Sunday, October 19, 2014

19-Oct-14: Saudi Arabia's sense of where it fits in the war against the terrorists

Today's forward-looking Saudi Arabia [Image Source: BBC, October 2013]
Saudi Arabia "is at the forefront of combating terrorism" and believes strongly in "the need to take steps to spread the spirit of peaceful coexistence across the globe".

These and other startling revelations appear in an article entitled "Kingdom backs tough steps against terror" in Saturday's Arab News ("Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper... founded in 1975"), published in Riyadh. The report summarizes a speech delivered by by Dr. Ahmed Al-Salem, undersecretary at the Saudi Ministry of Interior, to the Crans Montana Homeland and Global Security Forum in Geneva this past week. (Here's a partial list of attendees.)

We don't mind admitting that we don't know much about Crans Montana or the Forum itself. It was established in 1986 and, though it is a Swiss entity, it is run from Monte Carlo, Monaco. The website of the organizers says:
Do not be surprised if after so many years you have not heard of the Crans Montana Forum – or very little. Indeed we do not invite the press and do not want media coverage in order to preserve the freedom and the quality of exchange of ideas that we organize... The Crans Montana Forum offers an alternative way to create, expand and deepen knowledge and business relationships in a unique and friendly atmosphere you will appreciate... Forums are not publicized. ["Crans Montana Forum: What makes us different"]
Notwithstanding the absence of the press, here is what the Saudi press says about the Saudi delegate's speech on the Saudi approach to terror. Given Saudi Arabia's deep, long and rich involvement in terror, these are comments worth noting (all direct quotes):
  • “From our experience, it has become crystal clear that terror has no religion, no ethnicity and no nationality,” said Ahmed Al-Salem, undersecretary at the Ministry of Interior. “Fighting against terror ideology is as important as any other method adopted to combat terror... Terror is the scourge of the 21st century that has left a catastrophic impact on the security and prosperity of human societies across the world...”
  • The Kingdom is at the forefront of combating terrorism as it has been the target of a number of violent attacks, he pointed out. Since 2003, the Kingdom has suffered 147 terror attacks in which 95 innocent civilians lost their lives and 569 people were wounded. Foreign employees and visitors were also among the casualties. Security forces foiled 250 plots to blow up domestic and foreign facilities and murder citizens and foreigners... He put the number of the security officers who were killed in terror attacks at 74, adding that 657 officers sustained serious injuries
  • “The situation demands that all countries intensify their efforts to combat and root out the menace and bring terrorists to justice wherever they might be,” he said. This can only be achieved with reinforced international, regional and bilateral cooperation, he said.
  • He also stressed the need to take steps to spread the spirit of peaceful coexistence across the globe.
  • ...The Kingdom had developed a comprehensive strategy over the past years to combat terrorism, focusing on the prevention of terror activities and rehabilitation of reformed terrorists. These efforts, he said, aim at fortifying and protecting the community from extremist ideologies by way of anti-extremist campaigns through the media, lectures and seminars. A unit to deal with terror has been set up in collaboration with educational, religious and social establishments, he said. 
  • The Kingdom’s efforts against terror also include signing a number of regional and bilateral agreements to cooperate in the combat, participation in the drafting of the comprehensive charter to fight international terrorism, besides urging other countries to set up a center to combat terror with a donation of $100 million.
A recent op ed in The Guardian takes a robustly different view of where the Saudis stand on defeating terror. Its title somewhat gives away the author's thesis: "To really combat terror, end support for Saudi Arabia" [Owen Jones, The Guardian, August 31, 2014]. Among his sharply critical points (all direct quotes):
  • Much  of the world was rightly repulsed when Isis beheaded the courageous journalist James Foley. Note, then, that Saudi Arabia has beheaded 22 people since 4 August. Among the “crimes” that are punished with beheading are sorcery and drug trafficking. Around 2,000 people have been killed since 1985, their decapitated corpses often left in public squares as a warning. 
  • Shia Muslims are discriminated against and women are deprived of basic rights, having to seek permission from a man before they can even travel or take up paid work. Even talking about atheism has been made a terrorist offence and in 2012, 25-year-old Hamza Kashgari was jailed for 20 months for tweeting about the prophet Muhammad. 
  • This human rights abusing regime is deeply complicit in the rise of Islamist extremism too. Following the Soviet invasion, the export of the fundamentalist Saudi interpretation of Islam – Wahhabism – fused with Afghan Pashtun tribal code and helped to form the Taliban...
  • Chatham House professor Paul Stevens says: “For a long time, there was an unwritten agreement... whereby al-Qaida’s presence was tolerated in Saudi Arabia, but don’t piss inside the tent, piss outside.” 
  • Although Saudi Arabia has given $100m (£60m) to the UN anti-terror programme and the country’s grand mufti has denounced Isis as “enemy number one”, radical Salafists across the Middle East receive ideological and material backing from within the kingdom. According to Clinton’s leaked memo, Saudi donors constituted “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”.
He's writing for a British publication, so it's not surprising that he reminds Guardian readers how "Saudi Arabia is the British arms industry’s biggest market, receiving £1.6bn of military exports. There are now more than 200 joint ventures between UK and Saudi companies worth $17.5bn." His point, in our words, is that while ending terror ought to mean breaking off with the Saudis, that's just not going to happen.

And about that reference to "rehabilitation of reformed terrorists", the photo below was published by the Saudi government in 2009. The faces in it are of Saudi Arabia's 85 “most-wanted” terrorists. They include 11 former Guantánamo detainees, all of whom were in that Saudi Arabian rehabilitation program: plainly not such a huge success.

Saudi Arabia's "Most Wanted" List, February 2009 [Image Source]
That mention of "Clinton's leaked memo" probably means "WikiLeaks cables portray Saudi Arabia as a cash machine for terrorists", a report published in The Guardian  on December 5, 2010. It opens with these blunt claims:
"Saudi Arabia is the world's largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba – but the Saudi government is reluctant to stem the flow of money, according to Hillary Clinton. "More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups," says a secret December 2009 paper signed by the US secretary of state. Her memo urged US diplomats to redouble their efforts to stop Gulf money reaching extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide," she said.
A leaked State Department document published on that same date, "US embassy cables: Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists raise funds in Saudi Arabia", asserts that Lashkar-e-Taiba "fundraises in Saudi and the Gulf though charitable donations and front companies". Lashkar, generally thought to have been the party that executed the bloody 2008 Mumbai terror attacksis "one of the largest and most active terrorist organizations in South Asia, operating mainly from Pakistan".

All in all, the notion that the Saudi government claims to be at the "forefront of combating terrorism" raises some questions about what the word forefront could possibly mean when they use it.

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