like neighboring Iran).
ISIL was one of many Sunni Islamic terrorist groups operating in Iraq after 2003, one that was almost destroyed by 2010 due to U.S. efforts, especially getting many Sunni tribes to turn against the Islamic terrorist groups. But after U.S. forces left in 2011 the Iraqi government failed to follow U.S. advice to take good care of the Sunni tribes, if only to keep the tribes from again supporting the Islamic terrorist groups. Instead the Shia led government turned against the Sunni population and stopped providing government jobs and regular pay for many of the Sunni tribal militias. Naturally many Sunni Arabs went back to supporting terror groups, especially very violent groups like ISIL.
After 2011, as the Iraqi Shia were turning on the Sunni Arab minority, there was a rebellion against a minority Shia government in Syria, led by the Sunni Arab majority there. The Sunni tribes of western Iraq were linked by culture, and sometimes family links with the Sunni tribes of eastern Syria. The rebellion in Syria got ISIL thinking about forming a new Islamic Sunni state out of eastern Syria, western Iraq, Baghdad (historically the seat of Sunni power in the area, despite it now being half Shia) and Mosul. This resulted in ISIL spending a lot more time and effort recruiting in western Iraq since 2011.
Mosul was crucial to the ISIL plan. Mosul was part of Turkey until 1918, when the victorious Allies took Mosul province, and its oil, away from Turkey (to prevent the Turks from financing an effort to rebuild their empire) and gave it to the newly created Iraq. In the 1980s Saddam Hussein, again feuding with the Kurdish majority in northern Iraq, killed or drove Kurds out of Mosul and invited poor Sunnis from the south to move in and take over. After 2003 the Kurds came back seeking to regain their stolen property and control of Mosul. The Sunni Arabs there did not want to give up their new homes as they would be destitute if they did so. So the fighting was vicious and the Mosul Sunnis were glad to get help from ISIL and other Sunni terror groups.
Meanwhile ISIL had made itself unpopular in Syria. The many Syrian Sunni rebels and al Qaeda were appalled at the harsh way ISIL treated civilian and anyone who opposed them. ISIL relished the publicity their atrocities received. But al Qaeda knew from bitter experience (in Iraq from 2006-2008) that the atrocities simply turned the Islamic world against you. The bad relations between ISIL and all the other Islamic radicals in Syria reached a low point in June 2013 when the head of al Qaeda (bin Laden successor Ayman al Zawahiri) declared the recent merger of the new (since January 2013) Syrian Jabhat al Nusra (JN) with the decade old Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) unacceptable and ordered the two groups to remain separate. The reason for this was that the merger was announced by ISI without the prior agreement of the JN leadership. The merger formed a third group; Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That was the problem, as many JN members then left their JN faction to join nearby ones being formed by ISIL. JN leaders saw this as a power grab by ISI/ISIL and most of the JN men who left to join ISIL were non-Syrians. Many of these men had worked with ISI before and thought they were joining a more powerful group.
Forming ISIL was just an attempt by ISI to grab some glory, recruits, cash and power by poaching JN members. JN appealed to Zawahiri for help and got it. That did not end the matter and the dispute escalated in January 2014 when outright war between ISIL and other Islamic terror groups in Syria began. A month later al Qaeda declared ISIL outcasts and sanctioned the war against them.
That’s not the first time al Qaeda has had to slap down misbehaving Iraqi Islamic terror groups and won’t be the last. But it’s not a problem unique to Iraq. It is a problem for Saudi Arabia because the Saudis finance al Nusra and some of the other Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria that are now at war with ISIL. To the Saudis such support is the lesser of two evils as ISIL is crippling rebel efforts to overthrow the Assad government. This is also part of the ideological war the Saudis (and most other Sunni Moslems) are fighting with Shia Iran (and its Shia allies the Assads and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon). Meanwhile the Saudis continue crushing the Sunni Islamic terrorists that try to attack them at home. This includes local members of ISIL.
As if ISIL doesn’t have enough enemies it is also one of two Islamic terrorist organizations that have it in for Saudi Arabia while the other is AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). AQAP is still affiliated with al Qaeda which, since the 1990s has been dedicated to overthrowing the Saudi monarchy. AQAP was formed in 2009 after the remnants of the Saudi al Qaeda organization (several thousand full and part time members at its peak) fled to Yemen and merged with the Yemeni al Qaeda branch. AQAP also benefitted from hundreds of Iraqi al Qaeda members who arrived after the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-8. Growing unrest in Yemen (against the long-standing Saleh dictatorship) enabled AQAP to recruit locally and take over several towns in southern Yemen by 2011. Then the new post-Saleh government launched a counteroffensive in 2012 and AQAP got hurt very badly. That offensive continued to the present, along with the growing use of American UAVs in Yemen. In April 2014 another major offensive was launched against AQAP and this succeeded in capturing all the new bases AQAP had established in remote mountain areas after the 2012 defeat. While the al Qaeda situation is desperate in Yemen, AQAP is still al Qaeda’s most capable branch and the only one that has shown any ability to support attacks (few successful so far) in the West. Now that capability is in doubt, for a while at least. All this has been good news for Saudi Arabia which has always been the primary foreign target for AQAP attacks. Since the 2012 offensive in Yemen AQAP has been busy rebuilding its bases in Yemen. The recent government offensive has crippled AQAP even more and that makes ISIL much more of a threat to the Saudis. Saudi Arabia now considers ISIL the bigger threat, especially given the recent ISIL activity in Iraq. This is not good news for ISIL.
