US-Saudi push for regime change arms terror groups, poses threat to Asia

Islamic State and Saudi Arabia share the same intolerant Wahhabi ideology. Wahhabi-inspired extremism is dangerously changing the character of Asian states with large Muslim population like Indonesia. Realizing this threat and US-Saudi agenda for regime change, countries like China and India seem to be trying to forge a coalition and formulate plans to counter them.

The US-Saudi nexus is posing a problem for Asian security. From Afghanistan to Syria and now back to Asia, this nexus of arming and supporting Islamic extremists for regime change operations has spawned and introduced global jihad into the international community.

Dr. Brahma Chellaney in New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research also noted, “Western powers actually encouraged the kingdom – as an antidote to communism and the 1979 anti-US Iranian revolution – to export Wahhabism.” [1]

Now after decades of petrol-dollars funding export of Wahhabism and “Saudization” of Asian Muslims, Asia is reaping the negative consequences of this nexus.[2] In a July 27 speech to the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, US PACOM commander Admiral Harris warned Islamic State (IS) is metastasizing in the Indo-Asia Pacific region as a new battle front.[3]

Shared Wahhabi ideology

This should come as no surprise, given IS and Saudi Arabia share the same intolerant Wahhabi ideology. As William McCants, author of The ISIS Apocalypse said, the official religion of Saudi Arabia is a ‘brand of ultraconservative Islam [that] is nearly identical to that of the Islamic State.”

The former imam of Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mosque in Mecca corroborates this: “We have the same beliefs as ISIS (IS).  We share their ideology, but we express it in a more refined way.”

In fact, when IS was looking for textbooks for its schools in Raqqa, it printed copies of official Saudi textbooks found online.

tweetAs such, Muslims in Asia who have been Wahhabized are naturally drawn to IS, similar to Muslims in Europe, Kosovo and elsewhere who have allowed Saudi-funded mosques and madrassas to take root.[4] Molenbeek, the epicenter of ISIS terrorism in Belgium, is one such example.

Wahhabi-inspired extremism is also changing the character of Asian states with large Muslim population. As Barack Obama explained to Malcolm Turnbull during an APEC summit, Saudi-funded Wahhabism has changed Indonesia from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation that is foreign and more Arab in orientation than it was when he lived there as a child[5]. Indonesia is now experiencing a surge in al-Qaeda and IS-related terrorist attacks.[6]

Nonetheless, the US continues to support Riyadh’s policy to the detriment of other countries.  In Syria, instead of implementing a policy of counter-terrorism, US partners with Saudis to support al-Qaeda laced groups in a policy of regime change, while simultaneously destroying Yemen which allowed IS and al-Qaeda to thrive.[7]

This is a threat to Asia. While the US no longer needs Mideast oil and can retrench from the region at will, in contrast Asian states are increasingly dependent on the region for market access and energy sources.  New Delhi and Beijing also face another grave challenge—protecting India’s seven million migrant workers and China’s two million in the Middle East.[8]

Furthermore, al-Qaeda, IS and various Salafist groups in the Mideast pose a real threat to China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road project across Eurasia.[9]

Given the fact US (1) no longer needs Mideast oil; (2) is geographically far away from the region vis-à-vis Asian states; (3) lacks a large domestic Muslim population at risk of radicalization; (4) partners with Wahhabi states for regime change rather than countering Wahhabi-inspired terrorism; and (5) is facing increasing international opprobrium for its destructive conduct in the Mideast especially in Yemen, it appears Asian states are coalescing to forge their own counter-terrorism initiatives.

Already in August, both India and China have upgraded their security ties with the Syrian government to counter al-Qaeda and IS.[10]

Map of Belt and Road project

Terror groups in the Middle East pose a threat to China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road project across Eurasia.

Colonel Vivek Chadha, author and fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) said, “…this is one instance where we should get our act together, in order to neutralize the threat well before it gains disturbing proportions.”[11]

China also shared this view of neutralizing the al-Qaeda affiliate TIP/ETIM now based in Syria, when back in 2013 Beijing urged to “take the fight to ETIM before the threat grows.”

Both India and China are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that includes Russia, Pakistan and Central Asian republics, which has been beefing up its counter-terrorism efforts in the past few years. Both also reject US-Saudi efforts to overthrow the Syrian government and replace it with another Wahhabi “Taliban” regime.[12]

Given the US-Saudi backed foreign opposition in Syria also consists of Asian jihadists, it is in SCO states’ interest to counter US-Saudi regime change agenda and deny Syria as a safe haven from which Asian militants can launch attacks on SCO territories.  Russia, India and China also form the core group RIC, and met in Moscow back in April for the 14th trilateral RIC summit.

