April 9, 2008 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 425

Saudi Arabia's Anti-Terror Campaign

April 9, 2008 | By Y. Yehoshua and E. Glass*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 425


In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been making intense efforts to fight both terrorism and its religious and ideological underpinnings. These efforts have included activity by Saudi security apparatuses, senior government officials, and senior clerics, as well as by educators and journalists. Among the results of this comprehensive anti-terror campaign are the uncovering of several terrorist cells in the country; a government warning to Saudi youth to refrain from engaging in jihad outside the country; and fatwas and declarations by senior religious establishment clerics stating that engaging in jihad outside Saudi Arabia is a grave offense that does serious damage to Saudi Arabia and to the entire Muslim world.

In addition, Saudi authorities have called on preachers to refrain from using their pulpits to incite young people to jihad and to curse the Jews and Christians, and the Education Ministry has developed a program to fight terrorist ideology in the schools.

Since Islamist websites play a significant role in spreading extremism, under a new law, anyone convicted of setting up a website supporting terrorism will be sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined five million riyals (about $1.3 million). Also, the Saudi intelligence apparatus has taken steps to close down such websites and to increase public awareness of the danger they pose.

This report reviews some of the measures that Saudi authorities have taken in the country's struggle against terrorism.

Efforts to Prevent Terrorist Activities

Capture of Terrorist Cells in Saudi Arabia
In November 2007, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced that six terrorist cells, with a total of 208 members, had been captured in a large-scale operation. The investigation revealed that these cells had been planning terrorist operations inside Saudi Arabia, including attacks on oil installations and assassinations of security personnel. They had also planned to target senior clerics who had come out against the terrorist organizations, including Saudi Mufti Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz bin 'Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh and Senior 'Ulama Council members such as Sheikh Saleh bin Fawzan Al-Fawzan. [1] About one month later, Saudi security forces captured another terrorist cell, which had been planning to attack Muslim pilgrims during the Hajj. [2]

Saudi Government Calls on Youth to Refrain from Engaging in Jihad Abroad
In an unprecedented move, the Saudi government issued an announcement prohibiting Saudi youth from waging jihad abroad. The announcement, issued December 1, 2007, called on young Saudis inside the country and abroad who were planning to engage in jihad in areas of conflict to turn themselves in as soon as possible - either to Saudi security apparatuses, if they were still in the country, or to the nearest Saudi Embassy, if they were already abroad. According to the announcement, anyone doing so would have their voluntary surrender taken into account "in future consideration of their cases." This unprecedented appeal was seen by Saudis as indicative of a policy shift, because Saudi King 'Abdallah - like King Fahd before him - had always tended to grant amnesty to Saudis who had had a change of heart after making plans to engage in jihad abroad. [3]

Saudi Mufti Issues Fatwa Prohibiting Youth from Engaging in Jihad Abroad
Senior Saudi clerics also took part in the effort to prevent Saudi youth from engaging in jihad abroad - and by doing so prompted the terrorist cells arrested in November 2007 to mark them as targets.

On October 1, 2007, Saudi Mufti Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz bin 'Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh issued a fatwa prohibiting Saudi youth from engaging in jihad in Iraq. The fatwa, which was published in the Saudi press in both Saudi Arabia and London, stated that setting forth to wage jihad abroad without authorization from the ruler was a serious offense, and that Saudi youth who did so were being exploited by dubious elements in the East and in the West. These youth, the fatwa added, were causing grave damage to Saudi Arabia, to Islam, and to the Muslims.

In the fatwa, the mufti wrote: "Out of concern for our youth, and in order to advise the Muslim imams and the Muslim public, I have resolved to issue [the following fatwa]. For several years now, we have been faced [with a phenomenon] of our youth setting forth from Saudi Arabia with the intention of waging jihad for the sake of Allah. These young people are full of enthusiasm and religious zeal, but lack sufficient religious knowledge to discern truth from falsehood. This is why they succumb to temptation and fall into [the traps] set for them by dubious elements. They have become pawns in the hands of foreign apparatuses, which manipulate them in the name of jihad, and which are using them to accomplish their own shameful aims... by [carrying out] foul operations that could not be further from the [true nature of our] faith.

"Our youth have become a commodity bought and sold by elements in the East and the West that are pursuing their own objectives and goals - and only Allah knows how harmful [these goals] are to Islam and its adherents... [These young people] have been used by external elements to embarrass this pure country, to cause it harm and suffering, and to impose the rule of its enemies upon it... This is very dangerous, because the actions [of these young people] harm the Muslim nation, and cause damage to a quiet and peaceful country [namely Saudi Arabia]. Their actions weaken this country and its people...