Saudi Arabia has been having more problems with ISIL at home. In early 2014 the Saudis revealed that it had broken up an ISIL operation inside Saudi Arabia. This involved charging 62 ISIL members (59 Saudis, a Yemeni, a Pakistani and a Palestinian) who were planning several attacks and assassinations in Saudi Arabia. At that point 35 of the 62 have been arrested and the rest were being sought along with new suspects revealed after interrogating those already in custody. The Saudis are thorough and persistent in these matters. This can be seen in how Saudi Arabia continues to prosecute Islamic terrorists who made several major attacks in 2003 and 2004 during a brief al Qaeda terror campaign inside Saudi Arabia. In early 2014 a Saudi court condemned three of these terrorists (two Saudis and a Kuwaiti) to death for their role in three attacks made in 2003 against residential compounds. The terrorist violence in Saudi Arabia greatly increased after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which enraged al Qaeda. Even though Saudi Arabia officially condemned this operation, it was seen as an infidel occupation of the al Qaeda homeland. So the terror attacks in Saudi Arabia began, because the Saudi government had not resisted the "crusaders" with force. ISIL sees the Saudis as the enemy because of this. Thus one of the few things Saudi Arabia and Iran can agree on is that ISIL must be destroyed. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are already quietly tending to that common goal.
The Saudis have been dealing with Islamic terrorism within their borders since the kingdom was formed in the 1920s and were able to quickly defeat the 2003 al Qaeda offensive. By 2009 over a thousand al Qaeda members were killed or prosecuted in the kingdom. Several thousand more were arrested and released, often after a period of rehabilitation. Certain clergy were ordered to halt their pro-radical preaching. All clerics were encouraged to point out the religious errors in the thinking behind al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists. The Saudi royalty have always had considerable control over the Islamic clergy (who are all, in effect, state employees.)
Saudi Arabia was saved from worse trouble with local terrorists by the growing (after 2003) violence in Iraq between the Sunni Arab minority, and the Shia majority. This attracted many Saudi fanatics, most of whom died in Iraq. This greatly depleted the number of al Qaeda backers inside Saudi Arabia. Over 5,000 Saudi Islamic radicals are believed to have died in Iraq. From 2003-7, up to half the suicide bombers were Saudis, and about half the foreigners held in U.S. military prisons in Iraq were Saudis. Back in 2007, American intelligence believed about 45 percent of the foreign fighters (less than ten percent of all terrorists there) were Saudis. The next largest group was Syrians and Lebanese (15 percent), followed by North Africans (10 percent). The other 30 percent were from all over, including Europe.
The Saudis have maintained the intensity of their counter-terror operations since the 2003 outbreak. That year the first “most wanted list”, with 19 names on it, was issued. In 2004 Saudi Arabia issued another list with 26 names. In 2005 a third list, again with 26 names, was issued. Within a few years all but a few of those on the first three lists were killed, captured or surrendered. Saudi Arabia issued another terrorist most wanted list in 2009. The 85 suspects were all men believed to be engaged in planning new attacks. All but two of them (Yemenis) were Saudis. Eleven of these were men the American had been holding at Guantanamo but were released at Saudi insistence that they would be taken care of. Despite rehabilitation, these eleven men returned to their terrorist ways. So far nearly 90 percent of the 85 men on the 2009 list have surrendered, been taken or killed. There have been no new lists since 2009.
At first al Qaeda terrorists appeared capable of doing some serious damage in Saudi Arabia. In 2003-4, they made four major attacks. These killed 68 people, including twelve Americans. But most of the dead were Saudis, and this turned the population against the terrorists. All the planned terror attacks since then have been aborted by security forces, usually via tips from Saudi civilians. Most Islamic terrorists have now fled the kingdom.
A large minority of Saudis still support al Qaeda, but it's the majority who do not and that makes it nearly impossible for the terrorists to operate in their "homeland." Killing civilians will do that, and al Qaeda has not been able to figure out how to fight without shedding the blood of innocents. So the innocents are taking their revenge.
The current ISIL offensive in Iraq is, so to speak, a mile wide but an inch deep. It worked more because of the demoralizing impact of corruption in the Iraqi government (especially the armed forces). The troops and police, most of them Shia, felt abandoned and mistreated (often not paid or provided with essential supplies because of corruption) by their own government. ISIL concentrated their terror attacks on the security forces, to the point where the losses from these attacks plus the bad leadership and poor treatment the soldiers and police suffered caused many of them to flee a large scale series of attacks.
The Sunni Arabs can’t defeat the Shia majority as long as the Shia are armed and have outside support (mainly from Iran and the United States and, quietly, Saudi Arabia). The U.S. also encourages the Sunni Arab Gulf States (especially Saudi Arabia) to oppose Iraqi Sunni Arab efforts to regain control of the country (as some form of dictatorship because the Sunni don’t have the votes to get elected.) The U.S. also restrains the Iraqi Shia from turning on the entire Sunni population, as happened from 2006-8 and drove a third of the Iraqi Sunni out of the country and nearly as many from their homes to get away from the Shia death squads.
Despite what the United States and the West wants, events in Arabia follow a different rhythm. Right now the local support for ISIL is just not there, but the Islamic radicalism that created centuries of Islamic terrorism outbreaks survives and will keep providing headlines for the rest of the world.