Saudis grapple with terrorism

Posted in Terrorism | 16-Feb-05 | Author: Ehsan Ahrari| Source: Asia Times

Saudi troops secure the entrance to Marriot hotel during the counter-terrorism conference in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia recently held a summit on countering terrorism. Considering that it has long denied that such a threat even existed, holding the summit was indeed a major development. Two other factors seem to have motivated the Saudi rulers. First, in the wake of several al-Qaeda attacks inside the kingdom, it appears that a consensus has been developed within the inner sanctum of the Saudi family that something needs to be done for the very survival of the regime.

The Saudi regime has the best instincts to judge when its survival is at stake. Then it reacts only episodically to eradicate perceived causes, but never to dig deeply and uproot the larger reasons underlying a malignant problem. Second, the United States has kept its own pressure on the kingdom to take some measures about reforming its polity, including drastically altering a number of taboos - such as militant jihad, continued disfranchisement of women, and obscurantist insistence on puritanism - that are envisaged in Washington as major problems related to the Wahhabi school of thought.

Jihadi forces in Afghanistan, in Central Asia and in the contiguous areas were gathering momentum between 1997 and 2001. Their purpose was to overthrow the existing governments. Then in September 2001, the US itself became a target of their attacks. Since then, Washington is not only busy fighting the jihadis - either affiliated to or independent of al-Qaeda - but is also pressing Saudi Arabia to eradicate its very source by revising the curricula of Saudi religious schools.

The jihadi groups were not always inimical to the US, however. In the 1980s, the resurgence of militant jihad served the Cold War-related strategic objectives of the US of defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. As good allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were more than willing partners in revitalizing militant jihadism as a weapon to fight and defeat the "godless" communists, who were also occupying the land of Islam. (Ironically, the jihadis are currently using the same logic to attack the Western occupation forces in Iraq. America's continued occupation of Iraq is one of the reasons that Osama bin Laden mentions in justifying "defensive jihad".)

In retrospect, the US should have dealt with its own policy of encouraging the revitalization of jihadism right after the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan. But, as usual, since great powers have a highly intricate hierarchy of interests, no one paid any attention to the possibility that the chickens of jihadism of the 1980s would come home to roost in the 1990s; or that the target would be the US itself. Washington should have known in the 1980s that its enemies would one day be able to use Islam as a tool to criticize, denigrate and physically attack US citizens and assets in the Muslim region of the world, since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution of 1979 was loudly and repeatedly depicting that country as "the Great Satan", even then.

On the contrary, no one in their wildest dreams could have imagined that the militant jihadis would some day turn against the seat of Islamic puritanism, Saudi Arabia, where the very legitimacy of the ruling dynasty stemmed from the pact of 1744-45 between the descendants of Mohammad bin Abdel Wahhab and King Saud. In this instance, one has to understand the enormous distance that the kingdom of Bedouin fighters has traversed between then (ie, 1744-55) and in the 1990s, and how complex its own strategic interests had become in the duration. But the trouble was that the Wahhabi puritans were judging the performance of the Saudi kingdom by using the measure of that anachronistic pact of 1745. One could argue that even the Saudi dynasty did not realize how cumbersome its own responsibilities had become to its region and to the international community at the time the US was attacked on September 11, 2001.

Saudi Arabia's initial response was a cavalier denial about the participation of its citizens, then it took the position that the US was somehow exaggerating the presence of militant jihadism in Saudi Arabia, and definitely misstating any witting role of the Saudi rulers in promoting it anywhere in the world. It should be unequivocally stated at this point that no suggestion is being made here that the Saudi government had any role in the September 11 attacks on the US. It came under intense criticism and scrutiny for allowing the perpetuation of jihadism through the curricula of its religious schools, and for allowing the abuse of Islamic charities by al-Qaeda for financing its global operations.

Even in demonstrating its resolve to the world that it is serious about eradicating terrorism both within and outside its borders, the Saudi government came up with an approach that is quintessentially Saudi. It put forward a number of Islamic scholars who are on its payroll to label terrorism as "anti-Islamic". Such a denunciation becomes a rationale for using brutal force to fight merely its symptoms, much the same way a cop deals with criminals in a crime-ridden neighborhood.

