Sunni Leaders Are Key to Fighting Islamic State: An Optimistic View

While young Muslims from around the world continue to flood into the battlefields Syria, Obama’s two key diplomats in the coming war against the so-called Islamic State are also on the move. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel just flew to Turkey to enlist the country’s military support along its southern border with Syria, and Secretary of State John Kerry, right now in Baghdad, has scheduled stops in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf states, in order to “ramp up efforts to crack down on the trafficking of money and foreign fighters that continue to flood IS,” according to Foreign Policy. Having apparently moved on from the punditry lambasting his “no strategy yet” nonchalance, critics of Obama’s handing of the Islamic State now concede that the president is finally acting, although acting alone (read: without Congress.) But as these accusations consume U.S. media in the coming days and weeks, it is important to remember that Obama is not acting alone simply because he acts without Congress. Consider what is going on in the Sunni Middle East, where, with Obama’s encouragement, a long-awaited coalition against the Islamic State is mounting.

On the tails of last week’s NATO summit in Wales, the Arab League in Cairo reached an encouraging consensus to “confront ISIS and cooperate with international, regional and national efforts to combat militants who have overrun swathes of Iraq and Syria.” While the Arab League’s Chief, Nabil al-Arabi, used a familiar trope in calling the Islamic State an existential threat to the region, he rightfully advised member states to confront the terror group “culturally” rather than just economically, militarily, or worse, with mere rhetoric. This is an important revelation, and it may reveal a much-needed and long-absent strategy by Sunni governments to attack the group’s legitimacy on cultural and religious grounds. No country in the region needs to adopt this strategy more than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Soufan Group’s June 2014 Report on Foreign Fighters in Syria estimated that there were about 2,500 Saudis fighting among rebels groups in Syria. That figure is roughly double the number reported in TSG’s February 10 IntelBrief, in which the Saudi Ministry of Interior (MOI) conceded that about 1,200 of the Kingdom’s citizens were among rebel forces. Intriguingly, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah issued a royal decree on February 3, 2014, mandating that “[Anyone who] participates in hostilities outside the Kingdom,” namely with groups like IS, would receive a prison sentence of up to 20 years. The simple fact is that the King’s decree has not worked as intended. In the four months following it, the number of Saudis fighting in Syria more than doubled. And since June, when the Saudi MOI last counted, the number has also likely risen much higher.

If a decree from the Kingdom’s highest political authority has failed to deter Saudi youth from traveling north to fight, it may show just how uninspired Saudi youth are by political authorities when it comes to matters they perceive to be inherently religious. Perhaps realizing as much, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, released a religious edict on September 7 urging Muslims to rid their religion of the “oppressive” Islamic State group. The Mufti spoke in no-uncertain terms about the Islamic State’s moral bankruptcy, calling it a “hideousness that distort[s] Muslims” – an unusually malicious tenor that Western critics of Sunni quietism have been waiting for in the wake of the recent journalist beheadings in Syria. Although Mufti al-Sheikh does not have the best reputation for religious tolerance, hopefully this particular edict will resonate with Saudi youth pondering a trip to Syria.



The simultaneous consensus by the Arab League to confront the so-called Islamic State on a cultural front, along with the recent edict by Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, are a positive development for advocates of a multifaceted counterterrorism strategy. And if nothing else, they offset Obama’s erstwhile “no strategy yet” admission. Critically, these efforts appear to be an organic, homegrown response by Sunni regional authorities to deal with the Islamic State problem in diverse ways. On the surface, measures like these will be vital to stripping the Islamic State’s propagandists of their well-crafted narrative that the U.S. stands behind every policy decision in the Middle East. And the U.S. can encourage these kinds of efforts without much public spectacle.

The big question remains: What effect will it all have? If the Arab League can truly diversify its efforts to “confront IS culturally,” and more importantly, if it can actually develop and implement a joint pact that successfully stems the torrential flow of Arab foreign fighters to Syria, then the West should certainly take some heart. Similarly, if the religious edict from Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti does more to discourage Saudi youth from joining IS than the February 3 “royal decree” did, then the entire region should take a lesson in how to dissuade would-be fighters. Frustrated by an apparent lack of coordination by Sunni regional authorities, the West now at least has a few reasons to expect more: The region’s leaders are becoming more outspoken, proactive, and open-minded with ways to reverse the current sweeping so many of their young men to the battlefield. In the end, Obama’s coalition of Sunni regional leaders – not anyone in Washington – will determine the outcome of this next phase against the false Caliphate.


Join the conversation