Dr. Abdullah F. Alrebh, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Grand Valley State University in Michigan
It was September 2002 when I met Mohammed, a suntanned guy with a smiley, bearded face. A biology teacher, his seventh-grade students loved his classes. His popularity was not only because of his teaching style, but because of his comedy show on one of the private channels. No one ever thought Mohammed was a radical person; to the contrary. Full of life and ambitious, in December of that year I heard him talking, passionately, about starting his Master’s program at King Saud University in the fall semester of 2003. Two months later, he disappeared.
Mohammed’s students, colleagues, and family were worried about him. We heard some rumors that he had gone to Iraq to fight against the American invasion. It was hard to imagine. Even though we were aware there had been some radical recruiters, mobilizing youth to fight in Iraq, the activity had been taken seriously and severely repressed by the Saudi authorities.
On 12 May 2003, a terrorist attack hit the Saudi capital, Riyadh, killing 27 people, nine of them Americans and seven of them Saudis, and wounding more than 160. Al-Qaeda declared its responsibility of the terrorist attack. “The attacks and the FBI’s subsequent investigation [led by David B. Mitchell] became the basis for the 2007 movie The Kingdom.”
The community of King Saud Educational Complex were shocked by the fact that Mohammed was a member of the suicide squad who carried out this attack!
This young teacher, who had all of what men in his age were looking (job, fame, money) decided, as he believed, to leave this evanescent life to go to heaven. The context was heavy with hate of the earthly life in favor of martyrdom and eternity. The mobilization against “infidels” was considered by the radicals to be “jihad” (lit. “striving”, for many centuries understood as holy war). A “good” Muslim should either fight or be ready to fight non-Muslims, according to the jihadists. They cite the hadith, “He who dies without having gone or thought of going out for jihad in the Cause of Allah, will die while being guilty of having one of the qualities of hypocrisy.”
The selective use of religious texts worked not only to recruit the ignorant, but it radicalized educated people. The focus on the afterlife and paradise over the earthly life induced many of these youth to simultaneous suicide and murder. Where most youth look to enjoy their lives, the radicals said that earthly pleasures were sinful temptations—but if this life is sacrificed for the faith, an eternity of pleasure awaits.
In the decade following the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the “Arab-Afghans” moved from warzone to warzone fighting infidels, from Yugoslavia to Chechnya, while carrying out some terrorist operations in their native countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Saudi Arabia was targeted so harshly by these Islamist Arabs who had fought in Afghanistan for two main reasons: it is the host of the Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Medina, and it maintains a security alliance with the United States of America. Those radical fighters were upset with the Saudi government for getting assistance from America, and other non-Muslim countries, in 1990-91, to protect the Kingdom and the rest of the Gulf from Saddam Hussein, and to liberate Kuwait from his occupation.
These Arab fighters would go on to create Al-Qaeda and a series of terrorist attacks took place throughout the 1990s, culminating in 9/11. The attacks in New York provoked the American response, and the American response was then used by radicals to mobilize support, helped by atrocities like Abu Ghraib. The three years after the collapse of Saddam’s regime in 2003 were hard years for the Saudis, who were fighting on two fronts: to counter internal attacks, and to catch those who were trying to carry out external attacks in Iraq.
Part of the Saudi efforts to counter-radicalization was establishing the Care Rehabilitation Center in 2007, which “aims to re-educate the jihadis through religious teachings.” This method of re-educating inmates so they understand Islam as a peaceful religion is not the only way of countering radicalization. There are many other methods, including “psychological and social counselling, and educating them out of their intolerant understanding of Islam.”
Mohammed Bin Naif Counseling and Care Center offers different programs—educational, training, cultural, sports, and services—to create a different environment from the usual prison environment, one more attuned to scientific findings on ways to maximize the chances of rehabilitation. In short, it aims to gradually integrate the prisoner back into society by achieving in him or her an intellectual, psychological, and social balance.
The Saudi government has made it clear that anyone who has been involved in radical activities is welcome to the join the Deradicalization Program as part of serving their time in prison, though it is not an alternative to justice: those who kill or injure others have to face the consequences of their crimes.
One of the most important steps toward countering radicalization is establishing the Global Center For Combating Extremist Ideology, whose acronym, Etidal, is an Arabic word meaning “moderation”. This center works to combat, expose, and refute extremist ideology—in cooperation with governments and non-governmental organizations concerned about this.
The founding of Etidal reflects the serious action taken by the Saudi government to collaborate with the international community to counter radicalization, and in turn to share its experiences with other governments.
This same seriousness is expressed in the KAICIID Dialogue Centre in Vienna, which brings together religious leaders and policymakers to collaborate on spreading tolerance and countering zealous thoughts among the followers of different religious traditions.
Likewise, in 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Presidency of State Security (General Department for Countering Extremism) and the Global Coalition’s Counter Daesh Communications Cell issued a joint memorandum called the Riyadh-London Memorandum on Good Practices for Countering Terrorist Narratives. The main goal of this memorandum is encouraging appropriate terminology to label terrorists in order to avoid inadvertently legitimizing their ideology or sensationalizing their actions. It is an important step toward an international charter of fighting terrorism and countering radicalization.
Since the 2003 terrorist attack in Riyadh, there have been momentous changes at every level of the Saudi state and society, perhaps nowhere more so than in the infrastructure put in place to counter radicalization. In addition to the direct counter-extremism measures laid out above, there are more indirect measures. The Kingdom has sent hundreds of thousands of students to study abroad and learn by direct experience about peaceful coexistence with “others”. Another serious step to counter radicalization has been the lifting of social restrictions, thereby allowing more joy into people’s lives and providing incentives to preserve this earthly life. For example, the General Entertainment Authority was established in May 2016, an official agency that works on expanding the entertainment sector.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has sought to foster a broader suit of policies, beyond simply counter-terrorism, that seek to educate people into conceiving of Islam as a peaceful religion and to valuing their daily lives on earth, alongside their work towards salvation. The Quran says: “But seek, with that which Allah has bestowed on you, the home of the Hereafter, and forget not your portion of lawful enjoyment in this world” (28/77). The changes mean Saudi youth has greater opportunities and a more tolerant environment in which to live than did my colleague Mohammed.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.