The Middle East Channel

There is nothing soft about Saudi counterterrorism

In May 2003, al Qaeda launched its first major terrorism offensive in the Kingdom, only to see the campaign wane and end within a few years, despite the many predictions to the contrary. Why did it fail? One of the main reasons why its campaign ended so quickly and relatively bloodlessly was that Saudi authorities ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In May 2003, al Qaeda launched its first major terrorism offensive in the Kingdom, only to see the campaign wane and end within a few years, despite the many predictions to the contrary. Why did it fail? One of the main reasons why its campaign ended so quickly and relatively bloodlessly was that Saudi authorities did not overreact. Many analysts have called the Saudi approach "soft" counterterrorism. The truth is that the Saudi approach was simply good counterterrorism. 

The "hard" approach from Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s was bad counterterrorism, bad because it produced unnecessary loss of life, political instability and economic damage. By relying almost exclusively on force and by applying it indiscriminately, the Arab republics fuelled their respective insurgencies in the early stages, making conflict longer, bloodier, and costlier than necessary. The nuanced Saudi approach offered a combination of force, exit options, and an aggressive information campaign which proved far more effective than the "hard" alternatives. We should learn from this success.

Calling the Saudi approach "soft counterterrorism" sends the wrong message. Putting the label "soft" on any strategy evokes naivety and weakness, and reduces the chances that policymakers will adopt it. The real question should be whether it works: does the so-called "soft" counterterrorism approach more effectively put an end to terrorist campaigns? The Saudi experience suggests that it can and that there are alternatives to "hard" counterterrorism that would have made these conflicts shorter and less costly.

Hawks of all stripes, from Algerian generals to other practitioners of the "hard" alternative, will of course dispute this claim. They will claim that they only did what was necessary. Since "hard" counterterrorism nearly always produces state victory in the end, its proponents can always say it works. To this point, there have been few examples to prove that other approaches can work as well without the costs. The Saudi campaign gives us a real-life case of multi-pronged and discriminate counterterrorism to use in comparative analysis. Of course, we cannot compare 2003 Saudi Arabia directly to 1991 Algeria given the many differences, not least in rebel capacity at the outset. But we now have concrete proof that the iron fist is not the only way to deal with militant Islamists.

The terms that should be used to describe the Saudi strategy is not "soft," but "multi-pronged" and "discriminate." The Saudis did use forcequite a bit of it, actually — but they also did a lot of other things. I stress two components as particularly important

First was the creation of exit options for militants. The authorities declared month-long general amnesties in mid-2004 and mid-2006, and militants were encouraged to surrender throughout the campaign. Influential Islamists with credibility among jihadists such as Safar al-Hawali and Muhsin al-Awaji undertook discreet mediation initiatives. Surrenders were highly publicized and repentant militants regularly appeared on television in order to give the impression that desertions were common (which, in fact, was not the case).

The regime also made an effort to appear merciful and forgiving toward repentant militants. This began with de facto abstention from serious prisoner abuse. By all available accounts, police did not torture captured AQAP militants; at least not in the way they did during the mid-1990s. They also tried to create a degree of transparency regarding prisoner treatment by broadcasting interviews with detainees praising the prison conditions in a more or less convincing fashion. Finally, the government launched a much-publicized prisoner re-education program that aimed to de-radicalize detained militants and re-integrate them into society. While the soft treatment of detainees produced few desertions from AQAP, it had the much more important effect of stemming new recruitment and preventing further radicalization of detainees.

Second was a clever propaganda campaign which presented the rebels as targeting Muslims when in fact they were primarily targeting non-Muslims. The state used all available outlets — including the mass media, the official religious authorities, and the education system — to convey one overarching message: the militants were confused rebels bent on creating disorder and killing Muslims. The key to the success of this information strategy was that it portrayed the militants as revolutionaries, thereby exploiting the taboo against domestic rebellion in Saudi political culture to delegitimize the militants in the eyes of the population. The media used every available opportunity to highlight and magnify the effect of the violence on Muslim life and property, thereby undermining the militants’ message that their jihad focused on Westerners.

In recent years, Saudi "soft counterterrorism" has been associated primarily with the prisoner rehabilitation program. The recidivism of a number of its graduates has led many Western skeptics to question the entire Saudi approach to counterterrorism. This is a mistake. There are many other important lessons to learn from the Saudi fight against al Qaeda — above all the value of restraint and discriminate countermeasures in the face of terrorism.

Thomas Hegghammer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) in Oslo, and an Associate at the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs, Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University.

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