Islamist radicalisation from Saudi Arabia: no more business as usual

By on July 23, 2017

In the aftermath of the recent deadly acts committed by radicalised UK citizens in Manchester and London, the British government is preventing the publication of an own inquiry into the sources of funding for Islamist militant groups operating in the UK, due to the sensitive nature of its results. The Home Office-led report, commissioned in 2015 by former PM Cameron, was completed six months ago, but government sources say ministers are still deciding whether to publish. The main concern is that the inquiry might shed full light into the activities of Saudi Arabia’s government and private foundations in the funding of mosques, Islamic schools and teaching materials in the UK to spread radical Wahhabi principles among Britain’s Muslim community.

What is kept away from public scrutiny by an apparently embarrassed UK government is openly stated by a report recently published by the Henry Jackson Society, a liberal-conservative British think tank. In its “Foreign Funded Islamist Extremism in the UK”, Tom Davis outlines what increasingly looks as an open secret: “the foreign funding for Islamist extremism in Britain primarily comes from governments and government linked foundations based in the Gulf, as well as Iran. Foremost among these has been Saudi Arabia, which since the 1960s has sponsored a multimillion dollar effort to export Wahhabi Islam across the Islamic world, including to Muslim communities in the West”. The study affirms that in the UK, Saudi money took the form of endowments to mosques and Islamic educational institutions, which have in turn played host to extremist preachers and the distribution of extremist literature.

The report argues that in 2007, Saudi Arabia was spending at least $2 billion annually to promote Wahhabism worldwide – a figure doubled by 2015. Such money had a profound impact on Great Britain, as the number of mosques adhering to Salafism and Wahhabism increased from 68 in 2007 to 110 in 2014, with a collective membership of almost 45,000 believers.

Influence, moreover, has also been exerted through the training of British Muslim religious leaders in Saudi Arabia, as well as the use of Saudi textbooks in a number of the UK’s independent Islamic schools. Mounting evidence suggests that British jihadis are not only groomed in Wahhabi mosques in the UK, but many visit Saudi Arabia, where they work or study. One example is Khalid Masood, the British convert to Islam killed while perpetrating the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge in March, and which left five innocent people dead. Masood, it emerged, had taken three trips to Saudi Arabia – two of them year-long stints to teach English and a third short visit to the country’s Islamic holy sites. Each time, he was given a visa by the Saudi authorities in Britain, despite having been convicted at least twice for violent crimes and lacking the required academic qualifications and experience for the job he was doing.

The findings of the Henry Jackson Society report put the recent decision by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to ostracize Qatar for its support to extremist groups into a quite paradoxical, hypocritical light. The same could be said for the British government, who is not going to disclose the Home Office inquiry out of fear of jeopardising massive trade links between London and Riyadh, with arms making the lion’s share (£4.1billion since 2015, according to the UK-based organization Campaign Against the Arms Trade). In such circumstances, it is hard to see how PM May’s initiative to establish a Commission for Counter-Extremism could be taken seriously.

How could this paradox be tamed? On a practical basis Austria stands as an example, with its 2015 legal ban on foreign funding of local mosques and imams. On a more political level, it might no longer be naïve to ask why keeping good relationships with Saudi Arabia still looks important enough to close an eye on its largely demonstrated decade-long overseas radicalisation strategy. True, Saudi Arabia has always been regarded as a beacon of stability in a turbulent region, a perfect client for Western arms and – above all – the top provider of oil for basically the entire industrialised world. Still, it might be high time to review such assumptions, as Riyadh’s Wahhabi propaganda has exported instability and radicalisation in Europe and US, arms sales let Saudi Arabia wage a disastrous war in Yemen and shale gas and other sources provide valid alternatives to the predominance of oil.

As total rejection of Saudi Arabia would be a huge mistake with worrisome consequences, new policies must be adopted: conditionality between trade relations and Saudi funding might be introduced, together with stricter checks on the flows of money coming from the Gulf to Western mosques and madrassas and harder government-control on the latters. Business as usual with Riyadh is no longer an option: the price to pay – further Islamist radicalisation in the UK, Europe and the United States – has definitely become unbearable.


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