The rulers of the Arab world’s most conservative monarchy are taking the war to al-Qaeda—and may be succeeding
The Saudi kingdom has long been a fountainhead of jihadist radicalism, with martyrdom-seekers going on one-way tickets to such places as Chechnya, Iraq and the Twin Towers in America. At first rather complacent about Islamist terror, the Saudi rulers rumbled into active opposition only after their own cities came under fire, starting with a series of bombings in their capital, Riyadh, in May 2003. Now, in a move that suggests growing confidence in thwarting jihadist violence, Saudi courts have begun procedures to try 991 prisoners held on terrorism charges, in the most sweeping legal action yet taken in the global campaign against the extremists.
Aside from its scale, the mass prosecution is notable because the trials will take place under Islamic law before a panel of judges who are, like all those in the arch-conservative kingdom, schooled in the strict Wahhabist interpretation that has helped to inspire the ideology of groups such as al-Qaeda itself. Saudi officials are quick to assert that sharia sentences should therefore carry greater legitimacy than those handed down by the military tribunals favoured by other countries, which many Muslims, and not just jihadist sympathisers, dismiss as suspect.
Countering criticism of their archaic and often arbitrary legal system, Saudi officials insist that the trials will be transparent, with separate charges for cases of criminal violence, incitement, or financing of terrorist activity. The accused are likely to include not only active members of al-Qaeda, which carried out some 30 attacks in the kingdom between 2003 and 2006, costing the lives of 90 civilians and 74 policemen, but also of prominent sheikhs whose sermons justified the violence.
The trials are meant to mark the culminating phase in a unique and so far successful Saudi effort to uproot the most violent strains of radicalism. Unlike countries that have relied strictly on security forces to counter the threat, the kingdom chose a multi-pronged approach involving public awareness campaigns, legal and educational reforms and religious counselling.
State television has aired extensive testimony from “repentant” jihadists as well as from scholars challenging the textual basis of jihadist beliefs. A campaign in prisons has targeted more than 3,000 jihadist detainees for counselling, with sweeteners such as housing loans and financial support for their families as well as religious re-education (pictured above). Saudi authorities say that some 1,500 radicals have been rehabilitated and freed, with only a tiny fraction subsequently reverting to jihadist ways. A separate programme has sought to combat jihadist ideas on the internet, by hiring moderate religious scholars to engage in debate on extremist chat sites. New laws have made incitement to terrorism over the internet a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison.
In any event, the kingdom remains oppressively conservative. As often as not, state-anointed scholars attack the radicals not on the grounds that bigotry and killing are wicked but because their jihad makes Islam look bad. Yet the fact is that there has been no big terrorist incident in Saudi Arabia since February 2006, when an al-Qaeda cell mounted a botched attack on an oil-processing facility at Abqaiq, near Saudi Arabia’s east coast. Moreover, the volume of Saudi volunteers for jihad in such places as Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon appears to have markedly shrunk.
In fact, apart from the increasing boldness of their nominal allies, the Taliban, in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda does not appear to be faring well. Affiliate groups in such lawless places as Yemen, Algeria and Mauritania have launched recent attacks, such as an assault on the American embassy in Sana'a, Yemen’s capital, last month, that killed 16 people while failing to breach the compound. But the fading of Iraq as a terrorist paradise and the increasing effectiveness of policing elsewhere have produced a more hostile global environment for jihadist radicals.
A clear sign of this was the sudden disappearance last month, on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks on America, of three of the four best-known radical websites that carry publicity releases and chat forums for al-Qaeda. Such sites, which are carefully monitored by intelligence agencies, have experienced interruptions before, but this is the first time that several have remained out of action for long. The lone surviving site, al-Hesbah, is thought by some experts to have been infiltrated by the Saudis, so as to keep tabs on campaigners elsewhere.