In a recent article in The Independent, Patrick Cockburn made a number of wide and questionable assumptions relating to Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the recent crisis in Iraq.
However, to Mr. Cockburn’s credit, at least he didn’t pretend to be unbiased in his argument, as he made it clear from his first few words that he had reached his own conclusion that Riyadh is indeed involved with ISIS.
Indeed, his article leaves no room for misinterpretation as he doesn’t begin it by asking “if” Saudi Arabia is complicit, but rather asking “how far is Saudi Arabia complicit?”
Whilst making a few interesting points throughout his argument, I am afraid my right honorable colleague has – intentionally or unintentionally - left out too many basic facts and focused far too heavily on hypothetical assumptions which are far away from the realities on the ground.
Even some critical independent analysts and think-tanks have stated that it was a misconception that the kingdom does not get in the way of private Saudi financing of terrorist groupsFaisal J. Abbas
To start with, Mr. Cockburn seems to have based his whole article on the views of Sir Richard Dearlove, the former MI6 chief who retired ten years ago and he himself has admitted that he had “no inside knowledge obtained” ever since.
Furthermore, at the heart of Mr. Cockburn’s article is a questionable quote which he was told was attributed to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former head of Saudi Intelligence.
“The time is not far in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God Help the [Shiites].’ More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them,” Prince Bandar reportedly told Sir Richard Dearlove sometime before the 9/11 attacks.
Without confirming the accuracy of this rather cryptic quote, which was mentioned in what seems to be a private conversation more than 13 years ago, and without knowing the context it was said in, how could any reasonable person make the assumption that it serves as evidence that connects Saudi Arabia to ISIS, a terrorist organization which only began its surge in recent months?
Since we are speculating, why can’t we assume that Prince Bandar was actually warning the Shiites as to the consequences of the Iranian regime supporting militant groups? After all, nobody understands the bitter cost of doing so as much as the Saudis and Americans following their support of jihadists in Afghanistan.
Follow the money
Mr. Cockborn also believes that it sounds “realistic” that “substantial and sustained private donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar” have played a central role in ISIS’ advance. He also endorses claims that authorities may have turned a blind eye to this.
Now, assuming that there are a number of ISIS sympathizers among Saudis isn’t an unwarranted claim. In fact, we regularly hear of, and report on, different Saudi ISIS militants being arrested, killed or defecting on the news.
However, endorsing a view that the Saudi government has turned a blind eye to financing this horrendous group, which has been officially classified by Riyadh as a terrorist entity since March, is not only unfair but a major disservice to the readers of The Independent.
Leaving aside Saudi Arabia’s clear and firm official statements and positions regarding this matter, one only needs to review the number of cases and convictions linked to charges of financing terrorism in Saudi courts to understand just how seriously this matter is handled in the kingdom.
If this wasn’t the case, why else would David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury Department’s under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, NOT mention Saudi Arabia in his recent public statements last April where he specifically singled out both Qatar and Kuwait as financers of Islamist terrorism and extremism?
The truth is, not only were the Saudi government efforts combating terrorist-funding commended internationally on various occasions, but even some critical independent analysts and think-tanks have stated that it was “a misconception that the kingdom does not get in the way of private Saudi financing of terrorist groups.” (Read: "Saudi Funding of ISIS," by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Lori Plotkin Boghardt)
Combating terrorism… and stereotypes!
Of course, none of the facts above were mentioned in The Independent’s article which also seems to ignore the reality that for years, it was Saudi Arabia that was at the forefront of combating terrorism, both militarily and financially.
Furthermore, the insinuation that the Saudis only started to care when terrorism started hitting them at home is nonsense. What is equally important to know is that Saudis did not first bear witness to terrorism on 9/11 either!
Indeed, Osama bin Laden was stripped of his nationality long before 9/11 and he, along with his aides, were chased and some of them faced trial and were executed. Today, thousands of al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked individuals are locked up in Saudi prisons as a result of the bravery and sacrifice of the kingdom’s security forces.
Another stereotype that Mr. Cockburn seems to subscribe to is that given that Saudi Arabia is a Sunni powerhouse, and the Shiites are a minority in the region, it simply MUST have links to anti-Shiite militias.
“There is nothing conspiratorial or secret about these links: 15 of 19 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, as was Bin Laden and most of the private donors who funded the operation,” he wrote in his article.
Well, if this is the case, then we could also simply assume that the U.S. government MUST have also had ties to Timothy McVeigh, just because the latter was also American.
More interestingly, should we also assume that the U.S. government also MUST have had ties to Bin Laden and the hijackers, since they also supported and nurtured him and his followers during the Afghan war against the Soviets?
More importantly, what Mr. Cockburn and his readers need to understand is that it is not only the Shiites that are suffering in the Middle East, but all minorities in the region. This includes Sunnis and Kurds in Iran as well as Christians in most Arab countries.
Maliki is the problem
What is interesting here is that the country which is leading the way today in oppressing minorities is the new Iraq which was brought upon us by the U.S., UK and the coalition forces.
This is where I would agree with what Mr. Cockburn says in his article; that the rise of the likes of ISIS “do not happen spontaneously.”
I draw particular attention to the sentence which says that British Ambassador Sir John Jenkins lobbied strenuously against Maliki. However, it seems that the advice of the ambassador, as well as many other well-informed politicians and consultants, fell on deaf earsFaisal J. Abbas
Indeed, under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – who the West insisted on supporting – the Sunnis are targeted and marginalized, the Kurds want a separate state more than ever and a large number of Shiites – including a many senior clerics – oppose Maliki’s authoritarian practices and have called for him to leave and make way for a new government.
Instead of blaming the Saudis for ISIS’ surge, I urge both Mr. Cockborn and Sir Dearlove to read a recent Washington Post piece titled “Why we stuck with Maliki – and lost Iraq” by America’s longest serving official in Iraq, Ali Khedery, to understand exactly what went wrong after the 2003 war.
I draw particular attention to the sentence which says that British Ambassador Sir John Jenkins lobbied strenuously against Maliki. However, it seems that the advice of the ambassador, as well as many other well-informed politicians and consultants, fell on deaf ears.
Clearly, Sir Jenkins knew better than to support Maliki who, among his questionable practices, was supporting terrorist Shiite groups and highly-controversial figures, such as the notorious Qais Khazali.
For those who don’t know him, Khazali is the leader of the Iranian-backed paramilitary group “Asaib Ahl al-Haq” (AAH) and was directly involved in the killing and kidnapping of U.S. soldiers and British civilians. He is Maliki’s Green Zone neighbor today, after the Iraqi prime minister oversaw his release from prison and arranged a new political career for him.
Furthermore, Prime Minister Maliki has done nothing throughout his tenure but consolidate power and he now effectively runs the country’s security, intelligence and defense apparatuses, interior ministry, finance ministry and influences the judiciary while leaving the doors wide-open for Iran to implement its own agenda in Iraq.
Mr. Cockburn and Sir Dearlove may try to point the finger at Saudi Arabia, however, the truth remains that the mess Iraq is in today remains Maliki’s responsibility and is the result of ill-advised decision making on behalf of mainly the Americans, and to some extent the British.
Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English, he is a renowned blogger and an award-winning journalist who is working on an upcoming book on Arab Media. Faisal covered the Middle East extensively working for Future Television of Lebanon and both Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat pan-Arab dailies. He blogs for The Huffington Post since 2008, a recipient of many media awards and a member of the British Society of Authors, National Union of Journalists, the John Adams Society as well as an associate member of the Cambridge Union Society. He can be reached on @FaisalJAbbas on Twitter.