During the summit on terrorism, the Saudi government initiated the assiduous use of its religious scholars to nullify the jihadist effects of its own schools. Dr Abdul Aziz al-Askar, a professor of the Islamic University of Imam Muhammad bin-Saud, and Dr Majid al-Turki, an adviser at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, made their presence felt by stating that fighting terrorism had become the top priority of the Saudi government. Al-Turki spoke of an Internet plan drawn up by the Saudi government to have a "secret dialogue" with youths who sympathized with extremist groups. Some 800 messages were reportedly sent, as a result of which some of those youths are reported to have "recanted their views". [1] He also announced that the Saudi government intended to establish an international center for fighting terrorism, and called for the assessment of the established counterterrorism policies. This measure was definitely in line with the Bush administration's ongoing endeavor to restructure the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the United States.

Another important announcement during that conference was the decision of the kingdom to "tighten the noose" on Islamic charities and control their work, a measure that the Bush administration has been strongly advocating since soon after the September 11 attacks.

The Saudi government has also initiated a massive public education campaign under the rubric, "horrors of terrorism". It includes a public display of pictures of bomb-damaged buildings and bloodied corpses in different parts of the country that have experienced terrorist attacks.

The closest the government came to describing the current objective of its counterterrorism strategy was when Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Saleh Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh stated, "The general strategy is to expand the base of moderates." He hastened to add, however, that as long as there were "bad things" happening in Iraq and Palestine, it would prolong negative events in the rest of the world.

What is wrong with the current handling of the Saudi government regarding terrorism? To the extent that any reform-oriented measures or endeavors to develop a strategy should start somewhere, the Saudi summit is a good start. However, if its real purpose is to develop a strategy - which by definition is an enormously cumbersome process - Saudi Arabia has to take up a series of follow-up measures soon after all the lights in the summit hall are turned off and the global media depart the premises.

To start with, the causes of terrorism are highly intricate and defy unidimensional explanations and similar attempts to resolve it. Serious endeavors to eradicate it within one society or in a region must be based on developing comprehensive and multifaceted policies and implementing them on a prolonged and trial-and-error basis. Using "state-owned" mullahs to depict terrorism as "anti-Islamic" and suppressing it by arresting or even killing a few hundred of the "usual suspects" will only prove to be a stopgap measure. It will do nothing to eradicate it.

The Saudi government should realize that its chief problem stems from its closeness, its secretive nature, and its very approach to governance that exclusively relies on dynastic rule. Democracies have no problem debating about problems that ail them - no matter how serious - and then developing corrective policy measures. Close societies, on the contrary, silently suffer from major problems until the political system implodes. Such may be the fate of Saudi Arabia.

What the Saudi government needs to do is to systematically chip away at the Wahhabi version of Islamic puritanism that insists on maintaining the notion of monolithism - only their version of it - that is alien to Islam. Consequently, believers in such a monolithic notion have argued that any deviation from that particular interpretation is heretic, thus a cause for the elimination of all heretics. As a religion that is intended to be relevant until the end of time, Islam never meant to be monolithic, highly static, inward looking, or obscurantist. Doing away with the Wahhabi monolithic frame of reference means that the Saudi government will have to find an entirely new framework for its legitimacy, which, in turn, is likely to shake up the very foundation its polity. Is the monarchy up for such an iconoclastic task? Looking at its past record, there is little reason to be sanguine about it. The alternative might be the gradual opening of the Saudi polity through public debates on various controversial aspects of the Wahhabi school. Even when it is managed, such an approach is still potentially explosive. In the absence of such a radical approach, no Saudi government will be able to counter terrorism, much less develop an effective counterterrorism strategy.

[1] It should be noted that the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies places the number of potential al-Qaeda militants in Saudi Arabia at about 18,000. That figure is also soft and is based on guesswork. Only the Saudi intelligence service may be able to discuss figures on the actual size of militants inside its borders, and it is not talking.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.