Allies’ Human Rights Practices Harm Anti-ISIL Effort

By Jordan Dannenberg

Human rights abuses are fueling the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL).

Testifying before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities last week, Frederick Kagan, chair and director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, said, “Sectarian war is, in my opinion, the largest, most powerful long-term driver of mobilization and radicalization in [Sunni-Shi’ite] communities.”

In this light, the human rights practices of key U.S. anti-ISIL coalition allies are among the biggest roadblocks to successfully countering ISIL. Efforts by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates to limit Shi’ite political influence foment the very sectarianism that drives ISIL.

Saudi unwillingness to aid the anti-ISIL coalition fight in Iraq is guided, in part, by its aversion to strengthening the Shi’ite government. In March, a Saudi-led coalition, heavily backed by the UAE, launched an air campaign against the Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen. During the Arab Uprising, Saudi and Emirati troops intervened in Bahrain to help quash pro-democracy protests that threatened the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy.

Political repression of Shi’ite opposition in Bahrain has been particularly harsh. Earlier this month, Sheikh Ali Salman, one of Bahrain’s leading Shi’ite opposition leaders, was sentenced to four years in prison in connection with speeches made between 2012 and 2014. Leading human rights activist Nabeel Rajab is imprisoned for denouncing the torture of jailed Shi’ite activists.

Meanwhile, prominent Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr awaits execution in Saudi Arabia for criticizing government treatment of Shi’ites living inside the kingdom and calling for the release of political prisoners. And Bahrain and the UAE continue to exclude Shi’ites from federal security employment.

Saudi Arabian fighters make up one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters who have taken up arms for ISIL and private religious sources in Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to provide resources to violent extremist groups in Syria. Prominent preachers and media personalities in Saudi Arabia incite anti-Shi’ite sectarian hatred while enjoying patronage  and privileges from the state and official religious institutions. The suicide bomber who killed at least 27 Shi’ites in a mosque in Kuwait City on June 27 in an attack claimed by ISIL was a Saudi national living in the Kingdom until the day of the attack.

As President Obama noted in his speech at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in February, oppression and denial of human rights along sectarian lines feed violent extremism.  Sectarian repression of Shi’ites strengthens ISIL and also increases the risk of Shi’ite radicalization. Human rights abuses, including political exclusion, have been repeatedly linked to terrorism. As early as 1985, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution identifying “violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” as underlying causes of terrorism.

In his testimony, Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Military and Security Studies Program, called the United States’ strategic reliance on repressive and sectarian allies its “Achilles’ heel.”

The United States, however, can transform its “Achilles’ heel” into an opportunity. By pressing its allies to stop stoking sectarian tensions and denying fundamental freedoms along sectarian lines, the United States would not only demonstrate leadership on human rights but also advance a more effective counterterrorism policy.


Published on July 1, 2015


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