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Counterterrorism in Saudi Arabia New Approaches to Radical Threats

Reviewed by Ondřej Novák



by Ondřej Novák – With the resurgence of jihadi terrorism in its 2.0 form, Rachel M. Rudolph´s work on Counterterrorism in Saudi Arabia provides readers with fresh insights into relevant counterterrorism strategies. The goal of this book is to raise awareness about Saudi Arabia´s experiences with terrorism, and focuses on clashes with the Al-Qaeda network and, specifically, with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). As a result, Saudi Arabia has developed a counterterrorism and antiterrorism strategy based around 3 main pillars:

  1. ​Intelligence, Security and Public Diplomacy
  2. Countering Terrorist Financing
  3. Providing Psychological Security.

The first pillar is built on the role of intelligence, security and public diplomacy and Rudolph traces it from the end of the 1990´s until the first half of the 2010´s. During this phase, Saudi Arabia adopted its strategy in intelligence gathering and analysis. Based on intelligence, security forces adopted a more proactive strategy, such as pre-emptive raids and tracking of potential terrorists. This chapter describes the legal reforms and the introduction of a special criminal court, tasked with judging terrorist cases. Through the use of public diplomacy, Saudi society, according to Rudolph, endorsed those changes and accepted the government´s call for peace and stability.

The second pillar is related to countering terrorist financing. Rudolph highlights the debate between analysts and academics about the importance of this element in any counterterrorist strategy. Nonetheless, the strategy revolves around targeting money laundering and increasing cooperation with financial institutions such as banks and the implementation of legislative reforms which would make the funding more difficult or, ideally, impossible. The emphasis of the second pillar is on the long-term impacts, rather than short-term objectives.

The final pillar is presented as psychological security. Its purpose is to combat the ideological and intellectual support for terrorism. It includes elements such as promoting a moderate interpretation of Islam through state-trained Imams, education, media campaigns and at some point religious debates between clerics, state officials and Muslim youth groups. Saudi Arabia also runs a deradicalisation and rehabilitation programme for convicts charged with jihadi-related crimes.

The main institutional framework of the Saudi counterterrorism and antiterrorism model is in the hands of the Ministry of Interior, which is primarily responsible for the implementation of the strategy. At its conclusion, the book evaluates the success and limits of the strategy and it proposes continuing and deepening of counterterrorist cooperation as new groups, like the Islamic State, emerge.

Rudolph does not only focus on the three pillars, but also provides a historical background, which led to the development of this strategy. Rudolph describes the evolution of Al-Qaeda from its foundation – in the late 1980´s as one of the products of the Soviet-Afghan war – throughout their operations in 1990´s, the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent attacks in Europe. This background on Al-Qaeda is followed by a description of violence in Saudi Arabia in the 1990´s, 2000-2002 and 2003-2006 waves committed by AQAP and other jihadi groups like the Tigers of the Gulf and Brigade of Faith. Rudolph also highlights the importance of the power of perception. Particularly the perception of Saudi Arabia in eyes of the United States before and after 9/11 since after the attacks on the Wold Trade Centre, the US public accusing the Kingdom of sponsoring terrorism. That misperception, of Saudi Arabia as a terrorism-sponsoring state undermines its counterterrorism efforts and can make international cooperation difficult.

There are a few shortcomings to this work however, such as engaging in the dilemma of the limits of the strategy and the potential costs to civil society. This problem is shared by all those confronting violent terror groups and answers related to shortening balance are complex. Nonetheless, this book does provide a comprehensive insight into Saudi Arabia´s counterterrorist strategy. This book comes highly recommended.