Riyadh and London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Following Saudi Arabia’s official decision to designate a number of local and regional organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as terrorist groups, domestic and regional figures and analysts have moved to respond. Many local and regional figures have praised the decision, while also warning against potential future challenges.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Saudi Justice Minister Mohamed Issa affirmed the government’s duty to take all necessary legal measures to ensure domestic security and stability.
Issa praised the royal decree, which he said is based on protecting national security, adding that the recent escalation in the ideologies of such groups has been extremely harmful to public tranquility and the state has no choice but to seek to confront this.
The Saudi Justice Minister confirmed that the spread of these terrorist groups and their ideologies has harmed social cohesion in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Interior Ministry statement officially designated the Al-Qaeda organization and its regional franchises, including the Al-Nusra Front in Syria, as terrorist organizations, in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah’s activities in the Kingdom, and Yemen’s Houthi Movement.
In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, Saudi Interior Ministry Spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki said that the move marks the beginning of a new phase in the Kingdom’s counter-terrorism strategy. The Interior Ministry’s statement is an accompaniment to the Royal Order clamping down on terrorism issued last month by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The Interior Ministry statement granted Saudi nationals fighting abroad a 15-day extension to “rethink their position and return immediately home.” Following the end of the deadline, any Saudi national found guilty of fighting abroad or of being a member of a terrorist organization will face a punishment of not less than three and not more than 20 years in prison, according to the original decree.
Articles of last month’s royal decree have already been put into effect by Saudi authorities. Tawfiq Al-Sudairi, and undersecretary in the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowment, Da’wa and Guidance, revealed that “some preachers suspected of collaborating with these groups and ideologies have been arrested, while others were fired.”
“Saudi Arabia pursued the policy of pardon and forgiveness for a time; however, unfortunately some people viewed this as a weakness . . . Now the time has come to say ‘enough is enough,’” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Sudairi added: “It has become clear to anybody with any reason that these groups and organizations have foreign agendas and objectives targeting religion and the state; this is a red line for the Saudi leadership. Therefore there was no choice but to decisively confront it.”
Dr. Fahad Al-Enezi, a member of the Saudi Shura Council, also praised the decision. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “This leads us to say that there is a sense of comprehensiveness in addressing terrorist ideologies and calls, particularly as it grants a 15-day grace period for those fighting abroad to return.”
The president of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Sheikh, said that in his view the Interior Ministry’s decision comes at the right time after the threat represented by these groups has increased in the recent past.
The Saudi Interior Ministry’s terror list and King Abdullah’s recent directive clamping down on extremist ideology were also welcomed by other countries in the region, including Egypt, which has also recently designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdel-Atti said that the King’s decision “reflects the coordination and solidarity” between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, adding that he hopes that other regional countries take the same decision to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We expect other countries to fulfill their responsibilities in the fight against terrorism,” Abdel-Atti told a press conference on Friday.
Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, told Asharq Al-Awsat that Saudi Arabia’s decision will serve as a strong basis for authorities to prosecute terrorists.
He said: “The formal creation of a terrorist group blacklist by Saudi Arabia means that the Kingdom will have the legal basis to prosecute domestic and foreign nationals who either belong to or financially support these groups. This signals a degree of increased formalization and institutionalization of the security and judicial efforts and procedures of Saudi Arabia.”
“Such laws and processes have existed in countries like the United States for some time now and have been very effective, although also frequently abused by the authorities. It strikes me that in the case of Al-Qaeda, for example, the Kingdom will be more effective at implementing this new regulation, largely because the group is relatively small and increasingly well-known in terms of its members’ identities. In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, it will prove more difficult to apply this regulation because the organization’s membership is much larger, both within and outside the Kingdom, more secretive and more entrenched,” Haykel added.
Asharq Al-Awsat also spoke with Matthew Levitt, the director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He said: “Saudi Arabia’s decision to put a variety of violent extremist and terrorist groups on a list of banned terrorist groups is a sign of the stresses that the region in general and the Kingdom in particular now face. The regional spillover from Syria, both in terms of the massive humanitarian crisis and the flow of foreign fighters in both directions, to and from Syria, is deeply destabilizing.”
But the Muslim Brotherhood moved quickly to condemn the decision, saying in a statement: “It is one of the founding principles of the group not to interfere in matters of other states, and this new position from the Kingdom is a complete departure from the past relationship with the group, since the reign of the founding King until now.”
Reporting by Fahd Al-Zayabi, Huda Al-Saleh, Bandar Al-Sharida, Amr Al-Raslani and Bandar Al-Qahtani.