From the Desert to the Sea: the Unusual Presence of Wahhabism in the Mediterranean

Lola Bañón

PhD in Information Sciences, University of Valencia

Wahhabism was born thousands of kilometres from the Mediterranean shores, in the hostile environment of a desert in the Arabian Peninsula, but a series of geostrategic circumstances have made it an unusual and unexpected presence very close to us. The dissemination of the images of Jihadists in the eastern conflicts and the vision of the tragedies of terrorism both in Arab and European countries have placed the need for security among the priorities of the political agenda in our area. Confusion and disruption mix in a public and media discourse always replete with references to Islam although most spiritual Mediterranean Muslims reject this radicalism and recall that this interpretation goes against the principles of the Koran.


Despite this recurrent portrayal very often found in the media, the reasons for the arrival of Jihadism in the Mediterranean are not only religious but also political. The result of the expansion of Wahhabism, the ideological inspiration of Jihadism, in our territory are the dramas we witness every now and then with terrorist attacks and a bloody war in Syria that may become ‒ and for many already is ‒ a new Afghanistan, but this time in our geographical neighbourhood.

Foreign interventions have meant that Syria has established an international conflict in which the United States, for instance, has backed groups that support a Wahhabist agenda with the aim of replacing the supposedly secular regime of Bashar al Assad with an Islamic theocracy under their control.

The consequences of enforcing a single vision of Islam are not only religious but also political: it avoids the possibility of a plural state in a kingdom where the tribal struggles required strong power to legitimise only one tribe of warriors

Wahhabism arrived in Europe some time ago but its impact in our reality is recent due to the emergence of terrorist attacks in our area. The attempts to find a reason for such actions encounter the difficulty of media narration; they are hard to explain, the atmosphere is marked by terror and the speed of the news accelerated via Internet and television means that the anecdotal aspects that attract most attention are always highlighted but only provide part of the explanation and leave no room for analysis.

We must explore the recent history in depth to find out why we now have to face the challenge of security because of distant ideologies and policies formed hundreds of kilometres from our sea. In short, it is the realisation that the Mediterranean, on the international chessboard, is not a subject but an object and has become a setting where other interests resolve its conflicts. The Syrian war is a clear example.

The Historical Background of Salafism and Wahhabism  

Wahhabism is considered the inspiration of Daesh (‘Al-dawla al-islâmiyya fi l-‘Irâq wa l-shâm, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham), the unofficial army that has established its dominions by occupying extensive areas of Iraq and Syria. The Wahhabite ideological corpus is an epistemological break with the Islamic interpretative tradition; it is radical literalism, based on the strictest meaning of each word in the text.

Wahhabism is a reading of Islamic tradition that was conceived in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century based on the preaching of Mohammed Abdelwahhab (1703-1792) and became the official doctrine of the kingdom from its creation in 1924. It advocates the direct relation with the text of the Koran and does not consider the interpretation by the four schools of law in Islam. It is a Sunni doctrine that revives the Salafist manifestations that had already appeared in the 9th century with Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal. Even in al-Andalus there were Salafists that claimed the return to the strict meaning of the word, such as the 11th century writer Ibn Hazm, of the Zahirite school. Thus, in the centre of all Salafism is the idea of denying the Koran any interpretative meaning, which devalues any intervention by the individual. Consequently, the edicts are infallible and this has a highly important political consequence: questioning any leader, even if unfair or wrong, is impossible.

Along with Ibn Hanbal, the other major figure in forming the father of Wahhabism’s thinking was Ibn Taymiyya, a key inspirer in the foundation of the ideological corpus of 20th century Islamism, especially for the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The consequences of enforcing a single vision of Islam are not only religious but also political: it avoids the possibility of a plural state in a kingdom where the tribal struggles required strong power to legitimise only one tribe of warriors. The alliance of the descendents of Ibn Saud with Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahab gave religious legitimacy to the military campaigns for the conquest of the territory.

