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One of the few commonalities that lone wolf Islamist terrorists share—whether in San Bernardino or now Philadelphia—is their Sunni Muslim background. They are never Shia.
Of course, there is Hezbollah, the Shia terrorist group in Lebanon, which has a long list of bombings and kidnappings attributed to it. In 1992, it attacked the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires; in 1994 it bombed an Israeli community center in the same city; and in 1996, it blew up the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. But the difference is that these were coordinated attacks. There are also other Shia militias in the Middle East, such as the Mahdi Army in Iraq, and Amal in Lebanon. But none of these Shia groups are associated with inspiring individuals to commit violence on their behalf. Almost without exception, Shia militant groups pursue a direct geopolitical goal, such as pushing the United States out of Baghdad or the Israelis out of Lebanon, and are under the direct control of Iran or Hezbollah.
This is partly because there are far fewer Shias than Sunnis. Shias make up about ten percent of the world’s Muslim population. Even if the rate of lone-wolf terrorism were the same in both groups, the number of Shia terrorists would be exponentially smaller than the already low Sunni number.
The shape of each sect might also make a difference. Sunnis do not have as clear a clerical hierarchy as Shias do; as a result, there are more Sunni interpretations of Islam, and thus, more potential for deviation from the mean. There is no Sunni equivalent to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a widely recognized supreme authority who advocates for moderation.
But the real key to understanding the current state of terrorism lies in the year 1979, which is marked by three seminal events. The first two became symbols of the power of political Islam: the Iranian Revolution and the start of the Afghan war against the Soviets. The eventual successes of both were seen as the triumph of devout Muslims over secular tyrannies. The clerical regime in Iran inspired both Shia and Sunni revolutionaries and actively sought to spread the revolution to places like Iraq and Lebanon. Further east, and a decade later, the mujahedeen in Afghanistan would trickle out to other corners of the Islamic world, from Bosnia to Chechnya to Sudan, and spread the seeds of radicalism.
And then there was the third event, which changed the shape of radicalism itself. Sunni gunmen seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca in their native Saudi Arabia, demanding the overthrow of the monarchy. They held their ground until Saudi forces expelled them two weeks later. The Kingdom was rattled by this event; it sought a détente with its clerics, and sought to renew its legitimacy by hewing closer to the radicals’ brand of Islam. The kingdom began pumping billions of dollars into expanding its ultraconservative brand of Wahhabi Islam abroad, through schools, mosques, prisons, and even orphanages.
Today, Sunni radicals receive most of their support from Saudi and other Gulf Cooperation Council citizens, not states themselves. A June 2015 report from the U.S. State Department claimed that “Bulk cash smuggling and money transfers from individual donors and Saudi-based charities have reportedly been a significant source of financing for extremist and terrorist groups over the past 25 years.” In Syria, Saudi individuals—not the government—are reported to have sent hundreds of millions of dollars to Syria since the start of the civil war.
On the other hand, Shia groups are primarily state funded. Iran finances Hezbollah, as well as an array of Shia militants, from the Houthis in Yemen to the Badr Brigade in Iraq. Hezbollah receives an estimated $200 million per year, in addition to materiel help and training by the Iranian Quds Force. But as a result of their state funding, these groups are also explicitly state controlled. When Iran sends weapons to militants, it does so to achieve direct geopolitical goals. So even if the strength of the militant group increases, its goals remain narrow. There is a leash, in other words, that can be yanked. Iran, for example, forced Hezbollah to settle its differences with the fellow Shia group Amal in January 1989, after a year of bloody fighting. This centralization also reduces the opportunity for a group’s ideology to radically deviate from its sponsor’s goals and thus lessens the likelihood of inspiring lone wolves.
Essentially, there is an inverse correlation at work here: the more state support a terrorist group receives, the more limited and geopolitical are its objectives.
This phenomenon is not limited to Shia groups. State-sponsored Sunni groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) in Kashmir and the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan, both allegedly protected and enabled by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, pursue reasonably constrained goals. LET wants an Islamist Kashmir, and the Haqqani Network is trying to push the United States’ presence out of the Paktika, Paktia, and Khost provinces in Afghanistan’s southeast.
That is why free agents like al Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) produce the bulk of lone jihadists and represent the worst of all possible worlds: well-financed jihadist networks with little state control.
Additionally, because Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are essentially status-quo powers within the region, they have not been able to channel radicals into geopolitically advantageous causes. Their own young radicals have been left to choose their own enemies, both near and far: sometimes it is the United States or France or even the Kingdom itself.
By contrast, Iran and Lebanon are very much marginalized states and vehement challengers of the existing Middle East order. Radical young Iranians and Lebanese Shia can join state-controlled militant organizations like Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Hezbollah.
The Syrian war, however, may have changed that calculus. For the first time the Saudis are fighting for the survival of their order, not only on their own but also in a region falling under the sway of revolutionary, apostate Iran. The 2003 Iraq war, the 2011 Iraq withdrawal, and the 2013 Iranian nuclear deal united the Shia bloc and unshackled the Islamic Republic from damaging international sanctions. Worse, the Kingdom is without a great power ally for the first time in its history, as its historic protector, the United States, inches toward a détente with Iran. It is not unlikely that in the future, as these threats escalate, Saudi Arabia may look to protect itself with any weapon at hand, even jihad.
That time may come sooner rather than later. The Kingdom has reportedly met with leaders of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, which angered Iran; in October, it allowed dozens of its clerics to call for a Syrian jihad against Iran; and in a July op-ed, its quintessential Washington man, former U.S. Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan, warned delicately about the “local capabilities” that his family would be forced to employ should the Iran nuclear deal continue.
There is no easy solution to the source of radical Sunni financing. The United States could offer a renewed security guarantee to the Kingdom in exchange for fundamental reforms in radical financing. In 1990, when Saddam was threatening the Gulf, Washington made just that offer and the Saudis accepted, spurning Osama bin Laden’s offer of help from the Afghan jihadists. It did little to stop the external financing of radicalism, but it was something.
And even if that offer isn’t forthcoming, or the Saudis aren’t reassured, progress can still be made. If the Kingdom does form an alliance with Sunni radicals, it may actually rein them in, and someday in the future, the United States may have a shot at bartering for the real reform of radical Islam.