mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Arabian Nightmares
Saudi Arabia and the Trouble with Terrorism

With ISIS snaking through Syria and Iraq, the Saudis are pouring money into anti-terror efforts abroad, while deterring and even criminalizing extremism at home.

Along with its recent gift of $100 million to the UN’s anti-terror center, the Kingdom has bestowed billions of dollars in arms and cash on Lebanon, which has recently come under attack by ISIS. A report by Lori Plotkin Boghardt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy suggests that it is doing at least as much to counteract extremism within its borders:

In July, the chief of the controversial religious police told personnel that eradicating extremist ideas and confronting those who promote terrorist principles would now be among their most significant duties. “Your mission is no longer confined to monitoring shops that remain open during prayer times or instructing women to adhere to modest dress codes,” he said. And earlier this month, the Interior Ministry declared that new security screenings would be required for preachers; this would presumably include screening them for support of militant ideology. Meanwhile, the kingdom’s highest religious body, the Council of Senior Scholars, announced it was establishing an interactive platform in which religious leaders will engage citizens to combat terrorist rhetoric aimed at luring youths into fighting abroad. The announcement came days after King Abdullah issued a rare public rebuke of the council for not doing enough to counter extremism.

Clerics at the highest level have denounced terrorism; the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, the country’s premier religious authority, said on Tuesday, “Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on Earth, destroying human civilization, are not in any way part of Islam, but are enemy number one of Islam.”

Saudi Arabia has reason to be alarmed. In May, Saudi sources stated that a plot to murder government officials had been foiled, and 62 of nearly 100 suspected terrorists were arrested. Meanwhile, ISIS has picked up a large number of Saudi citizens as followers on its race through the Middle East, and they are also well-represented in Jahbat al-Nusra. Worse still, other Saudis find ISIS rather appealing on the whole: According to one informal poll Boghardt cites, “Saudis overwhelmingly believe ISIS ‘conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law’.”

Though ISIS may be the fastest growing threat in the region, al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP) has become bolder in its forays across Saudi Arabia’s southern border:

[H]alf a dozen AQAP members (all Saudi nationals) attacked a checkpoint from the Yemeni side of the border on July 4, killing several Saudi security officers and one Yemeni officer. Two terrorists made their way past the border and blew themselves up inside a Saudi government building several dozen miles north. This was AQAP’s first incursion into the kingdom since its 2009 assassination attempt on Prince Muhammad bin Nayef al-Saud, the assistant interior minister at the time.

Yemen’s politics are growing more precarious. As the FT reportsShi’a militants are drawing close to the capital, while local al-Qaeda affiliates gain in strength. The age-old Sunni-Shi’a struggle may erupt into bloodshed in yet another corner of the Middle East—and start yet another war next door for Saudi Arabia.

Boghardt recommends a closer relationship between Washington and Riyadh with regard to counterterrorism operations, but she cautions that the Saudis often don’t distinguish between peaceful opposition and extremism. Nonetheless, the Saudi opposition to terror can be an asset for the U.S., both in the goal of beating back ISIS and other extremists and in ensuring that tottering Sunni states (and American allies) like Lebanon and Egypt pull through.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    All of this alarm over ISIS and Islamic sectarian violence is foolish. The backward Islamic culture is facing massive changes, and change always brings out reactionaries. The best place for these Jihadists to focus their rage is on each other, so the Shiite vs Sunni sectarian fight is beneficial to the west, as it consumes resources that would otherwise be used to murder innocent westerners. This is the strategy known as “Divide and Conquer”, that was use with such success by the Byzantine empire against the barbarians on its borders. The US with its weakest president in history isn’t in a position to do anything else anyway. Not that there is really anything western cultures can do to help Islamic cultures to advance, but we had planted a seed of Democracy in Iraq which Obama couldn’t wait to abandon, that would have provided an example for other Islamics to follow.

    • El Gringo

      While I shed no tears for jihadi on jihadi violence, the problem is that more extremists are created than eliminated. The siren song of jihad calls impressionable young men from all over the West, radicalizes them, and trains them. These jihadists then return to their adopted countries, committed to spreading their extremism either through their own proselytizing or, more worrisome, through terror attacks.

      The other problem with letting the sectarian fighting continue on its own logical path is that it will destabilize the entire region. If the U.S. just lets this go the fighting will spread throughout the entire Middle East and most likely spill over into North Africa, Turkey, and South and East Asia. That is definitely NOT beneficial to the West.

      I agree it’s tempting to sit back with a bottle of bourbon and a fat cigar and just watch the place burn but that will, in the long run, cost far more than the price of limiting the fighting.

      I think the main issue for the West is that it cannot believe that there is no simple solution here. This story does not have a happy ending. It’s a bad situation, with bad options and the West has to choose which bad option is the least bad.

  • Peter

    Saudi Arabia fighting extremists? Is this the same Saudi Arabia that funds Wahabi mosques all over the world? The same Saudi Arabia that does not allow women to drive? Or to travel or get surgery without the permission and company of an adult male relative? I guess the definition of extremism depends on what your definition of “is” is.

  • Duperray

    Even if Saudi Arabia anti-terrorist action might not be enough, it is anyway far more than western “democratic states” do: At least they have identified their n°1 Enemy.
    While western states do not even have the courage to tell who it is, bowing more and more in front of accumulated non-democratic requests of the (visible) internal conqueror.

  • Peripatetic

    Many posts on the AI feed have claimed that it is the clash between Sunni and Shi’a that is the primary dynamic in the Middle East. Many other posts (like this one) have claimed that it is the clash between extremists (Islamists) and moderates that is the primary dynamic in the Middle East. It would be great to have an essay that weaves together this warp and woof into a grand, comprehensible narrative.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service