Lessons from the Saudi Fight against Terror
Weekly Pulse
February 5-12, 2010
Since majority of the 9/11 attackers were Saudi nationals, Saudi Arabia had come under severe criticism after the terrorist attacks on the United States over eight years ago. But, then, like many other Muslim countries, from Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East to Pakistan and Indonesia in South and South-East Asia, the Kingdom saw some of the most spectacular terrorist acts orchestrated by the very global terrorist network that struck America; namely, al-Qaeda.

Consequently, just like the rest of international community, includng the West and the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia began a counter-terrorism programme, which has become exemplary. It encompasses unique approaches worth-emulating especially for Muslim countries like Pakistan, which are confronting a severe terrorist threat and are the principal victim of an organized campaign of terrorism being waged by what the Saudis call “deviants” within the world of Islam.

Debut Work

Until a few months ago, there was hardly any worthwhile study on the comprehensive programme adopted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to combat extremism and terrorism, except a few newspaper stories or a couple of scholarly reports. Now we have a complete book on the subject, authored by a serving Saudi diplomat Ali S Awadh Asseri, the kingdom’s current ambassador to Lebanon.

Titled as Combating Terrorism: Saudi Arabia’s Role in the War on Terror and published by Oxford University Press, the book analyses the internal and external dimensions of the Saudi counter-terrorism approach, compares it with the counter-terrorism approaches of some other Muslim countries and also attempts to place the issue of terrorism in proper perspective by underscoring its history, causes and implications.

Before joining his current diplomatic post in Lebanon last year, Ali S Awadh Asseri served as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Pakistan for eight years. During his active diplomatic career in Islamabad, ambassador Asseri had authored another book titled Post September 11: The Efforts to Combat the Negative Fallout, but it only included his news articles, speeches and statements on the subject. The book under review, on the other hand, is an outcome of indepth academic research. Its significance lies in it being the first most comprehensive, internationally published, English language work on terrorism by a Saudi ambassador who is a witness to Pakistan’s tumultuous years since 9/11.

Issues Raised

The book begins by tracing the problems relating to defining terrorism and goes on to a functional definition of terrorism. It also discusses terrorism in practice and highlights the purposes and goals of terrorism, defines it in its historical perspective and concludes with terrorism practiced in the name of religion. The Islamic perspective on terrorism is examined and outlines the abhorrence that Islam has for terrorist practices, the real meaning of jihad and the Islamic tradition of peaceful co-existence. The author elaborates on the root causes of terrorism with specific stress on the grievances of Muslims throughout the world.

The main focus of ambassador’s Asseri’s new book, as clear from its sub-title, is on the Saudi strategy against terrorism. It describes the efforts made by the Saudi government to combat terrorism, with specific reference to the innovative Saudi strategy that has been successfully implemented in the Kingdom in its domestic, regional and international dimensions in recent years.

According to the author, since September 11, 2001 terrorist events, and especially in response to a series of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia in the subsequent years, the Saudi authorities have “adopted several measures to domestically tackle the terrorist wave. These include steps to regulate the work of charitable organizations and reforms in the country’s banking and financial sectors to combat terrorist financing, reformative initiatives in the educational and information sectors to prevent deviant thinking, and stringent security and legal measures to nab terrorists and bring them to justice.”

Three-Pronged Approach

In the domestic sphere, says ambassador Asseri, the Kingdom’s counter-terrorism approach is premised on “a three-pronged strategy of Prevention, Cure and Care. Apart from adopting stringent security measures and legal procedures to fight, pre-empt and prevent terrorism, the Kingdom has undertaken wide-ranging reforms in the country’s financial, banking, administrative, educational, information and societal sectors as a means to finding long lasting solution to the problem of terrorism. These include a host of steps aimed at fighting terrorism financing, and reforms in the curriculum being taught at educational institutions offering religious learning.”

According to the author, “for those among the deviants who are arrested and jailed on charges of inciting or committing terrorism, the Saudi government has put in place an extensive ‘out-reach’ campaign, whereby religious scholars engage in a productive discourse with the detainees and their families, who are, likewise, taken care of. The government has also attempted to make former detainees responsible and useful citizens of the state by offering them incentives such as jobs and facilities for learning a variety of skills of their liking. The ‘out-reach’ campaign has produced results as many of the detainees suspected of inciting or committing terrorism, during their trial in court or the prison term, repented their past deeds and declared never to encourage terrorist activity, or take part in it.”

Global Recognition

In fact, the lessons of this strategy have become particularly attractive for Western media. Last year, for instance, Robert Lacey produced a documentary for PBS titled “Rehab for Terrorists?, investigating “the surprising success of Saudi Arabia's approach to dealing with terrorists and extremists - without torture or water-boarding. A New York Times report wrote about the Saudi rehabilitation programme, saying “Since the launching of the programme, more than 3,000 persons have participated in the counselling programme. More than 90 per cent of them have renounced their former beliefs and have been released. They are now living a normal life like other peaceful Saudi citizens. Some are still incarcerated as they are undergoing treatment. It is expected that they would also renounce their deviant ways and would return to living a healthy and non-violent life…The post-prison rehabilitation programme, which is now being expanded, is only one part of a broader effort to address the issue of violent extremism across Saudi Arabia. It includes dialogues with, or even suppression of, the more extremist clerics.”

As for the external dimension of Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism strategy, ambassador Asseri says that in addition to tackling terrorism at home through a multi-faceted counter-terrorism approach, Saudi Arabia has “supported numerous regional and international efforts in the fight against terrorism through bilateral and multi-lateral agreements. The Saudi government works closely with the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, besides a number of other countries and international and regional organizations concerned about the threat of international terrorism, to exchange and share with them any counter-terrorism information quickly and effectively so that a possible future terrorist act is prevented from happening.”

Conclusive Remarks

Insofar as the global need for developing effective long-term country terrorism and counter-extremism strategy is concerned, the author argues, “While force remains an option, it is not the means to eliminate terrorist thinking or pursuits. The solution lies in forging a close and workable understanding among the players engaged in the pursuit of eliminating this scourge based on recognition of the inalienable rights of the people of the world without any prejudice on the basis of caste, color or creed. It is also linked with following a policy of education and reform as part of the way the authorities approach the malaise.”

Ambasador Asseri concludes his work by saying, “In the pursuit of combating terrorism, it must be kept in mind that while one may learn from strategies followed by other countries, but, in the end, it has to be an indigenous and home grown strategy that would work. While there may be obvious similarities in the obtaining situations in two different countries that may encourage the leaders to borrow, there would also be obvious dissimilarities that would discourage a process of blindly emulating all the contours of a strategy. A more workable recipe would be to adapt the principal yardsticks to the home needs of another country and mix them with the local requirements for optimum results.”

Perhaps the only weakness of the book is that it overlooks the alleged role of Wahhabism in the recent wave of international terrorism, which is understandable because the author is still a diplomat. That Mr. Asseri could author such a courageous work as a serving envoy of his country is appreciable, and his arguments desrve to be taken seriously for the same reason.

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