"...Setting forth [to wage jihad] without authorization from the ruler contravenes the principles of shari'a and constitutes a grave offense. Whoever incites these [young people to engage in jihad] is either ignorant... or is fully aware of the situation but seeks to inflict damage upon this country and its people."

In his fatwa, the mufti also called upon "people of means" to "spend their money with discretion, so that it does not harm the Muslims." He urged the 'ulama "to guide the youth and open their eyes to reality, and to warn them of the consequences of being drawn to arbitrary opinions and extremism that is not based on religious knowledge." [4]

Clerics: "Perpetrators of Suicide Operations Are Condemned to Eternal Suffering in Hell"
Shura Council Head Dr. Saleh bin Humaid said in his August 10, 2007 Friday sermon in a Mecca mosque: "Those who incite the young people [to wage jihad] are either ignorant and out of touch with reality, or else they are fully aware of the situation but seek to harm this country and the believers and to bring defeat upon the [Muslim] nation. These young people have thus become easy prey for anyone who aims to harm the country. [The inciters] have exploited their zeal, turning them into walking bombs - [into terrorists] who kill themselves so that others may reap political gain..." [5]

Sheikh Dr. Saleh bin Fawzan Al-Fawzan, member of the Senior Ulama Council and of the Saudi Fatwa Committee, said, "Whoever carries out a suicide operation, calling it 'jihad in the way of Allah' and hoping to die as a martyr, is considered a [mere] suicide and is condemned to eternal suffering in Hell - for jihad has nothing to do with such actions." [6]

Program for Fighting "Deviant" Ideas in the Schools
The anti-terror efforts have also spread to the education system, as is evident from the Saudi Education Ministry's new Islamic Awareness Program for fighting "deviant" ideas in schools. The program aims to create an "ideologically secure" learning environment, and encourages moderateness among both pupils and teachers, in order to protect them against "the destructive influences of deviant groups." [7]

It should be noted that for the past two years, Saudi Arabia has been operating two other large-scale programs: a counseling program for security prisoners in Saudi prisons that is supported by the Saudi Interior Ministry, and the Al-Sakinah Campaign for dialogue with extremists on the Internet, which is supported by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. [8]

Condemnation of Religious Discourse Inciting to Jihad

In addition to condemnation of those responsible for sending young people to wage jihad, there has also been criticism of preachers who use their pulpits in the mosques to spread jihadist ideology and to incite against non-Muslims.

Saudi Interior Minister: Preachers Inciting to Jihad Are More Dangerous than the Terrorists Themselves
In a December 2, 2007 press conference at King Saud University, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz criticized mosque preachers who call for jihad, saying: "The efforts on the ideological front still leave much to be desired. Security measures in themselves are not sufficient [to stop terrorism] - it is mainly action on the ideological [front] that prevents extremist ideas from infiltrating the minds of the youth." He added: "The pulpits of the mosques should be used to guide people. When they are used for other purposes, it is nothing but negligence and error, which are bound to lead to the gravest danger - namely to violation of [the precepts] of the faith and to rebellion against the ruler... These preachers are more dangerous than the terrorists themselves." [9]

In a December 1, 2007 interview with the Saudi daily 'Okaz, published shortly after the terror cells were uncovered and arrested, Prince Naif stressed the important role of the 'ulama and journalists in the ideological struggle against terrorism. He said: "Mufti ['Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh] did what Allah enjoined, [and issued a fatwa] fully elucidating [Islam's position on terrorist operations]. We hope that this will serve as an example for all our 'ulama... Some 'ulama, philosophers, journalists, and mosque preachers have [already] fulfilled their obligation, but others have still failed to do so. There must be decisive and effective action on the ideological front in order to refute the [terrorist ideology's] false claims and to reveal the truth to the people..."

Referring to preachers who incite youth to wage jihad in Iraq, Prince Naif said: "We believe that such preachers corrupt and harm [youth], and we shall soon put an end to [their activity]... There is ongoing coordination between the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in this respect, and we hope to step up [this coordination], in order to ensure that the mosque pulpits... are used [only] for the most important matters, such as warning [the public] against the dangers [of terrorism]." [10]

Saudi Sheikh: Do Not Follow Those Who Spread Evil
During public prayers on Eid Al-Adha, Saudi Sheikh 'Abd Al-Muhsin Aal Al-Sheikh warned worshipers against following disseminators of evil and extremism and those who seek to sow strife and division. He also warned against the plots of those who engage in takfir [i.e. accusing other Muslims of heresy] and who call for rebellion against the authorities. These elements, he said, instigate civil strife among the Muslims and distort the Koran and the Prophet's Sunna. [11]

Calls to Stop Cursing Jews and Christians in Friday Sermons

In further efforts to stop the spread of extremist ideas, there have been calls in Saudi Arabia to stop preachers from cursing Jews and Christians in their Friday sermons. In an interview with the Saudi daily Al-Watan, senior Saudi scholars urged preachers not to curse the peaceful Christians and Jews and their allies, but only those Christians and Jews who deprive the Muslims of their rights.

