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 reports, Shi’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.