What’s in a Name? “al-Qaeda” or the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”

The recent repackaging of Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has hoodwinked very few people. The Americans, who blacklisted Nusra back in 2012 and are widely and practically sympathetic to the Syrian Islamist insurrection against the government of President Bashar al-Assad have refused to accept there is anything substantial in the name change besides different labelling.   

Taking a step back, the name ‘al-Qaeda’ itself has indefinite and opaque origins but the leaders and individuals who came to personify ‘al-Qaeda’, especially after the atrocities in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, emanated in an Islamist insurgency which had considerable support from the West. Specifically, the Afghan war in the 1980s which pitted the old Soviet Union against Islamist jihadis was where many of al-Qaeda’s future operatives and leaders learned their bombastic trade.

An organisation called the ‘Maktab al-Khidamat’ i.e. the “Service Bureau” was set up to greet, meet and manage the Arab recruits for the insurgency against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Both future leaders of al-Qaeda, the late ‘Sheikh’ Usama bin Laden and current ‘Emir’ Aymen al-Zahrawi were drawn to Afghanistan during this period. Bin Laden was head-hunted by Saudi intelligence after they couldn’t find a minor member of the Saudi royal clan to join the ‘jihad’, while Zahrawi first arrived in Afghanistan as part of an ‘aid convoy.’[1] More so, it is known thousands from the Arab world were recruited to fight the Soviets and Western media were more than willing to favourably refer to them as ‘Mujahideen’ i.e. Holy Warriors.

Once the Afghan war was over many of these CIA-Saudi mercenaries i.e. jihadis returned to their countries of origin and began planning and committing atrocities with the skills they had learned on the battlefields of Afghanistan. The first of these atrocities to truly capture the West’s full blown attention was the already mentioned east Africa bombings of 1998. It was after this slaughter the name ‘al-Qaeda’ began to be brandished to describe the Islamist fanatical residue spawned by the Afghan war and had now clearly taken up a life and specifically an agenda of its own.

The investigative journalist and academic Dr. Nafeez Ahmed argues and agrees with the late British politician and former foreign secretary, Robin Cook that the word ‘al-Qaeda’ is a truncated version of ‘al-Qaeda al-Ma’aloomat’ which translates as ‘the Database’.  As Cook stated,

“Throughout the 80s he [bin Laden] was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally “the database”, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians.”

Within a time-frame of about a decade, the same individuals with the same creed committing the same type atrocities were no longer favourably referred to as “Mujahideen” but unfavourably as “al-Qaeda”.

This was certainly not the first time in the last hundred years such individuals espousing Islamist fanaticism were rebranded.

Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, the accredited ‘founder’ of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sneakily burst on the scene by supposedly reclaiming his family’s ancestral home, Riyadh, in the Arabian Peninsula in 1902. He accomplished this with no small amount of assistance from the British Empire. The arms supplied to him ultimately came from British imperialists through his ally, Sheikh Mubarak of Kuwait, who had already been a British vassal for many years.[2]

Upon capturing Riyadh in 1902 in the middle of the night, according to the biographer and journalist, Said Aburish, Ibn Saud and his army of Wahhabi henchmen proceeded to terrorise:

“…the population by spiking the heads of his enemies and displaying them at the gates of the city. His followers burned 1200 people to death.”[3]

The Wahhabis at this time were a peculiar small sect who continue to this day insist that they and they alone are the true Muslims and those (including Muslims) that do not follow their literal reading of the religion of Islam are deviants at best and at worst legitimate targets for subjection and brutal appropriation.  

Dr. Gary Troeller implies in his book on the creation of the Kingdom, without British support it is very likely that Ibn Saud would have remained an obscure vagabond in a small corner of the Arabian desert known as Kuwait:

“Britain did not directly back Ibn Saud, [but] the British relationship with Kuwait taken with the Sa’udi relationship with Shaikh Mubarak did much to contribute to the Wahhabi revival.”[4]

When World War One broke out, Ibn Saud’s participation ended in resounding failure, defeat and the martyrdom of his British handler, William Shakespear in January 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Empire’s ally, Ibn Rasheed of Ha’il. Shakespear had been tactically sent by the Imperium in London to assist in an Ibn Saud advance in the desert in support of Britain.

