Confronting Terrorism in Saudi Arabia: Implications for the UK

On 8 July 2009, a specialist court in Saudi Arabia handed down judgments against 330 defendants accused of being implicated in 179 security cases involving Al-Qa’ida. The trials, which were only recently made public, began in December 2008 and come six years after Al-Qa’ida first struck in Saudi Arabia at targets which included expatriate residential compounds, oil installations and government buildings. Last year security authorities foiled an assault on Muslim pilgrims taking part in the annual Hajj; 323 militants, forty-one of whom were non-Saudis, were convicted of a range of charges and sentenced to prison terms varying from a few months to thirty years. The remainder were subject to financial penalties and travel restrictions.

The court rulings demonstrate how seriously Saudi Arabia is responding to the greatest security threat it has ever faced.

A second mass trial is expected to begin soon but it is not known how many suspects are currently in Saudi jails. In July 2007, the Interior Ministry reported that 9,000 security suspects had been detained between 2003 and 2007 and that 3,106 of them were still being held. The Kingdom’s security agencies have been co-operating with other major international organisations and Interpol to track down eighty-two of the most wanted terror-related suspects, including those with links to Al-Qa’ida in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Counter-Terrorism Strategy

Since 2003, the Interior Ministry has been developing a comprehensive security strategy on several levels: pre-emptive strikes against suspected terrorist cells, aggressive security confrontations, and the use of financial forensics to reveal front organisations and individuals are some of the elements. Measures have been taken to root out security personnel with extremist sympathies; to increase the number of SWAT teams and review their modus operandi; and to ensure that even regular police officers receive counter-terrorism training. Five new prisons were built last year (by the Bin Laden family company) which, unlike the old prisons, allow Islamists to be kept separate from common criminals in order to minimise the spread of jihadist ideas. In addition, the Munasaha rehabilitation programme deploys a group of religious specialists to win over and rehabilitate junior militant cadres, whose ideology and beliefs have been distorted by terrorist organisations. Although the project to rehabilitate violent Islamists includes innovative initiatives to provide jobs, housing (and wives) for penitent militants, questions remain about the rate of recidivism.

Confronting the Terrorists

Despite these initiatives, many elements of the Saudi strategy have been criticised for violating the Kingdom’s commitment to the universality and indivisibility of human rights, which it made to the UN in 2000. Recent reports from Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch allege that the Saudi authorities are using the campaign against terrorism as a façade for ‘a sustained assault on human rights’ and accuse the rest of the world of failing to hold the authorities to account for ‘gross violations’.  Thousands of people are believed to have been arrested and detained in virtual secrecy, others killed in uncertain circumstances, and torture used to extract confessions. 

There is no question that security operations and intelligence-gathering efforts have indeed entailed mass arrests and detentions; yet there is a perception that netting the ‘little fish’ could be a smokescreen for the failure to identify and detain core militants.   Furthermore, the US Director of National Security has expressed concern that the effectiveness of counter-terrorism operations has been undermined by the authorities’ intentional policy of conceding legal appeals made by long-term detainees in order to be seen to be addressing human rights complaints.

Saudi policy is undoubtedly constrained by considerations of how best to preserve the House of Saud in the face of an internal opposition dedicated to its overthrow, and by the need to appease clerics and religious conservatives who interpret any change or reform to social and educational programmes as an attack on Islam and the Saudi way of life. 

Saudi Arabia has declared itself to be at the forefront of the fight against terrorism and is attempting to remedy its international image as a factory for extremism. Yet its billions have funded the promotion of Wahhabism around the world – an extreme and puritanical form of Islam which it pioneered and which has been espoused by Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qa’ida and affiliated groups.

An estimated $90 billion (£62 billion) of Saudi money has gone to build mosques and madrassas (religious schools), distribute religious literature and fund Islam across the world, with a portion of it, according to terrorism experts, directly or indirectly funding the violent expression of those beliefs. Jonathan Evans, Director-General of MI5, told the government last year that the Saudi government’s multi-million dollar donations to British universities had led to a ‘dangerous increase in the spread of extremism in leading university campuses’. 

However, criticisms like these are rare.  The West’s dependence on Saudi Arabia for oil, arms contracts and intelligence means that negative assessments of the Kingdom’s counter-terrorism efforts are likely to be muted.  The need for an ally in an unfriendly and volatile region of the world is usually given higher priority.

Internal Security and Terrorism

In the 1970s and 1980s, growing oil wealth enabled the Saudi regime to expand social services. Educational programmes were lavishly funded to promote a strict Wahhabist interpretation of Islam and provide support for the training of Muslims from other countries, including the UK, as Wahhabi preachers and teachers. The promotion of this austere ideology has inspired many young Saudis, as well as Muslims in other countries, to participate as mujahedeen in the Soviet-Afghan war.

By the late 1980s, declining oil revenues, a stagnant economy, cuts in social entitlements and, at the request of King Fahd, the stationing of US troops in the Kingdom to protect it against Iraq and Iran, generated a level of discontent and anger which oppositional Islamists used to mobilise support. Radicals were further infuriated by the massive influx of US and other Western troops after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. To counteract this unrest and challenge to the ruling elite, Wahhabi clerics were persuaded by the King to give their religious sanction to the presence of infidel troops in the birthplace of Islam – but only in return for greater social control over the Kingdom.  The consequent split between the Wahhabi ulama (legal scholars) and the establishment persists to this day, with younger clerics and Wahhabis prone to identify with, if not collaborate in Al-Qa’ida’s declared war against the ‘ruling apostates’.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 turned out to be a defining moment for the Kingdom.  Although initially in denial, the Saudi leadership was eventually compelled to confront the awkward fact that its particular Wahhabi brand of Islam had brought about such destruction and was responsible for incubating terrorism. However, only after Saudi Arabia itself came under attack from 2003 onwards was the threat from global jihadism taken seriously. 

