King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia Speaks Truth to the Powers

No one has ever suggested that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of the British Intelligence Service and now Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge University, have much in common. Nevertheless, it is startling that unexpectedly they should take diametrically contradictory views about the Islamist threat facing the world. Abdullah has reported on true facts of the threat and called for vigorous Western response. For all his official experience in intelligence activity, Dearlove is deficient in wisdom.

For his part, on August 30, 2014 at a ceremony welcoming ambassadors, King Abdullah warned the world of the increasing threat coming from the ISIS or ISIL. He declared that terrorism knows no borders and could affect countries outside the Middle East. His well-conceived conclusion was that, unless “rapid action” is taken, he was sure that the West in general would become a target within a month, and that the United States would become a target in another month.

Abdullah was extraordinarily straightforward, asking his guests to deliver to their governments the message that terrorism was an evil force that had to be fought with wisdom and speed. He made clear that the ISIS terrorists did not know the meaning of humanity. It is intriguing, and perhaps a moment for irreverent comedy, that Abdullah, ruler of a country not known for its democratic ways or personal freedoms, should have berated the ambassadors on the grounds that most of their countries had not spoken about or dealt with the ISIS terrorists whose behavior was unacceptable in terms of human rights.

Abdullah’s unexpected warning is appropriate for the present situation in Syria and Iraq even if it is at once ironic and self-serving. It is ironic in the fact that Saudi Arabia has for years been one of, and almost certainly the most significant of, the supporters and funders of Middle East terrorism. It is self-serving because its call for immediate action is in the national interest of Saudi Arabia, the fountain of extreme Wahabbism, at a moment when it is being challenged for supremacy in the Sunni world by the rival ISIS, with its self-styled Caliphate.

This sense of urgency expressed by King Abdullah was not apparent either to President Barack Obama or to the former head of British intelligence Sir Richard Dearlove. Supporters as well as critics of Obama have been puzzled by his unscripted remarks at his press conference on August 28, 2014. Members of the U.S. administration had seemed to be aware of the need for action. Secretary of State John Kerry had called for a global coalition to counter the menace of ISIS, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had spoken of an “imminent threat” to U.S. interests, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, said that ISIS had an “an apocalyptic, end of days vision that will have to be defeated.”

Nevertheless, Obama, to almost universal consternation, stated that the U.S. did not yet have a strategy to deal with the threat concerning ISIS in Syria. This was accompanied by assurance of no possible confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, no airstrikes over Syria, nor action against the Assad regime. The explanation for Obama’s lack of action may be attributed to indecisiveness, caution, or at best refusal to act alone without support from other countries.

It was unfortunate that Richard Dearlove, an intelligence officer who had been head of British MI6 from 1999 to 2004 during the invasion of Iraq, delivered his assessment of the Islamist threat before the release of the video documenting the brutal beheading of James Foley by a British-speaking terrorist. Speaking to the Royal United Services Institute in London on July 7, 2014, Dearlove argued that the threat posed by British Muslim jihadists had been exaggerated, and that the media had made national security monsters out of rather misguided young men from British Muslim communities who were rather pathetic figures. (These "pathetic figures" have now assisted in the execution of yet another captive reporter, Steven Sotloff.)

Dearlove blamed the media. These young radicals were being given an “oxygen of publicity” that could make them more dangerous than they really were. The current conflict was a matter of Muslim against Muslim and was unlikely to affect British soil. The actions of Islamist jihadists, he argued, were not a frontal assault on British values, but a byproduct of a tragic but seminal conflict in the Middle East. Britain was at most “marginally affected” by Islamist terrorism, and should take a “more proportionate “ approach to it.

Dearlove’s argument may not be a policy of appeasement, but it is both inaccurate and counterproductive, as constantly evolving events and the “assault on democratic values” in Europe have shown. The assault has been evidenced by the murders outside a synagogue in Brussels on May 24, 2014 by a French Muslim who had spent a year with jihadists in Syria; the deportation by France of a Tunisian Muslim for attempting to recruit Muslims to fight in Syria; the sentencing on July 9, 2014 in a Paris court of an individual who intended to join the Islamist rebels in north Mali; the arrest of two teen-age Muslim girls on August 22, 2014 for planning a suicide attack on the Great Synagogue in Lyon.

Two urgent actions must be undertaken. The West must heed the argument of the King of Saudi Arabia and develop a strategy to confront ISIS before it expands its influence and power. ISIS has no borders or clear political structure even it calls itself a Caliphate.

The second action, equally urgent, is to deal with the problem that confronts European countries, if at present to a lesser extent the United States: the increasing number of Muslims from their countries who have joined the Islamists in Syria and Iraq. An estimated 3000, including 700 from France, and women who account for 20 per cent of the total, have done so, and have received military training and brainwashing by the jihadists. They have been contacted and persuaded to join the fight through the social media: Internet, Facebook, and Twitter. Their travel arrangements have been made easier by the existence of the Schengen Visa in Europe, which allows internal migration between 25 of the EU countries and 3 non-EU countries on a single visa.

Thus the danger to the West now comes not only directly from sleeping cells of the Muslim jihadists from the Middle East but also from young Muslim citizens of Western countries who have returned to their countries of origin. They may then participate in group terrorist activity or strike as lone wolves, though this action is rare. Most of the returnees are connected in one way or another.

The European Union has been conscious of the problem. On March 3, 2010 it issued the Stockholm Program calling for an internal security strategy to deal with crime and terrorism to protect its citizens. It had already in September 2007 set up the office of a Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, now headed by Gilles de Kerchove, a former Belgium official. According to the Stockholm Program, European countries were expected to protect their citizens, to try to prevent and to respond to terrorist actions.

However, the various European countries have been less than successful in developing mechanisms to allow detection of signs of radicalization and militant extremism, and to counter that radicalization. Nor have they been able to discourage Muslims in their countries from attraction to terrorism. The West has been struggling to understand the methods used for dissemination of terrorist propaganda as well as to track terrorist financing within the EU. There is an urgent need to forestall terrorist action by jihadists in Western countries.

France and Britain have taken the lead. France, the European country with the largest number of Muslims, has made proposals that have not yet been implemented.  It introduced a bill to ban foreign travel for anyone suspected of being radicalized, and to confiscate passports. Airlines would not be allowed to carry any targeted passengers.

British Prime Minister David Cameron on September 1, 2014 said it was abhorrent that British citizens had declared their allegiance to groups like ISIS. He therefore called for new police powers to seize, on a temporary basis, the passports of suspected terrorists to stop them from traveling abroad, and to prevent British-born terrorists from returning to the UK. The problem is serious because 500 British nationals have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight on behalf of ISIS.

Again the difficult problem arises of how to balance essential security with fundamental rights and freedoms. In this particular case, the scales balance in favor of action to uphold democratic values, an open, free, tolerant system, and defeat Islamist extremism. The U.S. administration must recognize necessity and should realize, as did David Cameron, that there is no option or choice. Barbarism, slaughter of innocent civilians, public beheadings, raping of women, persecution of religious minorities, must not be allowed to stand.

If you experience technical problems, please write to