Some of the main tribes he had subdued up to this period took advantage of this British-Ibn Saud defeat and rebelled against his rule.[5] This was the reason he sat out the rest of the war and was no longer able to contribute to the British war effort, as Troeller writes, Ibn Saud, was now, “too weak to assist effectively the British offensive. He was plagued by tribal revolts which threatened his flank” and his defeat to Ibn Rasheed had knocked “him out of action for a year.”[6]

The British Empire, however, came to the Wahhabi leader’s rescue with 1000 rifles and a £20,000 loan.[7]

Soon after, he formally signed his treaty with Blighty whereupon he was recognised by the British as “Ruler of Najd, El-Hasa, Qatir, Jubail, and the towns and ports belonging to them”[8]

The British handsomely bestowed their new ‘native’ puppet with an investiture, Knight Commander of the Indian Empire (KCIE) in 1916.[9]

While consolidating his rule and establishing his terrain (i.e. ‘emirate’) Ibn Saud personally executed “18 rebellious tribal chiefs and spoke proudly of how he kissed the sword covered with blood after beheading one of his tribal enemies…”[10]The current monsters of al-Qaeda and ISIS would be able to identify with such exuberant display of barbarism.

After the war, the victorious British Empire replaced the Ottomans as the imperial hegemon in the Arab world.  Ibn Rasheed of Ha’il, on the other hand, refused to succumb to the new imperium and refused to play along with British imperialism. Indeed, he had plans of his own to expand his terrain and de facto hinder the Empire’s design on the region.[11]

The British became concerned an alliance maybe brewing between Ibn Rasheed who controlled the northern part of the peninsula and the Sharif Hussain, ruler of Hijaz (western part of the peninsula). Ibn Rasheed expanded his territory north to the new mandated Palestinian border as well as to the borders of Iraq in the summer of 1920.[12] The Empire wanted Ibn Rasheed’s territory which included the land routes between the Palestinian ports on the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf under the rule of a friendly party.

Therefore, during a Cairo Conference of British officialdom in 1920, Winston Churchill who was then, the Colonial Minister agreed with an imperial officer, Sir Percy Cox that “Ibn Saud should be ‘given the opportunity to occupy Ha’il.’”[13] By the end of 1920, Ibn Saud had crushed all rebellions against his and British rule and the Empire was showering him with “a monthly ‘grant’ of £10,000 in gold, on top of his monthly subsidy. He also received abundant arms supplies, totalling more than 10,000 rifles, in addition to the critical siege and four field guns” with British-Indian instructors.[14]

After Hai’il was invaded and occupied by Ibn Saud, the British conferred upon him a new title. He was no longer mere “Ruler of Najd” but now recognised by the Empire as the “Sultan of Najd and its Dependencies.”[15] Ha’il dissolved into a dependency of Ibn Saud’s.

This continued British support allowed the Wahhabis to mercilessly impose their authority on the parts of the peninsula it now conquered. According to Aburish,

“The tribes of the Ajman…show the after-effects of these massacres to this day, for there is a gap of a whole generation. The Shammar tribe suffered 410 deaths, the bani Khalid 640” [16]  

One of the Wahhabi Sultan’s Lieutenants, a certain Abdulla bin Mussalem bin Jalawi, in the eastern part of the peninsula, “executed thousands of people, amputated the arms of the poor for stealing bread and mercilessly settled old scores,” and the chiefs of one anti-Saud tribe simply disappeared.[17] There was also a “habit of taking young maidens…to enslave them or make gifts of them to friends.”[18]

In today’s Middle East one associates such barbarism with either al-Qaeda or ISIS. But Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi were way ahead of their time.

A few years after Ibn Saud’s conquest of Ha’il, the Empire ran into another stumbling block in its designs on the region. In the western part of the Arabian Peninsula, Sharif Hussain of Hijaz refused to sign an Anglo-Hijaz treaty which, inter alia, acknowledged the new mandated divisions of the Arab world and above all else accepted Britain’s Zionist colonial project in Palestine.

Churchill threatened the Sharif that if he did not accept the treaty they would “unleash” Ibn Saud and his henchmen on the Hijaz.[19]  T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) attempted to bribe the Sharif to accept the Britain’s project in Palestine to no avail.[20]The Sharif principally refused to sell Palestine to British-Zionism. But others were.

