Overview: Saudi Arabia continued to maintain a strong counterterrorism relationship with the United States and responded to terrorist threats from violent militant groups, ISIS sympathizers, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Iran-backed Houthi militants based in Yemen. Based on local reporting, Saudi Arabia continued to see a reduction in the number of deaths attributable to terrorist violence as the government actively and effectively improved its counterterrorism readiness. Through a range of counterterrorism initiatives, many in partnership with the U.S. government, Saudi Arabia took tangible steps to strengthen its counterterrorism capabilities in border security, counter terrorist financing, and CVE. Saudi Arabia remained a key member and active participant in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and co-leads the Defeat-ISIS Coalition’s Counter-ISIS Finance Group. Saudi Arabia co-chairs the Riyadh-based Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) with the United States, an initiative founded in 2017 to increase U.S.-Gulf multilateral collaboration to counter terrorist financing. Senior Saudi government and religious leaders issued strong public statements denouncing violent acts perpetrated by global terrorist organizations.
During 2018, Saudi Arabia faced terrorist threats primarily targeting Saudi security forces. Saudi Arabia participated in forums designed to expand regional CVE efforts and what Saudi Arabia describes as “the radicalization of Islam,” while addressing the challenge of returning FTFs from conflict zones and terrorist propaganda. In 2018, Saudi Arabia continued its recent efforts to promote what it calls “moderate Islam,” though some support for intolerant views in third countries persisted, and some Saudi textbooks continued to include language that promoted discrimination, intolerance, and violence.
2018 Terrorist Incidents: Saudi Arabia continued to experience sporadic lone offender, ISIS-inspired attacks, primarily targeting Saudi security forces. Suspected militants perpetrated violence using homemade and other IEDs and gunfire. Attacks in 2018 included the following:
- On April 19, assailants attacked a police checkpoint in southern Asir province, killing four police officers and injuring four others.
- On May 31, local media and the Ministry of Interior reported that two attackers fatally stabbed a Saudi traffic police officer and engaged in a gunfight with security forces near a National Guard facility in Taif.
- On July 8, three suspected militants killed a Saudi security officer and a Bangladeshi national in a shooting incident at a security checkpoint in Buraidah in Qassim province.
- On August 15, security officials reported that a suspected ISIS sympathizer attempted to detonate an explosive belt in the city of al-Bukayriyah, in Qassim province.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: There were no changes to counterterrorism legislation in 2018. The Saudi government enforced the 2017 Counterterrorism and Counter Terror Financing Law (CT Law), resulting in terrorism-related convictions.
Saudi Arabia’s law enforcement units leveraged collaboration with regional and international partners to disrupt terrorist activities. Human rights organizations have asserted that the CT Law – like its predecessor – restricts freedom of expression and association by establishing an overly broad definition of terrorism that is applied to non-violent offenses, including peaceful political or social activism. In 2018, authorities arrested several women’s activists, scholars, and religious leaders. Authorities continued to defend these arrests as a response to criminal acts that fell under the cover of “terrorism” or vaguely-defined crimes against national security.
Saudi Arabia’s most significant physical border security concern continued to be the cross-border threats from Yemen, including terrorist infiltration, drug trafficking, contraband smuggling, and threats related to the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Saudi Arabian security forces improved their operational effectiveness, focused on surveillance, increased patrols around critical infrastructure, and improved information sharing and interagency coordination to deny terrorists safe haven. The Saudi government closely monitored passenger manifests for inbound and outbound flights, scrutinized visitors’ travel documents, and collected biometric information. The Government of Saudi Arabia maintained INTERPOL channels to monitor travelers at land, air, and maritime borders.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Saudi Arabia is a member of the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENAFATF) and its FIU, the Saudi Arabia Financial Investigation Unit, is a member of the Egmont Group. Along with Italy and the United States, Saudi Arabia serves as co-lead of the Defeat-ISIS Coalition’s Counter-ISIS Finance Group.
Saudi Arabia has a strong legal framework to combat and deter terrorism financing, and sought to strengthen this framework in 2018. The FATF’s 2018 review of Saudi Arabia’s Mutual Evaluation Report found Saudi Arabia to have a low or moderate level of effectiveness for seven of the 11 criteria for AML/CFT. In response, Saudi Arabia has committed to improving areas identified as deficient by the FATF through a national action plan. Saudi Arabia continued to make progress to improve its AML/CFT legal framework. Saudi Arabia and the United States co-chaired meetings of the TFTC in 2018. In collaboration with other TFTC member states, Saudi Arabia imposed two rounds of sanctions in 2018 against individuals and entities acting on behalf of or providing support to Hizballah and the Taliban.
Countering Violent Extremism: In 2018, Saudi Arabia employed a multifaceted approach to CVE programming with the goal of maintaining momentum after high-level CVE events in 2017. The stated aim of CVE institutions, including the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (or Etidal, in Arabic) and the Ideological Warfare Center, was to promote partnerships between government agencies and non-government stakeholders to address “the root causes of extremism” and dismantle ISIS narratives through offensive cyber campaigns. The Ministry of Interior continued to operate its program to rehabilitate individuals with past “extremist involvement.” While the government portrayed the program as highly successful, it lacked demonstrable metrics for its effectiveness.
Saudi Arabia continued to enact domestic religious sector reforms, including the development of more stringent guidance and approval for Saudi religious personnel traveling overseas to conduct proselytization. As part of what Saudi Arabia describes as its “moderate Islam” initiative, Saudi clerics and religious attachés sent abroad were vetted for observance to principles of tolerance and peaceful co-existence and were forbidden from undertaking proselytization efforts beyond host country Sunni Muslim communities. The Saudi-chartered and -led Muslim World League (MWL), which promotes the Salafist form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, has been involved in the kingdom’s various counter-messaging initiatives globally. The current MWL leadership has presented a significantly more inclusive and less discriminatory message than previous MWL leaders and Saudi religious authorities. Despite this progress, support for intolerant views in third countries persisted.
While Saudi Arabia has supported the continued removal of discriminatory content from public school textbooks and enhancing the capacity of public school teachers to integrate CVE consideration into their instruction, studies from the Anti-Defamation League and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom still found language that promoted discrimination, intolerance, and violence in textbooks. Though the MWL continued to press a message of moderation internationally, including outreach efforts to Muslim minority communities, Jewish communities in the United States and Europe, and Middle Eastern Christian churches (Egyptian Copts, Lebanese Maronites), senior government officials still expressed views that the type of extremist, intolerant, and violent rhetoric found in Saudi textbooks was “a legacy issue.”
International and Regional Cooperation: Saudi Arabia continued to encourage greater international and regional coordination on counterterrorism issues. Saudi Arabia is an active member of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League. It is also a founding member of the Riyadh-based Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition. Saudi Arabia is also a member of the GCTF. Throughout the year, Saudi government officials continued to lead high-level meetings on regional security. The government hosted international counterterrorism conferences, including the 16th Advisory Board meeting of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Center on April 17.