ISIS leader Baghdadi vs. Saudi Arabia’s Prince of Counterterrorism, Muhammad bin Nayef

The leader of the self-proclaimed caliphate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Saudi Arabia’s interior minister and chief counter-terrorism leader, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, are opponents in the recent history of violent jihadist extremism and the fight to stop its spread in the region. In the two most recent Brookings Essays, Will McCants and Bruce Riedel profiled each of these men in turn, explaining their rise, their influence, and their possible paths forward.

In a recent public event, McCants—a fellow and director of the project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World—and Riedel—a senior fellow and director of the Intelligence Project at Brookings—presented their takes on each of the figures. 

Muhammad bin Nayef

“Muhammad bin Nayef [MBN] is the most pro-American Saudi prince we have seen in well over a generation,” Riedel said. “He is by inclination inclined to work with the United States America. He probably will put the kingdom in fairly safe hands. …” Watch Riedel’s presentation, in which he also addressed the rivalry within the Saudi royal family between MBN and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman [MBS], son of the current king:

“In [MBN’s] hands,” Riedel added, “Saudi Arabia will be a secure and serious ally of the United States in fighting the war on terrorism. But he faces severe faces challenges: low oil income; a potential quagmire in Yemen; and internecine squabbling within the royal family. Whether or not he will be able to steer the Saudi ship forward safely through those” is an open question.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

McCants explained Baghdadi’s rise as a “quiet religious scholar” to a radicalized leader, discounting the common story that the American invasion of Iraq is what radicalized him. “Baghdadi had radicalized himself well before the Americans invaded,” McCants said. “If Baghdadi’s life is a cautionary tale,” McCants continued, “if we are to take any lesson from it … we have to be very wary of creating the chaos that allows men like Baghdadi to thrive and flourish. We have to be very wary of invading states and destroying the social fabric and the political fabric in order to remove a tyrant, because a worse tyrant can be waiting in the wings afterward.”

During a Q&A session that followed the presentations, moderated by Kim Ghattas, international affairs correspondent for the BBC, both McCants and Riedel looked ahead to possible scenarios in the region. McCants, asked what would happen if Baghdadi were to be killed, answered: 

It depends on who replaces him. There are people in the organization who are capable military leaders, but they don’t quite have the stature, the religious stature that he does. So they have put around the idea that their institution is the caliphate reborn. And he has the lineage and the religious knowledge to back it up, but if the next guy doesn’t it could be a real blow to the credibility of the organization.

Riedel also looked ahead, stating that “Saudi Arabia as you know is an extraordinarily closed society and the workings of the royal family even more closed than that. So, there’s a lot of speculation about what’s going on … but we really don’t know what the dynamics in the relationship between MBS and MBN are. I think it’s safe to say there is a rivalry. I think it’s also safe to say there’s a lot of consternation within the royal family … .”

Learn more about the event here, including full video and audio.

Read both Brookings Essays:

The Believer: How an introvert with a passion for religion and soccer became Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State,” by Will McCants

The Prince of counter-terrorism: Washington’s favorite Saudi, Muhammad bin Nayef, is the scourge of al-Qaida and Iran but no friend of those who want to see major reforms in the kingdom,” by Bruce Riedel.