Top Saudi Cleric Calls ISIS 'Part of the Israel Army'

ISIS fighters celebrate on vehicles taken from Iraqi security forces, at a street in city of Mosul, June 12, 2015. Reuters

This article first appeared on the Markaz blog on the Brookings Institution site.

The most senior cleric in Saudi Arabia has called for greater Islamic cooperation against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), while also labeling the group a "part of the Israeli army."

The revealing interview this week with Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh provides important insight into the Wahhabi establishment, which is the core partner of the House of Saud.

The Mufti praised the creation of an Islamic military alliance to fight terrorism, promising the alliance will defeat ISIS, which he labeled a heretical and un-Islamic movement. The new alliance is the brainchild of Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Muhammed bin Salman, the king's favorite son.

The 72-year-old cleric was asked about comments made by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self proclaimed caliph of ISIS, that the new alliance is not serious because it is not "killing Jews and liberating Palestine." Al-Baghdadi called the new Saudi-led alliance a pawn of the United States and Israel, promising that the "tanks of the mujahedeen are moving closer to Israel day after day."

Al Sheikh dismissed al-Baghdadi's threat to Israel, calling it "simply a lie." He added: "Actually Daesh [another term for ISIS] is part of the Israeli soldiers," therefore asserting a supposed relationship between the Israeli army and ISIS.

The sheikh is a direct descendant of the 18th-century founder of Wahhabi Islam Muhammad Ibn Abd al Wahhab. The Al Sheikh family is the theological equivalent of the Saud family.

Abdulaziz was appointed grand mufti in 1999 by King Fahd. He wields enormous authority. Earlier this year, for example, he absolved Crown Prince and Interior Minister Prince Muhammed bin Nayef of any responsibility for the hajj stampede that killed hundreds by saying it was an act of God.

Both the mufti's and al-Baghdadi's remarks illustrate that Israel remains the hot-button issue in the kingdom. If you want to smear your enemy, label him a stooge of Israel.

Bruce Riedel is director of The Intelligence Project and senior fellow at Foreign Policy Center for Middle East Policy, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution. He joined Brookings in 2006 after 30 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, including postings in the Middle East and Europe. Riedel was a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council at the White House.