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The price of security in Saudi Arabia Open in fullscreen

Mohammad Ali Musawi

The price of security in Saudi Arabia

Saudi security forces inspect site of bombing that targeted Al-Anoud Mosque in Dammam [AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 5 June, 2015

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Recent attacks on Shia worshippers in Saudi Arabia raises questions about kingdom's counter-terrorism strategy, hailed as innovative and effective.
Saudi Arabia's ministry of interior has published names and photographs of 16 suspects it believes are connected to recent terrorist attacks targeting Shia mosques in the easter province of the kingdom which has a Shia majority.

The  first attack was in Qatif on 22 May 2015 and killed 21 people and wounded scores more; while the second, a week later, targeted another  Shia mosque in the city of Dammam killing at four.

But the latest attacks were not the first.

In  November 2014, the eastern town of Al-Dalwa was the scene of another bloody attack where masked gunmen opened fire on Shia worshipers commemorating Ashura. The gunmen killed seven people at the scene and an eighth in a neighbouring village, and two security officers.

The ministry of interior identified the most recent Dammam attacker as 20-year-old Khaled Aayid Muhammad al-Wahbi al-Shimmari, who had been disguised in women's clothes and blew himself up outside the mosque when volunteer mosque guards became suspicious of him.

The Islamic State group (IS) has claimed responsibility for all three attacks.

As part its hunt for the perpetratos, Riyadh offered a reward of one million Riyals ($266,000) for information that would lead to the capture of one of the 16 wanted suspects.

However, such measures by Saudi authorities raise questions about whether enough is being done to address the issue of terrorism inside the Kingdom, particularly sectarian attacks, or whether financial incentives are merely quick fixes with no longevity.


Tough on terror

Since the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, in which 15 out of the 19 attackers were Saudi nationals, Saudi Arabia has cultivated an image of being very tough on terrorism.

Under pressure by the international community, the Kingdom began an internal crackdown on extremist groups and preachers who espoused extremist views or advocated a religious war against the West and non-Muslims.

     After extremists undergo the rehabilitation programmes, they are transferred into halfway houses aimed at gradually reintegrating them into society.


However, starting in 2003, al-Qaeda launched a campaign of bombings and sporadic attacks in Saudi Arabia that started with the Riyadh compound bombing in May 2003. Saudi authorities soon realised the need for a multi-faceted approach to counter the very present and destabilizing threat of terrorism, through targeting the intellectual roots of violent extremist ideology.

The stated Saudi counterterrorism strategy is composed of programmes aimed at prevention, rehabilitation and post release care. The prevention element of the strategy employs educational programmes to raise awareness about the dangers of radical Islam and extremism, along with a wide scale media campaign to counter al-Qaeda's ideas.

The rehabilitation element engages violent extremists and their sympathizers in theological debates to change their minds about extremist beliefs, especially takfir (accusing Muslims of heresy) which is a prominent reason for jihadist violence. These de-radicalisation efforts also include psychological counseling for extremists.


After extremists undergo the rehabilitation programmes, they are transferred into halfway houses aimed at gradually reintegrating them into society. Further, extremists are incentivised to stay on the straight and narrow through stipends, educational grants and even marriage expenses.

Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism strategy headed by now Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Nayef, received a number of blows in 2009, after Said Ali al-Shihri, a former Guantanamo detainee and a graduate of the rehabilitation programme went on to become the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

     The increased anti-Shia rhetoric since the start of the war has had a negative impact on the Shias in Saudi Arabia and sectarian relations

- Toby Matthiesen


Later that year, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef was the target of an assassination attempt when an al-Qaeda member posing as a repentant militant wanting to join the rehabilitation programme detonated an underwear bomb at a gathering held by the prince, causing the prince to be hospitalised. Despite these incidents and others, the strategy is still hailed as a success.

New threats, what strategy?

With a new King and a new foreign policy aimed at directly curbing Iran's influence in the region, the Saudi-Iranian power play is increasingly being framed in sectarian language, especially after the launch of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.

According to Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow in Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge in the UK, "The increased anti-Shia rhetoric since the start of the war has had a negative impact on the Shias in Saudi Arabia and sectarian relations".


Saudi officials have strongly condemned the recent attacks including the Saudi Grand Mufti who described them as "attempting to sow discord and drive a wedge between fellow countrymen". However, given the sectarian polarisation in the region and while Saudi Shias continue to be portrayed as a fifth column, such attacks against them are not surprising.

The officials' announcement of bounties for the capture of terror suspects and for the foiling of attacks may be a move to demonstrate resolve after suffering two serious security breaches only a week apart. However, implementing the country's counterterrorism strategy could prove to be more effective. Although the strategy has its failings, it is hailed as a success by many policy makers around the world.

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