Oil Money in the Dissemination of Wahhabism

Wahhabism developed in parallel to the formation and consolidation of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. How did such a distant Islam and with ambitions at first limited to a desert state gain momentum to extend to our shores, in countries such as Egypt and Morocco and, to a lesser extent, to the Muslim migrant populations in the northern Mediterranean? The answer lies in the money from the oil in the Persian Gulf, which in the 1970s became a powerful weapon for the international expansion of Wahhabism. The television appearances of Sheik Abdul Aziz Ibn Baaz, the Great Mufti of Saudi Arabia, who died in 1999, and those of Sheik Al Albani, were fundamental references not only for their disciples but also in Europe and the United States. Thus, Wahhabism managed to prevail not as another perspective of religion but as the global orthodox doctrine of Sunni Islam, so that even non-Salafist Muslims have seen how on occasions their level of religious and spiritual commitment was assessed taking as a reference the strict Wahhabite rules, strange in themselves, to Mediterranean culture and to the experience of their religion in the area.

The oil crisis in the 1970s and the rise in the price of crude oil meant enormous amounts of capital for Saudi Arabia that to a large extent were invested in the construction of mosques, arts centres and schools for the poor all over the world. From the outset, Wahhabite ideology was expansive and framed within another historical event: the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Shiite uprisings aroused great concern in the Saud family because of the possibility of contamination. The West, in its turn, was willing to cooperate with its Saudi ally, who always appeared especially in the audiovisual media as the good partner in opposition to the Iranians, constantly portrayed as conflictive. That same year also marked another key moment in the history of the Middle East with the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt; an agreement that in wide sectors of the Arab world was seen as surrender and created a profound unease among the population highly aware of the Palestinian drama.

Egypt, First Wahhabite Armed Movement in the Mediterranean

One of the decisive episodes in the expansion of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean occurred in 1954, when in Egypt President Nasser dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood and dozens of its members were welcomed in Riyadh. We should not forget that in this initial stage this organisation, created by Hassan al Banna in 1928, received in its turn members of the so-called Ikhwan (Wahhabite militias that confronted the Saud family accusing them of lax customs), who fled from Arabia escaping from the family that would form the royal house. This situation is related with the foundation of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad that advocated the return of the Caliphate to Egypt. This idea is now heralded by Daesh.

Thus, in 1974 what was perhaps the first armed Wahhabite movement in the Mediterranean was created, under the mandate of the Egyptian Saleh Saria. Moreover, this group entailed a clash in Cairo between the regime and Wahhabism. Although Salafism does not question the political power and states that the authority must be obeyed, at that moment a critical sector began to be formed to promote the idea that the authority must always be respected but only if it applies what they regard as fair Islam. Thus, a group of Wahhabites broke away to question the political power in Egypt.

Although Salafism does not question the political power and states that the authority must be obeyed, at that moment a critical sector began to be formed to promote the idea that the authority must always be respected but only if it applies what they regard as fair Islam

Meanwhile, thousands of Korans printed in Riyadh were distributed in mosques and universities. Many sheiks from the Islamic university of Al Azhar moved to Saudi Arabia and came back radicalised and thousands of Egyptian workers moved there and returned with the same evolution of their ideas.

All these circumstances also found a favourable atmosphere with a very young population that demanded a forward-looking response and was unable to find it: the Arab youth did not see job opportunities in their societies and also experienced their identity with great frustration because of the international policies and the agreements of the West with authoritarian Arab leaders. In particular, the perception developed of the existence of double standards in the question of the Middle East with the Palestinian as an eternal loser and the Arab as a political element without influence in the world. An ideological and emotional amalgam was created that made it easy for Wahhabite mosques to offer not so much religion but affection, group spirit and ideals as well as a certain model of masculinity in which it was possible to be a hero using violence against injustice.

Afghanistan, the Great School of Jihadists Headed by Bin Laden

Faced with this scenario what many consider the great emergence of the expansion of Wahhabism in the Mediterranean would gradually be conceived: the call on the Jihad to fight against the Soviet Union that had invaded Afghanistan and seen as legitimate because they were considered atheists. Thousands of men with poor education and limited religious training travelled there and were easily converted to Wahhabites. They are the so-called “Afghan Arabs”, some of whom would later be the perpetrators of the attacks in Egypt and Algeria, among other countries.

The figure of Bin Laden strongly emerged and soon became a media reference that made his leadership grow in most of the Arab world

In many mosques in Saudi Arabia there were two boxes to collect donations: one for the Jihad in Afghanistan and another for Palestine. Usually people were more generous with the former because it was believed that with the victory in Afghanistan it would later be possible to free the Palestinians of the Israeli occupation.

