What’s the Difference Between Saudi Arabia and ISIS?

At Politico, Will McCants has an excerpt from his new book, in which he argues that ISIS differs from Al Qaeda in its apocalyptic vision.

The Islamic State’s brutality and its insistence on apocalypse now and caliphate now set it apart from al-Qaeda, of which it was a part until 2014. We’re used to thinking of al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden as the baddest of the bad, but the Islamic State is worse. Bin Laden tamped down messianic fervor and sought popular Muslim support; the return of the early Islamic empire, or caliphate, was a distant dream. In contrast, the Islamic State’s members fight and govern by their own version of Machiavelli’s dictum “It is far safer to be feared than loved.” They stir messianic fervor rather than suppress it. They want God’s kingdom now rather than later. This is not Bin Laden’s jihad.

He argues the difference arises, in part, because violence works.

But the Islamic State has deliberately provoked the anger of Muslims and non-Muslims alike with its online videos of outrageous and carefully choreographed violence. It showcases the beheading of prisoners—something Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda today, had expressly warned against—and dumps enemy soldiers in mass graves while the camera is rolling. The State revels in gore and wants everyone to know it. And yet it has been remarkably successful at recruiting fighters, capturing land, subduing its subjects, and creating a state. Why?

Because violence and gore work. We forget that this terrifying approach to state building has an impressive track record.

My immediate response to the piece was to suggest the proper comparison was not between al Qaeda and ISIS, but between Saudi Arabia and ISIS. McCants mentions Saudi Arabia, but only to support a historical argument about the efficacy of violence.

More brutal too was the Saud family and its ultraconservative Wahhabi allies, who came to power three times between 1744 and 1926, when the third and last Saudi state was established.

Guess what?! The Saudis are still beheading people, even if Zawahiri is too squeamish to do so. It does so to punish those who question the apocalyptic ideology the Saudis have long used to police order, and never (that I’ve seen) to punish ISIS terrorists.

Though there aren’t many cameras rolling — at least not Western ones — not in Yemen (because they’ve been expelled) and not in Saudi Arabia (because the Western press has little interest in showing the many beheadings our allies carry out).

That’s a point Rosa Brooks makes in this piece arguing that ISIS’ violence is not much different than that used throughout time as part of state-formation (while she talks about our own fight over slavery during the Civil War, she doesn’t mention America’s genocide against native people, annihilation we counted by counting scalps).

The Islamic State can keep right on beheading people, and if we can’t destroy the Islamic State, perhaps we’ll eventually tire of fighting them and decide to cut deals with them. And then, let a few decades pass, and presto! The Islamic State will have a seat at the U.N. — if the U.N. still exists — either as a new state or as a globally acknowledged non-state something or other, and all those terrible atrocities will be politely ignored.

Needless to say, although history suggests that the commission of horrific and widespread atrocities is no bar to entry into polite global society, history also suggests that nothing is inevitable. Plenty of brutal insurgencies and regimes have lived to see their crimes whitewashed and forgotten, but plenty of others have gone down in flames.

When it comes to predicting the future of the Islamic State, there are lots of wild cards. The 24/7 global media environment is quite new, and it’s impossible to say how this — or the universalization of human rights — will affect the Islamic State’s longer-term ability to sustain itself or the international community’s determination to defeat the group. State sovereignty is changing in complex ways, and it’s hard to know what forms global, political, and military power will take 10, 20, or 50 years from now. Elections in the United States may change American military dynamics; China or Russia or any of a dozen other states could decide to cut deals of their own with the Islamic State. Finally, the group remains relatively opaque to outsiders; internal dynamics could also alter its trajectory.

Even so: If I were a bookie, I’d put long odds on the Islamic State being defeated by the United States. The White House can issue as many statements as it wants claiming to have “made considerable progress in our effort to degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, but I suspect the group will still be going strong five or 10 years from now.

One of the only things that makes ISIS different than Saudi Arabia — other than the latter has been recognized as a legitimate government by other nations, while those same nations recognize Bashar al-Assad as the leader of Syria — is that media, particularly the degree to which the Western press focuses on its beheadings rather than Saudi ones.

So who is responsible (even setting aside the Iraq War’s role in ISIS’s rise) for the effect of its violence, for the efficacy McCants claims it has?

ISIS is doing the same kind of things we tolerate in our Saudi allies. The US would do well to consider why it finds one tolerable and the other the prime enemy.


12 replies
  1. Don Bacon says:

    But ISIS is not a prime US enemy as I describe here. Probably the most obvious evidence of that, is that ISIS gets its personnel and supplies via Turkey, which is a prime US ally housing US air force units.
    ISIS fits the general objective of US foreign policy which is to create instability, and also promotes the US objective of breaking up Iraq and Syria, prime Iran allies and enemies of Israel.
    Regarding the media publicizing ISIS atrocities and not Saudi ones, that’s a standard component of the government-obeisant US media. Demonize US enemies but never report on the much greater tragedies caused by the US and its allies. The million plus lives lost in Iraq from “Shock and Awe” etc. has never been covered as Syria’s “horrific” terrible barrel bombs are covered.
    Finally I would submit that the great numbers of largely women and children killed and maimed by aerial bombing is much more important than a few beheadings.
    Other than that, I agree with you. :-)

  2. wallace says:

    quote”ISIS is doing the same kind of things we tolerate in our Saudi allies.”unquote

    ISIS? Saudi Arabia? Phtttt…ha.

