Counter-Terrorism: August 3, 2004


: The Saudi Arabian governments efforts to deal with terrorism provides many valuable lessons. The Saudi approach to terrorism has both strengths and weaknesses. The Saudis got some things right, They began to keep a closer eye on some of the clerics who were getting out of bounds with their pro-terror preaching. The Saudi leadership carry weight among Islamic clerics, not only because of their oil, but because of the fact that Mecca and Medina are in that country. Being in control of those cities means that they tend to carry some moral authority over Moslems. This is assisted by the fact that there is no single religious authority in Islam. So the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs is able to use its own authority to help them keep radical clerics in check to a degree. It also helps that the Saudis have not allowed madrasses (religious schools) that are free from control by the state educational system (unlike Pakistan).

As the activity of the fundamentalists was clearly increasing in the last decade, the Saudis ramped up to deal with the potential threat. They used various methods to infiltrate opposition groups in Saudi Arabia and abroad. They would bribe or co-opt elements of some of these groups. On other occasions, they would pressure foreign governments to crack down on them. At other times, they would exploit divisions, and get the opposition groups fighting among themselves.

The Saudis also cooperated with the United States after 9/11. High-ranking clerics (like Sheikh Salih al-Luheidan, Chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council, and Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, the Chairman of the Senior Ulema and the Mufti of Saudi Arabia) were quick to condemn the attacks. That helped temper Islamic reaction when the United States commenced military operations against the Taliban regime.

However, the Saudis made mistakes, too. First of all, they were trying to have things both ways. While they were endeavoring to uphold Islams strict laws of hospitality, they also allowed Islamic extremism (particularly Wahhabi extremism) to go unchallenged, especially when it advocated attacks on Christians and Jews. As a result, a number of recruits for terrorist groups were coming from Saudi Arabia.

Second, while they did monitor groups that attacked the government and some groups inside the government, there was no real effort to monitor young Saudis who got involved with extremist groups outside of Saudi Arabia. As a result, these young Saudis were able to get paramilitary training and to either return to Saudi Arabia,  where they could either commit acts of terrorism, or they would be involved in fighting anywhere from the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosovo) to Afghanistan. Some would later be sent to infiltrate into the United States for 9/11. The high number of Saudis among the 9/11 hijackers (17 of 19) is testimony to this weakness.

Third, there was no real effort to identify legitimate charities or to find out how various extremist groups got their funding. This allowed terrorist groups to use charities as a way to raise money. Sometimes, those who supported the groups could merely claim they were carrying out Zakat; the pillar of Islam requiring Moslems to give 2.5 percent of their income to charity. Some terrorist groups were able to lure in unsuspecting donors, often forcing Saudi (and other) intelligence agencies to waste time trying to figure out who was knowingly supporting terrorist groups and who was duped. This was further compounded by the fact that outside Arabia and the Middle East, the Saudis really had no clue which groups were legitimate, and which were terrorists (particularly in the Balkans, China, and Central Asia). Donations to Palestinian groups, of course, were permitted. Saudi Arabia is not alone in this Kuwait and the UAE have had similar lapses.

Fourth, the Saudis made the assumption that al-Qaeda would not attack fellow Moslems;  that their beef was with the infidels. A series of bombings on May 12, 2003 changed that. The Saudis had warnings, but ignored them. It cant happen here has often been the mindset that is never broken without a terrible price. For the Saudis, it was four suicide bombings that killed 34 Moslems.

Finally, the Saudis are still not taking seriously problems involving corruption. Action is being taken, but it is very slow, and it is increasingly relying on perceptions that corruption will be dealt with. When that illusion is shattered, the loss of popular support will make internal security an insurmountable task. Should that happen, the chances of Osama bin Laden (or some other terrorist leader) arriving in Saudi Arabia in triumph will increase sharply.

The Saudi experience hold lessons for many governments in the Middle East. What they did right and what they did wrong are worth studying as the war on terrorism nears the three-year mark. Harold C. Hutchison ([email protected])




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close