Until the 1990s there were only attacks against the French and American troops outside Europe. The Jihadist networks began to cooperate, the result to a large extent of the relations forged by some of its members after being in Afghanistan. Thousands of them met in the training camps. The figure of Bin Laden strongly emerged and soon became a media reference that made his leadership grow in most of the Arab world. Jihadists fought as volunteers in the Balkan War where alliances of radicals from several nationalities were forged. This historical period served as a framework for the establishment of several cells that helped articulate the enterprise of global Jihadism, a structure that should have acted in the conflicts in which Muslims were attacked, whether in Chechnya, Bosnia or Pakistan, for instance. In their turn all these groups had relations with al-Qaeda, which began as an organisation and finally became an international ideology. After the 11S attacks in 2001 in New York and the intervention of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq terrorist actions in several Arab and European countries multiplied. In short, the route of Jihadism was laid from Saudi Arabia to Sudan, crossed the African desert to enter Algeria and from there reached Europe. As early as 2005, for instance, the Spanish police discovered a network for sending volunteers to Iraq.

When Syria and Morocco also Opened the Wahhabite Door

In Syria, the al Assad family had severely repressed the Muslim Brotherhood. But when communism fell they were almost left without allies. For this reason, in the first Gulf War, the regime was forced to establish relations with Saudi Arabia. In compensation, the Al Saud family, among other things, granted thousands of scholarships for Syrian students to study in Riyadh. From there, many returned to their country totally radicalised.

In another country, Morocco, Salafism was present in the 19th century but it had almost no effect until 1979, when the Iranian revolution and the Shiite revolutionary inspiration alerted the Moroccan authorities, who saw in Wahhabism the ideal resource because it undermined both Shiites and the questioning of authority. We should take into account that, in the mental universe of the Wahhabite, the Christian has not had the chance to know the truth but the Shiite Muslim has, nevertheless, rejected it. For this reason, it is considered that he deserves to be punished.

Until 2000 Morocco controlled the introduction of religious groups but did welcome some Islamist organisations with the aim of holding the left back, with the same dynamics as the Egyptian Sadat. Moreover, Saudi Arabia had given a great deal of money to fight against the Frente Polisario and, correspondingly, the Alawite kingdom authorised the construction of over 30,000 mosques in Morocco. As in Egypt, Moroccan students and workers travelled to the Gulf and returned radicalised.

With the Casablanca attacks in 2003 the alarm was raised; at that time an extensive Jihadist structure was not officially acknowledged but the evidence showed that the attacks required an extensive organisation and the international media began talking of similar antecedents to the other countries that had suffered terrorism in the Mediterranean: many Moroccans had been in Afghanistan, where they had experience of al-Qaeda and developed friendships and networks to operate upon their return.

Moreover, the Afghan war was followed by the invasion of Iraq where the conditions were created that would later lead to the emergence of Daesh: the disarticulation of the Iraqi army with three million men with military training and with no employment or personal future coincided with the availability of funding from the countries of the Gulf, ready to gain a leading role on the chessboard of a war in which the Syrian regime had the help of the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah. The fight against this Shiite front positioned the Wahhabite regimes on the path of assistance to the so-called (inadequately) Islamic State.

Wahhabism and its Media Expansion

People talk of the expansion of Wahhabism on the social networks and undoubtedly the Internet and its capacity to move information beyond borders has a very important role. However, the Wahhabite message was greatly disseminated through satellite television, used exclusively to widely promote the doctrine that governments accept to project their geostrategic interests. Thus, between 2011 and 2014, the number of religious channels increased by 50%. In 2016 we have more than 70 television channels where the Salafist sheiks make real proclamations and also promote fundraising campaigns, for instance, for the Syrian rebels.

From the screen, the Wahhabite preachers of the Gulf achieve great renown among thousands of youths and also among those who fight in Syria, among other reasons because their belligerence contrasts with the moderation of the local imams, who generally have not opposed the Syrian regime. Moreover, the Syrian war has provided Salafists with the opportunity to increase their prestige among Sunnis, standing themselves as the defenders of the only real Islam. Thus, people without religious or spiritual training find themselves bound to the Wahhabite creed.