President of the Al-Jubayl court Sheikh Riyadh Al-Muhaidib said during the interview: "Cursing peaceful non-Muslims is not accepted in Islam... Preachers must follow the guidelines of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in this respect. These preachers play an important role in clarifying the precepts of Islam and in explaining them to everyone, including to the People of the Book [i.e. Christians and Jews] in our country. Perhaps this will help in guiding them to the right path [of Islam]... We must not allow isolated incidents [of invective against Christians and Jews] to distort the image of our faith around the world, especially in those [Saudi] regions where many [residents are of the] People of the Book, such as Al-Jubayl and Yanbu'."

The imam and preacher of the Al-Salam mosque in Al-Dammam, Sheikh Hussein Al-Ghamidi, said in the interview: "The state [has a responsibility] to eliminate the sources of hatred towards the other... It must eradicate this [mistaken] ideology, and convince its adherents of the danger it poses." [12]

Saudi Columnist: Cursing Jews and Christians Contravenes the Principles of Islam
Al-Riyadh columnist Dr. Sa'd Al-Quway'i wrote: "Some of the mosque preachers still make sweeping generalizations and insulting remarks against the People of the Book, [namely] the Christians and the Jews, and pray for their destruction and demise... [Some preachers still] make generalizations, saying: 'Oh Allah, destroy the Jews and those who compromise with them, the Christians and those who defend them, and the Communists and their supporters.' This [behavior] is obviously unacceptable, since it contravenes the principles of the Islamic shari'a. Even if only a handful of preachers [do so], and they do not represent a trend... such incidents should not be allowed to distort the image of Islam, which calls for rapprochement with the People of the Book in order to keep them from turning away from our religion.

"The call to destroy all Christians and all Jews contravenes divine law... [which stipulates] that the People of the Book will endure [until the end of days]. The Prophet said that at the end of days, the Byzantines - that is, the Christians - will be the majority, and there will be great wars with the infidels [including with the People of the Book]. That is why the religious scholars stated that 'in principle, [a Muslim] should entreat Allah to guide the polytheists to the right path. As for curses, they should not be directed at the infidels as a collective, but only at those who hurt the Muslims and fight them...'

"I hope that the mosque preachers heed the advice of Islamic Affairs Minister Sheikh Saleh bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh, who said that there are honest people among the Christians and Jews, and that [we] should therefore entreat Allah to guide them in the right path... and [to lead them] to Islam. Asking Allah to destroy them is a forbidden [act of] aggression, [since] one must not make sweeping generalizations about all Christians and all Jews..." [13]

Measures against Incitement and Dissemination of Terrorist Ideology on the Internet

Saudi Intelligence Chief: Saudi Arabia Is Fighting Extremist Websites
Recently, senior Saudi officials have been emphasizing the need to fight extremist websites as part of the struggle against terrorism. Saudi intelligence chief Muqrin bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz told a press conference: "Fourteen Western ISPs are hosting over 5,400 websites used by Al-Qaeda... Had we eliminated [this problem], incidents like the infamous July 7, 2005 London bombings would not have occurred... Saudi intelligence is making every effort to prevent the activities and the proliferation of these extremist websites and forums... The main goal of the intelligence apparatuses is to increase public awareness of the danger they pose and of the ways to fight them." [14]

The role of extremist websites in spreading terrorism was also mentioned by Muhammad Al-Nujaimi, member of the Saudi Interior Ministry Advisory and Guidance Committee, which is in charge of rehabilitating and guiding terrorists who renounce their extremist views. Al-Nujaimi stated that the adherents of mistaken ideologies were increasingly influenced by the Internet. He estimated that websites spreading extremist ideas now numbered in the millions, and included some 4,500 sites in Arabic aimed at Arab youth and seeking to spread extremism using misguided and misguiding fatwas. [15]

Imprisonment, Heavy Fine for Establishing Websites Supporting Terrorism
The Saudi Interior Ministry issued the Statute for Fighting Information Crime, which defines such crimes and sets punishments for violators. Under the statute, anyone who sets up terrorist websites and/or uses them to communicate with leaders of terrorist organizations, spread terrorist ideology, raise funds for terrorist organizations, or disseminate information on manufacturing explosives will be sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined five million Saudi riyals (about $1.3 million). [16]

