Cole’s research focuses on the history of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, as well as the Jihadi-Salafi movement underpinning such groups as al-Qaʿida and the Islamic State, or ISIS. His dissertation examines the origins and evolution of Wahhabism, as a religious doctrine and political movement, from its emergence in the mid-eighteenth century in central Arabia to the present day. Drawing on a wealth of mostly untapped primary sources, including rare manuscripts, it looks in particular at the most controversial ideas in Wahhabi doctrine—takfīr, al-walāʾ waʾl-barāʾ, and jihād—and assesses their change over time. It also considers the appropriation of the exclusivist and militant resources of Wahhabism by the modern Jihadi-Salafi movement beginning in the 1980s. In doing so, it seeks to give a more complete picture of the ideological background of Sunni radicalism in the Arab world, which is expressed today more in terms of Wahhabi ideas than it is in the ideas of Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966) or Abu ʾl-Aʿla Mawdudi (d. 1979).
Cole, who hails from Piedmont, California, earned his A.B. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton in 2008. Before returning to Princeton, he spent a year in Damascus, Syria, as a fellow with the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in 2008–09, and completed an M.A. in international relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 2012. He has twice been a visiting fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to pursue his dissertation research.
From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State, Brookings Institution, March 2015.
The Kingdom and the Caliphate: Duel of the Islamic States, Carnegie Endowment, February 2016.
Review of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, by Michael Crawford, Journal of Arabian Studies 6, no. 1 (2016).