Any visitor to Saudi Arabia would not notice that the country has engaged in a fierce battle against terrorism since the mid-nineties and not since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Yet the security forces continue to fight terrorist networks and recently uncovered terrorist plots that would have been disastrous had they been implemented. This is a distinguished success for the Saudi security forces but one question remains: why Saudi Arabia?
There are several reasons. Terrorism has not struck Saudi Arabia alone; in the 1990s, terrorism flared up in Egypt and thrived in Afghanistan, then Sudan, and struck Saudi Arabia from time to time before 9/11.
Following the September 11 attacks on the United States, and the shock that most of the perpetrators of the attack were Saudis, and after the Al Qaeda war was launched in Saudi Arabia in 2003, there were claims that Al Qaeda had retreated to where it came from; however these claims proved to be false.
Riyadh confronted Al Qaeda’s terrorism resolutely and dismantled the organization’s cells and symbols. I still remember when Prince Naif Bin Abdulaziz said, “If we have sleeper cells, we will wake them up and arrest those who belong to them.” At the time, some people said that he was “exaggerating” but in the end, he was correct and this is what happened.
After that, we witnessed an even uglier side to Al Qaeda in the form of non-Saudi youth and symbols in Europe, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Kuwait. The warning sign is now flashing from the countries of the Arab Maghreb. In addition, it became clear that the majority of leaders were non-Saudi; not only around the world but in Saudi Arabia itself. A Saudi statement that was made recently referred to cells that consisted of various nationalities and the exploitation of the Hajj pilgrimage so that Al Qaeda elements from abroad could enter Saudi Arabia.
This prolonged introduction, with summarized details, is to say that there are now two issues that we face. Firstly, since 9/11, Al Qaeda has been seeking to pit Saudi Arabia against the United States and the West and tarnish the kingdom’s image by depicting it as a state that sponsors terrorism in order to isolate it politically and then pounce upon it. However this was prevented by an early political Saudi awareness, followed by a somewhat elitist awareness which later spread to the rest of society.
Secondly, Al Qaeda exploited Arab political crises and conflicts on all levels; from media incitement to overlooking cells that traveled freely on the borders of some Arab countries and at times with passports.
With the exploitation of political altercations and conflicts, young Saudis came to represent precious jewels for anyone who sought to battle Riyadh. In Nahr al Bared for example, a young Saudi man was found dead with his hands tied and an explosive belt around his waist. There are numerous examples.
In Iraq, the Baathists also exploited the name of “Al Qaeda” as well as many young Saudis and others. They were going to Iraq and were shocked when they found that they were dealing with people who had no links whatsoever to religious issues. In Iraq, apart from the Baathists, there were others who benefited from tarnishing the reputation of Wahhabism.
The number of Saudis [belonging to Al Qaeda] has decreased but Al Qaeda itself is expanding. Here we get to the point that Saudi Arabia itself must understand; namely the launching of an ideological war on the same level as the security battle to fight terrorism. Moreover, despite everything that has been accomplished with regards to charity work, there must be high levels of transparency and strictness.
There must also be laws that criminalize incitement and extremism and there should not be any negligence with regards to the issuance of fatwas [religious edicts]. There needs to be discussion on the level of religious and ideological leaders in order to broaden the prospects of social enlightenment and renounce sympathy with any ideology that advocates violence and extremism.
Finally, there is the matter of education; steps must be taken quickly with regards to teachers before curricula regardless of all the steps that have been taken already.