    They’ve got nothing up on the United States of Depravity …


    And people wonder why someone would join ISIS?

    Meanwhile, the USG doubles down…


    Who gives a fuck about a few beheadings when you can vaporize 30 or 40 innocent human beings at the click of a mouse from 10k miles away. The Murican public doesn’t have a goddamn clue. Tolerate? Hahahahaha! Give me a fucking break.

  3. wallace says:

    ps..from the link…
    quote”While expanding surveillance, the Pentagon plan also grows the capacity for lethal airstrikes, the most controversial part of the U.S. drone program and its rapid growth under President Barack Obama . Strikes by unmanned aircraft have killed 3,000 people or more, based on estimates by nonpartisan groups.”unquote

    Grows the capacity for lethal airstrikes. right. Already killed 3k or more. right. gottcha.
    Any questions?
    (insert rolling eye smiley here)

  4. orionATL says:

    this is an insightful, thought-provoking commentary.

    two political entities that rule by terrorizing and by satisfying some of their strongest supporters’ DESIRE for government terror.

    mohammed would not be at all happy with these ruthless hypocrites.

  5. wayoutwest says:

    It’s impressive how well the Islamic State understands the West, particularly the US and how easily it used beheadings to manipulate the squeamish and easily frightened public. Their impressive military gains were a concern but the dramatic videos of Westerners receiving the ultimate punishment for crimes against Muslims produced the handwringing of many who realized they too might face the same treatment for their support of US crimes, murder and mayhem in the ME. After the success of this tactic in drawing the US back into the ME the IS is using executions for local consumption and control just as other states do including the US with our ‘humane’ lethal injections out of public view.

    The Saudis use the threat of beheading and other forms of execution for internal consumption and control and while beheading may be dramatic their total number of executions carried out each year is a fraction of what Iran, the world leader in executions, performs each year.

    The House of Saud uses Salafists doctrine as a veneer of righteousness and authority to control the holy sites of Islam and all that oil under them but the Islamic State and al Qaeda see them for what they are, apostates and Western tools. No Salafist Islamist would spend a month or even a day vacationing on the French Riviera in the heartland of the Infidel and there will be no Kings in the Caliphate.

    The use in the West of the frightening biblical term ‘Apocalyptic Vision” is sure to create fear and loathing among the rubes because we already have a large population of Believers and the IS does use some references to Islamic eschatology in their speeches. This may be useful propaganda in the Homeland but I think the IS has a much more mundane ‘vision’ where there will be an Armageddon battle or battles where the West will suffer the Apocalypse and the Caliphate will enjoy victory and ‘resurrection’. The idea that the Islamic State, its leaders or followers have a death wish is pure Western wishful thinking and spin although they do invite the West to come and die under the Sword of Islam.

    • orionATL says:


      sounds similar to what we would call here strict fundamentalism.

      would the isis version of man’s destiny not be rather close psychologically, though not in terms of the storyline, to that of some american fundamentalists and their “rapture” ?

  6. orionATL says:

    what i’ve read:

    when secular officials/government are corrupt or fail to maintain the social order, fundamentalism arises and thrives.

  7. wayoutwest says:

    Most if not all of the Western characterizations of the Islamic State and political Islam are based on the arrogant myth that Western Civilization is morally and ethically superior, modern and the model all the world must follow. If the heathens don’t applaud its arrival they must be subdued and these wonderful Western gifts imposed on the backward rabble. This is how Western Civilization has spread its ‘enlightenment’ for over two centuries. If and when those subject countries fail to use those gifts properly failure is always their fault due to their weaknesses and backwardness, never the corrupting system that was imposed upon them.

    Even those who attack and expose the faults and inherent corruption in WC still seem to base their views on the superiority of WC especially now that Political Islam is resurgent. They search for every opportunity to highlight how backward Islamist killing is compared to the modern extermination practiced by the West.

    Western Civilization, what little of it there was during the Dark Ages, had to break the control of the corrupt, greedy and powerful Roman Church to advance. Islamic Civilization was the center of enlightenment, art, learning and relative freedom during this time.

    The Islamic World can’t go back to their Golden Age but they can go forward, once they regain control of their destiny, and they can evolve, even with their strict but not corrupt religion. It may not be what the West wants but it is what they need and they may even be able to avoid some of the failures and degeneration evident in the modern West.

  8. Les says:

    As a I recall, Al Qaeda in Bosnia committed atrocities. They tortured Serb prisoners, mass rapes, and ethnic cleansing. It’s not unlike what we’ve seen in Syria with the Islamic State and their atrocities, real and fake, both of which have the purpose of driving out the civilian population.

  9. fairleft says:

    Since for several decades members of the Saudi elite have been the main source of funding of and at times have taken leadership of Al Qaeda, and supplying and funding Islamic State, and since that simply could not happen without the explicit approval of the elite in general, it’s about time to move on to the obvious: essentially, ISIS = Saudi Arabia = Al Qaeda. Has Saudi Arabia ever militarily attacked either, or punished those funding those organizations? No, of course not. In fact, the opposite: Saudi Arabia is actively funding and supplying ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra in the Syrian civil war. Have either ever veered from Saudi’s strategic or ‘Sunni extremist/imperialist’ agenda? No. ISIS & Al Qaeda are well-paid ‘off the books’ instruments of Saudi power in the greater Middle East.

    And, it should go without saying, that power is genocidal toward all but Salafism.

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