Ikhwan: Harbingers of ISIS
by Michael Kelvington
An adage often attributed to Mark Twain states, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” As the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, also known as ISIS, swept into Iraq from Syria in 2014, they employed grisly tactics and conducted atrocities which harkened back to the horrific techniques used by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, their predecessors led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
However, they also adhered to the behavior of a more primitive force from almost a century ago, the ikhwan of the 1920s. This group of fighters considered to be “jihad warriors” formed the core of Ibn Sa’ud’s royal guard, mostly comprised of a “tribal military force,” and became a permanent fixture and action arm during the rise and expansion of the third Saudi state.
Ibn Sa’ud sought to expand his power and territorial control, driven also by the marriage of church and state with the local religious establishment, the mutawwa, which desired to proliferate the Wahhabist version of Islam to the region. They initially sought to peacefully spread their message beyond the Najdi area of the Arabian Peninsula. But when people refused to return to the “true path of Islam, they often had to use violence against those who refused to submit to their authority.”
While the mutawwa could accomplish this on their own at the local level, they, like Ibn Sa’ud politically, needed a military arm that believed in their message and were willing to propagate it, even through the use of extreme violence.
He found this force in the ikhwan, “Bedouins who accepted the fundamentals of orthodox Islam of the Hanbali school as preached by Abdl-Wahhab (sic) which their fathers and forefathers had forgotten or had perverted and who through the persuasion of the religious missionaries . . . abandoned their nomadic life to live in the Hijrah.”
They became the strong hand Ibn Sa’ud needed to expand. In return for their service, they performed atrocities under the authority of Ibn Sa’ud, their imam which they believed to be an authority able to declare jihad, something they believed to be obligatory. They were also endowed with subsidies from Ibn Sa’ud’s treasury, essentially becoming mercenaries, or paid jihadists waging a holy war for a cause they believed in while being handsomely rewarded.
Because of their gruesome tactics and perceived devoutness, they became known across Arabia as jund al-tawhid, or “the soldiers who enforced the doctrine of the oneness of God.” Similar to the foot soldiers of ISIS who pledged bayat, or alliegiance, to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph, so too did the ikhwan pledge their allegiance to Ibn Sa’ud as the imam of the expanding, yet still nascent, territorial rule of the family of Sa’ud.
Under the political leadership of Ibn Sa’ud and the religious authority of the mutawwa, the ikhwan, or “brothers,” viewed their ambitions as “divinely appointed to purify the region by slaughtering all who allied with foreigners or deviated from their narrow version of Islam.” Their interpretation of jihad did not need be debated as whether it was either an internal struggle or holy war, it was apparent in their actions, just like adherents of modern day ISIS.
Ikhwan fighters were influenced by the Wahhabist interpretation of their religion mixed with their harsh Bedouin background. These raiders built a reputation as being “[b]loodthirsty fanatics who regarded all Western inventions and practices as works of the devil . . . [and] hacked and slashed their way through entire villages that stood in their path, slitting the throats of every male survivor, to ensure that all traces of Western modernity were wiped out.”
While the raiding and pillaging was not a foreign concept in this area, especially for the Bedouins, the “savagery of the Ikhwan raids . . . [was] something completely alien to traditional Arab warfare.” Likewise, the savagery of ISIS has invaded not just wide swaths of territory in the Middle East and northern Africa, but also the vastness of the Internet and social media with their gory executions captured in high definition and uploaded to inspire others to conduct attacks, recruit new fighters, and inflict fear into their enemy.
While the “holy alliance” formed between Ibn Sa’ud and the mutawwa facilitated their ideology to spread, the ikhwan provided Ibn Sa’ud the “fighting Force that had the mobility of the Bedouins and the loyalty, bravery, dedication and stability of the [local] townsmen.” Although later on, the ikhwan became a huge internal security threat to Ibn Sa’ud due to greed, disagreements in power sharing, and residuals from the tribal culture, this fighting force helped Ibn Sa’ud establish the reign of the royal Sa’udi family.
Through their brutal actions and enforcement of the Wahhabist interpretation of Islam, prodded along by the mutawwa, they laid the groundwork for the establishment of Ibn Sa’ud’s eventual state, one he declared officially established on 22 September 1932, which he named al-mamlaka al-‘arabiyya al-sa’udiyya, also known as “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Due to an international alliance led by the U.S. to counter ISIS’ actions and land grab in the Middle East, it is not likely an internationally recognized “state” will ever manifest itself in the caliphate’s territory. However, one need look no further than the ikhwan to see where the fighters of ISIS draw their tactics, lineage, and inspiration to accomplish their abhorrent, yet impressive gains made over the course of the past three years. ISIS has managed to devastate multiple modern states and will continue to inspire, and assist in planning, global attacks such as London, which are likely to continue well into the future.
Mike Kelvington is an MPA candidate at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs. He is an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army with seven deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, including with the 75th Ranger Regiment. The opinions expressed above are his own, and do not represent the official position of the Combating Terrorism Center, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Government.
 Joby Warrick, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, (New York: Doubleday, 2015), 252-253.
 Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia, 2nd ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 56.
 Al-Rasheed, 50.
 John S. Habib, Ibn Sa’ud’s Warriors of Islam: The Ikhwan of Najd and Their Role in the Creation of the Sa’udi Kingdom, 1910-1930, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1978), 16.
 Al-Rasheed, 59.
 Habib, 123.
 Warrick, 28.
 Habib, 125.
 Al-Rasheed, 63.
 Ibid., 57.
 Ibid., 68.