Osama Bin Laden's goal in 9/11 was to suck the US into Afghanistan and Iraq, sparking a regional conflagration that would sweep away the imperial legacy and establish a new caliphate. Over a decade later, this plan is still on track. As he led his jihadists triumphantly into Mosul and declared an emirate on Iraq-Syrian territory, ISIS 'caliph' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that the 1916 secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain, France and imperial Russia was at last being dismantled.
The US and Saudis now face an intractable dilemma.
- For the US, allowing the local al-Qaeda rebels to consolidate their hold on Sunni Iraq and northern Syria means the complete failure of their post-9/11 strategy of creating a new Middle East under their hegemony.
- For the Saudis, it means risking the very existence of the Saudi state itself.
Sykes-Picot and Saudi Arabia
All of the Middle East states, including Saudi Arabia, were founded as a result of the disintegration of the Ottoman Caliphate at the end of WWI and the Sykes-Picot Agreement that effectively abolished the Ottoman caliphate (Turkey's new secular leader formalized this in 1924), dividing it into British-French "mandates" and eventually nation states. The prickly Saudis did not suffer the humiliation of direct occupation, but they followed the imperial agenda.
Saudi control of the Arabian peninsula was not what the British had in mind. The British had hoped that the Hashemites could consolidate power over the holy cities Mecca and Medina. They nominally ruled Mecca at the time--Hussein as Emir of Mecca (1908--1917) and his son Abdullah, as deputy for Mecca from 1909--1914 in the Ottoman legislature. In 1917 Hussein was internationally recognized as king of the Kingdom of Hejaz.
Against all odds, the Saud tribe, followers of the ultraconservative Wahhab, defied the British and occupied Mecca in 1924, using an elite corps of jihadists--the Ikhwan--which Saud leader Abdul Aziz organized in 1912 for this purpose (not to be confused with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founded in 1928). The British had no choice but to accede to this fait accompli, and abandoned their original plan involving the more westernized Hashemites.
However, the Ikhwan jihadists were then betrayed by Abdul Aziz and his new patrons--yes, the very same British--in 1929. The Ikhwan were not happy with Sykes-Picot, which the Saud leader accepted, as it allowed him to establish a tribal monarchy (under imperialist hegemony) to govern the Muslim world.
The Sauds and even more so the Ikhwan were the ISIS of the day--ruthless fighters who slaughter their enemies as 'unbelievers', determined to impose their Wahhab-inspired austere Islam on all Muslims. The Sauds were known for their thorough plundering and merciless killings, their raids being "deadlier than traditional Bedouin raids, which usually avoided killing for fear of triggering a blood feud," according to historian Vernon Egger.
For almost a century now, the Sauds have been able to square the
circle, reconciling their role within the empire with their primitive
Wahhabism. But they have had their day. Al-Qaeda and now ISIS find their
inspiration not with the compromised Saudis but the Ikhwan rebels
(followers of Wahhab, but with his militancy restored, and as such
Just as the first Saudi King Abdul Aziz, supported by the Ikhwan, swept away the more complacent Hashemites and Ottomans/ British, Bin Laden/ ISIS would sweep away the now complacent Saudi royal family, grown fat on its oil wealth, and its US sponsors. Saudi control of the holy cities provides a poor echo of the once powerful Islamic civilization, and the "neo-Wahhabis" know it.
A rump caliphate
The yearning for a revival of the caliphate is predominantly a Sunni one. Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT, Party of Liberation) was founded by Palestinians and Jordanians in 1953, advocating the revival of the Ottoman Caliphate. It was/is supported by Saudi Arabia (though it does not openly operate in Saudi Arabia).
The whole nineteenth century reform thrust in Islam appeared to be Sunni, though reformer Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was himself Shia and his Sunni Egyptian ally Muhammad Abduh was nonsectarian, campaigning for an end to the Sunni-Shia animosity. After the Caliphate was abolished in 1924 and replaced by colonialism, Shia and Sunnis cooperated in the revivalist Khilafat Movement. Iraqi Shia ulama supported the Sunni rebellion against the British, and Persian religious scholars went to the Caliphate Conference in Jerusalem in 1931.
Sunni extremists like ISIS accuse Shia of being American agents, supporting the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is hardly fair. Shia parties opposed these invasions but really had no alternative, and accepted the occupations as faits accomplis, naturally attempting to improve their lot under the circumstances. The charge of being agents of imperialism is belied by the fact that Iran is the only outspoken Islamic critic of imperialism and is the subject of unrelenting subversion for its trouble.
However, the imperial strategy of divide and conquer has worked, and Sunni-Shia sectarianism has been consolidated to the extent that to achieve their goal of a new caliphate, ISIS is collaborating with their secular foes of yesteryear, Baathists and former military personnel, who operate as the Iraqi Islamic Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigades.