The Saudis and Radical Islamist Terrorism

Washington DC

July 3, 2016

Sunday Review | Op-Ed Columnist

The Saudis and Radical Islamist Terrorism

by Nicholas Kristof

PEJA, Kosovo — FIRST, a three-part quiz:

Which Islamic country celebrates as a national hero a 15th-century Christian who battled Muslim invaders?

Which Islamic country is so pro-American it has a statue of Bill Clinton and a women’s clothing store named “Hillary” on Bill Klinton Boulevard?

Which Islamic country has had more citizens go abroad to fight for the Islamic State per capita than any other in Europe?

The answer to each question is Kosovo, in southeastern Europe — and therein lies a cautionary tale. Whenever there is a terrorist attack by Muslim extremists, we look to our enemies like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda. But perhaps we should also look to our “friends,” like Saudi Arabia.

For decades, Saudi Arabia has recklessly financed and promoted a harsh and intolerant Wahhabi version of Islam around the world in a way that is, quite predictably, producing terrorists. And there’s no better example of this Saudi recklessness than in the Balkans.

Kosovo and Albania have been models of religious moderation and tolerance, and as the Clinton statue attests, Kosovars revere the United States and Britain for averting a possible genocide by Serbs in 1999 (there are also many Kosovar teenagers named Tony Blair!). Yet Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries poured money into the new nation over the last 17 years and nurtured religious extremism in a land where originally there was little.

The upshot is that, according to the Kosovo government, 300 Kosovars have traveled to fight in Syria or Iraq, mostly to join the Islamic State. As my colleague Carlotta Gall noted in a pathbreaking article about radicalization here, Saudi money has transformed a once-tolerant Islamic society into a pipeline for jihadists.

In a sign of the times, the government last year had to turn off the water supply in the capital temporarily amid fears of an Islamic State-inspired plot to poison the city’s water.

“Saudi Arabia is destroying Islam,” Zuhdi Hajzeri, an imam at a 430-year-old mosque here in the city of Peja, told me sadly. Hajzeri is a moderate in the traditional, tolerant style of Kosovo — he is the latest in a long line of imams in his family — and said that as a result he had received more death threats from extremists than he can count.

“Saudi Arabia is destroying Islam,” Zuhdi Hajzeri, an imam at a 430-year-old mosque here in the city of Peja, told me sadly.–Nicholas Kristof

Hajzeri and other moderates have responded with a website,, that criticizes the harsh Saudi Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. But they say they are outgunned by money pouring in from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to support harsh variants of Islam through a blizzard of publications, videos and other materials.

“The Saudis completely changed Islam here with their money,” said Visar Duriqi, a former imam in Kosovo who became a journalist who writes about extremist influences. Duriqi cites himself as an example: He says he was brainwashed and underwent an extremist phase in which he called for imposing Shariah law and excusing violence. Those views now horrify him.

This is not a Kosovo problem, but a global problem. I first encountered pernicious Saudi influence in Pakistan, where the public school system is a disgrace and Saudis filled the gap by financing hard-line madrasas that lure students with free tuition, free meals and full scholarships for overseas study for the best students.

Likewise, in traditionally moderate, peaceful countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in West Africa, I’ve seen these foreign-financed madrasas introduce radical interpretations of Islam. In the Balkans, Bosnia is particularly affected by Gulf support for extremists.

I don’t want to exaggerate. I saw fewer head scarves on my trip through Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania than I do in New York City, and any jihadist would tear his hair out at seeing women with bare heads and shoulders, not to mention shorts.

There are still pillars of pro-American feeling and ecumenism (there is great reverence among Albanian Muslims for Mother Teresa, who was Albanian). Moreover, after a series of arrests of radical imams in Kosovo and Albania, the situation may have stabilized, and jihadists no longer seem to be traveling to Syria from here.

But the world needs to have tough conversations with Saudi Arabia about its role. It’s not that it is intentionally spreading havoc, more that it is behaving recklessly; it has made some painstaking progress in curbing extremist financing, but too slowly.

It’s particularly dispiriting because much of the extremist funding seems to come from charity: One of the most admirable aspects of Islam is its emphasis on charity, yet in countries like Saudi Arabia this money is directed not to fight malnutrition or child mortality, but to brainwash children and sow conflict in poor and unstable countries.

I asked Hajzeri, the imam, whether he was worried by foreign threats to Islam, like the Danish cartoonist who mocked the Prophet Muhammad. “Cartoonists can just hurt our feelings,” he snorted. “But damaging the reputation of Islam? That’s not what the cartoonists are doing. That’s what Saudi Arabia is doing.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 3, 2016, on page SR9 of the New York edition with the headline: The Terror the Saudis Foment.


6 thoughts on “The Saudis and Radical Islamist Terrorism

  1. UMNO leaders and their ignorant follow worship the ground the Saudis walk on and want to be like them. What a crying shame. It is for all the money. Wahabbism is a clear and present danger. It is an ideology which is being funded by the Saudis. Look at Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and other countries in Africa. Yet the world, and particularly the United States, is supporting the Saudi Royal Family.–Din Merican

  2. My question is why even as both UMNO and PAS publicly say they are against Arabisation, not only their actions and plans says otherwise, the advertising and public relations, the spin of their Islam is otherwise?

    It can only because they have a disdain if their own subject. They see them as manipulable, too pull them where they please while lying to them. For all the talk of championing their subjects, UMNO- PAS loath them

  3. Very soon the Malays will lose their identity, as more and more govt sponsored students return home from Saudi Arabia, they will bring back the desert culture and its extreme version of religion. We can see a lot of Arab wannabes strutting around in the streets. Are they more Islamic than those who do not wear Arabic attire? Soon enough, the world will rise against this extreme ideology and there will be a third world war.

  4. Muslim parents in Malaysia need to monitor their children and teens carefully, so that the latter do not end up getting radicalised by politico-religious extremists, and end up committing terrorist acts or fighting in the
    civil wars of other people in the Middle East.

  5. ISIS have already struck at the center of Saudi Arabia both in Jeddah and now in Medina. Its coming back to haunt the House of Saud. Next with the Pilgrimage coming in a few more weeks, it will be a horrendous effort to keep over 2 million pilgrims safe. These terrorist have no qualms about inflicting terror and carnage all under the guise of Islam and now they will focus their efforts on doing damage to the Pilgrimage despite having Islam declare no fighting during the month of Pilgrimage.

  6. The fact that what goes around comes around is apparent from the domestic jihadist threat now faced by jihad-exporting Saudi Arabia. The chickens are coming home to roost with a vengeance.

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