Faced with the acceptance of the religious plurality of Islam, Wahhabism develops the idea of the obligation to fight not only against atheists or non-Muslims but also against those who are labelled flawed believers, a prospect that opens the gate to attack Shiite, Sufi and Sunni Muslims who practise an Islam that does not adapt to the strict Salafist mould. This leads to the distorted interpretation of the concept of jihad, a term that refers to the effort of personal and inner improvement and that from the Wahhabite perspective becomes what Islam designates with the term bid’a; in other words, a harmful incorporation and therefore contrary to religion.

If we analyse the regional history of the Mediterranean and beyond the Middle East we see that the rivalries between powers build the defining axes of the political chessboard on which the hegemonic ambitions that today are mainly but not only disputed by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey are played out.

The Afghan war was followed by the invasion of Iraq where the conditions were created that would later lead to the emergence of Daesh: the disarticulation of the Iraqi army with three million men with military training and with no employment or personal future coincided with the availability of funding from the countries of the Gulf

Wahhabism, from this perspective, is an ideological instrument for expansion and control and not a strictly religious vector. It is a mistake to make a superficial and esoteric reading of the theological dimension of Jihadism because beyond the proclamations tainted with presumed religion there is a political project that, paradoxically, finds an echo in another ideological trend developed in the West: the puritanism of the religious movements, especially in the United States, which are an incentive to a supposed fight against everything that distances itself from Christianity as they understand it.

The early Jihadist structures that arrived in Europe in the 1980s at first had interests only in their countries of origin, mainly to bring down their own governments to establish regimes of Salafist inspiration in nations such as Egypt, Tunisia or Algeria. They focused on raising funds and distributing propaganda among the communities of immigrants. The difference between Salafist groups that promote a written and puritan Islam but do not admit the use of personal violence and Jihadist groups that clearly opt for terrorist must be emphasised. Undoubtedly, Europe was not their objective. However, they began to criticise the support of the United States and Europe for Israel faced with the Palestinian drama and the Arab dictators, and many groups exacerbated their positions against the West.

Syria, the Closest Afghanistan

In the Syrian war, Salafism plays a key role. Although the conflict began publically as a disturbance against al Assad’s regime, faced with the international inaction contingents of Jidahists were soon visible in different factions of the opposing groups: Jabhat al Nusra and Kata’ib Ahrar al Sham. These organisations have received more funds and equipment than other factions opposed to the regime.

The early Jihadist structures that arrived in Europe in the 1980s at first had interests only in their countries of origin, mainly to bring down their own governments to establish regimes of Salafist inspiration in nations such as Egypt, Tunisia or Algeria

The confessional perspective of the Syrian war is therefore closely related to the foreign intervention and the fight for hegemony in the area. The West is subjected to a democracy of appearances and for decades has carefully nurtured its diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, something made clear in the narratives developed by public television channels, which until recently had communicated the idea that it was, literally, our unconditional ally. In fact, in Saudi Arabia itself, the House of Saud has shown with some gestures a certain intention to modify its policy of support to certain Jihadist groups. We should not forget that its own territory has been the setting of terrorist attacks mainly by al-Qaeda cells.

The instability created by the policies of the West and the Gulf countries within some states and the foreign policy sympathetic to Saudi Arabia have meant that the network of mosques has been regarded without concern. This network developed a narrow ideological environment far from that experienced by millions of Muslims but where thousands of children of immigrants with no religious education like their parents but with a strong feeling of distance from their native country have found support and an objective. Some have found in Jihadism the inspiration for a masculinity with which to feel at ease, fleeing the spectre of marginalisation… Now, Salafist groups are a real obstacle to the stability of some Mediterranean countries, even for those that are making a great effort to consolidate democratic structures, such as Tunisia.

Some have found in Jihadism the inspiration for a masculinity with which to feel at ease, fleeing the spectre of marginalisation

The article began with the question about whether one day the Mediterranean will be able to be a political subject rather than the passive setting for external struggles. The future of Syria depends to a certain extent on the answer to this unknown quantity. If the conflict becomes chronic because of the lack of a responsible foreign policy that understands the causes and deals with the humanitarian conflict of the refugees, the expansion of Jihadist ideas cannot be deactivated. Syria can be a new Afghanistan, this time at the very heart of the Mediterranean.