There, Indian Foreign Minister Swaraj declared “The RIC countries must lead the way in getting the international community together to counter terrorism through joint action.”[13]

Now two coalitions are emerging—an Eurasian RIC-led coalition to counter Wahhabi-Salafi terrorism, and a Saudi-US-led coalition to counter the Syrian government. It looks like Damascus is getting crowded.

[1] Peter Hartcher, “We help pay for terrorism at the petro pump”, Sydney Morning Herald, August 30, 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/comment/saudi-funds-help-pay-for-spread-of-wahhabism-20160829-gr3dlu.html

[2] “The World Reaps What the Saudis Sow”, New York Times, May 27, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/28/opinion/the-world-reaps-what-the-saudis-sow.html?_r=0

[3] David Larter, “US admiral warns Asia-Pacific may be next front in ISIS fight”, Navy Times, August 3, 2016, https://www.navytimes.com/story/military/2016/08/03/isis-asia-islamic-state-philippines-indonesia-malaysia-bangladesh/87999820/ http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/features/2016/07/14/ISIS-recruits-in-SE-Asia-a-rising-threat-despite-weak-attacks.html

[4] Ishaan Tharoor, “The Saudi Origins of Belgium’s Islamist Threat”, Washington Post, March 23, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/03/23/the-roots-of-belgiums-islamist-threat-reach-back-to-saudi-arabia/ Nicholas Kristoff, “The terrorists the Saudis cultivate in peaceful countries”, New York Times, July 2, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/opinion/sunday/the-terrorists-the-saudis-cultivate-in-peaceful-countries.html; Carlotta Gal, “How Kosovo was turned into fertile ground for ISIS”, New York Times, May 21, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/22/world/europe/how-the-saudis-turned-kosovo-into-fertile-ground-for-isis.html?_r=0;

[5] Peter Mitchell, “Obama to Turnbull on Indonesia, Islam and the Saudis: ‘It’s complicated’”, Sydney Morning Herald, March 12, 2016,  http://www.smh.com.au/world/obama-to-turnbull-on-indonesia-islam-and-the-saudis-its-complicated-20160311-gnh8m9.html; http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/

[6] Tara John, “Indonesia’s Long Battle Against Islamic Extremism Could Be About To Get Tougher” Time, January 14, 2016, http://time.com/4181557/jakarta-terrorist-attacks-indonesia-isis/

[7] Patrick Cockburn, “Thanks to UK and US intervention, al Qaeda now has a mini state in Yemen. It’s Iraq and Isis all over again”, The Independent, April 15, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/thanks-to-uk-and-us-intervention-al-qaeda-now-has-a-mini-state-in-yemen-its-iraq-and-isis-all-over-a6986086.html Pamela Engel, “ISIS steadily gaining strength in another Middle Eastern country while everyone looks the other way” Business Insider, December 17, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/isis-in-yemen-2015-12

[8] Kabir Taneja, “What’s behind ties between Assad and India”, War on the Rocks, April 4, 2016, http://warontherocks.com/2016/04/whats-behind-ties-between-assad-and-india/

[9] http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/china-is-spending-nearly-1-trillion-to-rebuild-the-silk-road/

[10] Sami Moubayed, “India throws its weight behind Syria’s Al Assad”, Gulf News, August 23, 2016, http://gulfnews.com/news/mena/syria/india-throws-its-weight-behind-syria-s-al-assad-1.1883712; “China steps up ‘military cooperation’ with Assad as top admiral visits Damascus”, Telegraph, August 18, 2016.

[11] Iftikhar Gilani, “Islamic State Threat: India, Syria to intensify security cooperation”, DNA India, August 22, 2016, http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-islamic-state-threat-india-syria-work-out-new-mechanisms-2247592; “Six reasons why India should join Russian air strikes in Syria”, Indian Defence News, October 11, 2015, http://www.indiandefensenews.in/2015/10/six-reasons-why-india-should-join.html

[12] “Syria, India call for rejection of foreign influence in internal affairs’, The BRICS Post, August 22, 2016, http://thebricspost.com/syria-india-call-for-rejection-of-foreign-influence-in-internal-affairs/#.V8jALmVlnq0

[13] “Russia, China, India FMs discuss ties at Moscow meet”, The BRICS Post, April 19, 2016, http://thebricspost.com/russia-china-india-fms-discuss-ties-at-moscow-meet/#.V8jPfmVllmA

Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University where she specializes in China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations, and a research consultant for Jane’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Intelligence Centre at IHS Jane’s.

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