By September 1924, Ibn Saud had overrun the summer capital of Sharif Hussain, Ta’if, committing the massacres we today associate with jihadis, slaughtering women and children as well as chasing people into mosques and killing traditional Islamic scholars therein.[21]

By late 1925 the Hijaz region of the peninsula was subdued and added to the territory of Ibn Saud. In February 1926 the British Empire christened their Wahhabi Sultan afresh as the “King of the Hijaz and Sultan of Najd and its Dependencies.”[22]

Overall, Ibn Saud’s conquest of the Arabian Peninsula resulted in the killing and wounding of no “fewer than 400,000 people” largely because his jihadi henchmen, “did not take prisoners, but mostly killed the vanquished.” Over a million people fled the peninsula to the other countries in the region.[23] Furthermore, the Wahhabis “carried out 40,000 public executions and 350,000 amputations.”[24] The new country was made in accordance with the Wahhabi image and above all else in accordance with British imperialist interests.    

In September 1932, the Empire further baptised the territory Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi henchman now subdued as the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. A certain George Rendel, head of the Middle East desk at the British Foreign Office claimed credit for the new name which remains to this day.[25]

The origin of “al-Qaeda” is rooted in the Western need during the Cold War to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. While the origins of the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” is rooted in the British Empire’s need to impose its hegemony and its Zionist colonial project in Palestine in the early twentieth century.

Ibn Saud was first designated “Ruler”, then “Sultan”, followed by both “King and Sultan” and finally his conquered territory was named “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. On the other hand, Jabhat al-Nusra, derived from al-Qaeda in Iraq, which came from al-Qaeda (an abbreviation of al-Qaeda al-Ma’loomat), who were once referred ‘Mujahideen’.

Jihadi apologists argue that the barbaric acts associated with al-Qaeda or ISIS are rooted in their suffocating and torturous experience of secular dictatorships, but as can be seen, Ibn Saud was administrating jihadi barbarism well before the emergence of secular dictatorships in the Middle East. The violence that is today associated with al-Qaeda or ISIS was very much in attendant as Ibn Saud subdued and consolidated his authority across the Arabian Peninsula in the 1910s and 1920s.

What’s in a name? that reeks and spawns jihadi violence, al-Qaeda or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Well, the former is a blacklisted terrorist organisation right across the world, while “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” pays tributes to its Western masters with trade deals which showers the British (and American) military and construction industries with awesome profits that guarantee their solvency.

[1] For Bin Laden see Ahmed Rashid, “Taliban” (London; I.B. Tauras, 2002),pg.131-132. For Zahrawi see Hazem Kandil, “Inside the Brotherhood” (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), pg. 152

[2]Gary Troeller, “The Birth of Saudi Arabia” (London: Frank Cass, 1976), pg. 20

[3] Said Aburish, “The Rise, corruption and coming fall of the House of Saud,” (London: Bloomsbury, 1994) pg.14

[4] Troeller op. cit., pg. 25

[5] ibid. pg. 92-93

[6] ibid. pg. 91

[7] ibid. pg.97

[8] ibid. pg. 250

[9] ibid. pg. 99

[10] ibid. pg.17

[11]  Askar H. al-Enazy, “ The Creation of Saudi Arabia: Ibn Saud and British Imperial Policy, 1914-1927” (London: Routledge, 2010), pg.103

[12] ibid. pg.103-104

[13] ibid. pg. 104

[14] ibid.

[15] ibid.

[16] Aburish op. cit., pg.24

[17] ibid. pg. 27

[18] ibid. pg. 14

[19] al-Enazy op. cit., pg. 107

[20] ibid pg. 109-111

[21] David Howarth, “The Desert King: The Life of Ibn Saud” (London: Quartet Books, 1980), pg. 133 and Randall Baker, “King Husain and the Kingdom of Hejaz” (Cambridge: The Oleander Press, 1979), pg.201-202

[22] al-Enazy op. cit., pg. 154-155

[23] Aburish op. cit., pg. 24

[24] ibid. pg.27

[25] al-Anazy op. cit., pg. 157 and pg. 202, note 236

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