Saudi Columnist: Extremist Websites Spread Hatred in the Guise of Religion
Saudi columnist Khaled Al-Ghanami wrote in Al-Watan: "The free media [on the Internet] has some negative and dangerous consequences. We all know that there is always someone who is willing to use this innovative technology to fish in troubled waters and to disseminate extremist and terrorist [ideas]... People go to great lengths to protect young Internet users against immoral and pornographic content. However, they [tend to] disregard the influence of websites that incite to terrorism under the guise of religion and through the use of the term 'jihad'... [These websites] brainwash the youth by spreading extremist ideas and accusations of heresy... These are real crimes, and punishments must be set for the perpetrators, as a deterrent to others." [17]

Saudi Columnists Join the Fight against Terrorism
Recent articles in the Saudi press have called to step up the efforts against incitement and terrorism. Al-Watan editor-in-chief Jamal Khashoggi wrote: "Our struggle against terrorism is primarily an ideological one. The position of a religious scholar takes precedence over that of a soldier, a journalist, a teacher, or an economist. We must re-erect the religious barriers that the extremists have torn down... By [creating] loopholes in religious law, they have undermined the basic tenets [of Islam] and have permitted the forbidden.

"Courageous religious scholars have come out against extremist ideology, foremost among them Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh, who categorically prohibited suicide terrorist attacks, regardless of the intended target. The sanctioning of such attacks had been the greatest loophole allowing the Al-Qaeda ideology... to infiltrate [our society]... As long as terrorism and terrorists exist, we have not sufficiently fulfilled our obligations. I hope that our religious scholars will lead us in a resolute campaign against terrorist ideology..." [18]

Saudi Columnist: Terrorist Attacks Must Be Categorically Prohibited
Reformist journalist Turki Al-Dakhil wrote in Al-Watan: "It is the failure to issue fatwas prohibiting suicide operations that prompts 'paradise seekers' to blow themselves up, killing civilians and others in order to attain the virgins and reach the highest levels of Paradise. It is the hesitation over whether or not to forbid these operations that has caused them to proliferate daily and to expand in scope - from murdering non-Muslims to murdering Muslims belonging to other schools of thought, and eventually [to murdering] even those who belong to the same school of thought, profess the same faith, and are of the same nation...

"Not one of the suicide bombers and murderers asked [himself]: Who allowed you take the lives that God created without His permission, based only upon your own invalid justifications, as if you were Allah's representative [and had a right to] speak in His name and to defend His religion and faith?

"The new Hashshashin... [19] - the ignorant murderers ready to blow up their bodies [in order to kill] those who have ideological disagreements with them - proliferate only due to the failure to issue a sweeping prohibition against suicide operations. Worse still, [they proliferate] because these attacks are regarded as martyrdom, whereby the perpetrator sacrifices his life for a [noble] cause.

"Those who blow themselves up among others are weaklings, even if they do have the courage to take their own lives in such a shameless manner. [They do] this [only] because they are incapable of defending their cause in humane and civilized ways - for this would require much work and serious effort, while they are looking for quick solutions, even at the cost of their lives... It is the hesitancy [of the 'ulama] - who prohibit suicide attacks in their own countries but permit them in other countries - that has transformed our religion into one of murder, explosions, martyrdom, and seeking Paradise by murdering others..." [20]

*E. Glass is a research fellow at MEMRI; Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI.

[1] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 29, 2007; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 30, 2007; 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), December 6, 2007.

[2] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 23, 2007.

[3] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 12, 2007.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London); Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia); Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 2, 2007. The Mufti made similar statements in his 'Arafa Day address during the Hajj. Addressing Muslim youth, he said: "You are strength and power. Trust in Allah, since the nation needs you. Arm yourselves with knowledge, with fear of Allah, with faith, and with good deeds, and beware of being exploited by certain elements for their own purposes..." Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), December 19, 2007.

[5] Al-Iqtisadiyya (Saudi Arabia), October 10, 2007.

[6] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), January 12, 2008.

[7] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), October 17, 2007.

[8] For details, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 260, "Reeducation of Extremists in Saudi Arabia," January 18, 2006, Reeducation of Extremists in Saudi Arabia.

[9] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 3, 2007.

[10] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), December 1, 2007.

[11] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 20, 2007.

[12] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 29, 2007.

[13] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), February 1, 2008.

[14] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 25, 2007.

[15] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 29, 2007.

[16] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia); Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), January 25, 2008.

[17] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 14, 2007.

[18] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 23, 2007.

[19] The Hashshashin were a violent religious sect, an offshoot of Isma'ili Shi'a, active during the 11th century in Persia and Syria. They were known for sending assassins to eliminate their political and religious rivals (including Muslims). The word "assassin" is derived from "Hashshashin."

[20] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 29, 2007.

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