As late as April 2003, members of the House of Saud were in touch with Al-Qa’ida returnees from Afghanistan via religious and tribal figures of authority. These mujahedeen were fêted, and offered posts in government. Foundations which bankrolled Al-Qa’ida were left untouched. But once the rival factions within the Saudi Royal Family realised that the serpent they had been nurturing was targeting the House of Saud itself, security forces moved vigorously against Al-Qa’ida operatives. In June 2003, Abdel Aziz Al-Muqrin, allegedly the commander of Al-Qa’ida’s Saudi cell who had been involved in negotiations between Interior Minister Prince Nayef and King Fahd’s youngest son Abdulaziz Bin Fahd, was killed in an ambush by Saudi forces. Islamic militants were given an ultimatum – one month to surrender and receive God’s law, or face death.

While this belief in divine authorisation is likely to weigh heavily against human rights claims, the need to address the causes of terrorism and reduce the spread of extremist ideology has led King Abdullah to introduce changes over the past five years.  New ideas have been promoted and initiatives implemented with respect to reforming the education system, promoting dialogue and opening up to the world at large. Radical and extremist books have been removed from school libraries; the Wahhabi Education Minister Abdullah Bin Saleh Al-Obaid has been replaced by the more moderate Faisal Bin Abdullah; and the King has acknowledged the excesses committed by the Mutawaa, the religious police, by firing its head.

Some internal critics nevertheless argue that the only way to address the roots of jihadist violence is by thoroughly reforming the Saudi educational system, a task that will take decades. While much more remains to be done to dismantle the ideological apparatus and uproot the sources that incite extremism inside the country, Saudi authorities now seem willing to acknowledge the country’s critical role in fostering jihadist violence around the world.  They are open about the challenges they face and are collaborating as a partner in the global counter-terrorist effort.

Implications for the UK and Other Countries

While the House of Saud’s domestic concerns instigated the shift in its security policy and have led it to review the religious, ideological and social factors which have given rise to extremism within the country, pressure from other governments and organisations equally concerned with Islamist terrorism and the protection of their political and commercial interests in the Middle East has also been a driving force.

At the operational level, the links forged with counterparts in other countries have enabled Saudi investigators to expand their intelligence database, develop new skills in forensic analysis and improve their operational capabilities to the point where they are now a valuable part of the global counter-terrorism network.  This collaborative alliance will inevitably help both Saudi Arabia and security authorities worldwide to prevent the spread of terrorism and radicalisation and bring those responsible to justice.

When Saudi Arabia released its latest list of wanted terrorists in January, all eighty-five of them were said to be outside the country.  The majority were Saudis with links to Al-Qa’ida in Saudi Arabia as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Although many extremists have been killed or captured within the Kingdom, attacks are now being launched against it by terrorists who have regrouped in neighbouring states like Yemen, causing Saudi Arabia to claim that it is now a victim of terrorism rather than an instigator. 

Al-Qa’ida’s propaganda is sufficiently serious for Saudi Arabia’s rulers to encourage established Wahhabi scholars to examine and publicly discuss issues such as the concept of takfir and Islamic prohibitions against political violence and acts of terrorism.[1] By opening up discussions on these ideological and religious issues, a successful challenge to the legitimacy of Al-Qa’ida’s interpretation of jihad may be possible. A theological critique of the rules and conditions used by extreme Islamist scholars to justify their call for individual jihad in any time and place and against any target would improve the prospects for counter-radicalisation programmes around the world.[2] Pakistan, which is a significant factor with regard to radicalisation in the UK, will also benefit from these Saudi initiatives given the close and discreet bilateral relationship between the two countries. 

Undoubtedly, the decision to convene special religious courts to provide rulings in these mass terrorism trials will emphasise the theological legitimacy of the legal procedure, and the Islamic credentials of Saudi Arabia’s rulers. A clear message is being sent out from the birthplace of Islam to Muslims across the world that acts of militant jihadism are undermining Islam, and that Islamic law will be used to try and punish offenders. It will be difficult therefore for any Muslim extremist accused of terrorism to contest the fairness of the hearing or dispute Sharia justice.

Despite a new willingness to open up and engage with democratic allies, the extent to which Saudi rulers will be disposed to respect human rights and respond to international pressures is likely to be limited. In an Islamic state, the will of the people must conform to the will of God. Therefore all social, political, economic and human behaviour must be dictated by Islamic law rather than man-made law. Any real reforms must win the approval of the conservative religious majority. Without it, the House of Saud would be further weakened.

Angela Gendron
Senior Fellow
Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies
The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
Carleton University, Ottawa

[1] Jihadists and political salafists claim that Islamic leaders (such as Saudi rulers) can be denounced if they behave in an ‘un-Islamic’ manner.  There is no agreement on who is entitled to pronounce takfir, and what requirements a proclamation of this kind must meet.
[2] See Anwar Al-Awlaki, ‘The Constants of Jihad’, < shaykh-anwar-al-awlaki-constants-jihad-693/>. Al-Awaki lectures on Yousef Al-Uyayree’s book Constants of the Path of Jihad, which concerns leaderless jihad.

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