Overview: Saudi Arabia continued to maintain a strong counterterrorism relationship with the United States and supported enhanced bilateral cooperation to ensure the safety of both U.S. and Saudi citizens within Saudi territories and abroad. Saudi Arabia remained a key member and active participant in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, as evidenced by its co-leading the Counter-ISIS Coalition's Counter-Finance Working Group (CIFG) alongside the United States and Italy. The Saudi government condemned ISIS's activities and participated in coalition military action to defeat the group in Syria and Iraq.
The Saudi Arabian government continued to build and reinforce its capacity to counter terrorism and violent extremist ideologies. Both ISIS, and, to a lesser extent, al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Pensinsula (AQAP), continued to encourage individual acts of terrorism within the Kingdom. ISIS inspired and launched individual lethal attacks in the Kingdom primarily targeting Saudi security forces and Shia residents. Despite the attacks, Saudi Arabia maintained a high counterterrorism operational tempo, made a number of highly publicized arrests of terrorist suspects, and disrupted active terrorist cells across the Kingdom. Saudi security forces also continued to confront the threat from AQAP, although the group's activity was diminished. ISIS attacks against Saudi security forces, Shia mosques and community centers, and Western targets in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in 2016 underscored the ongoing threat posed to Saudi Arabia and the region by ISIS, which Saudi Arabia worked closely with both Western and GCC partners to address.
Saudi Arabia implemented UN Security Council resolutions (UNSCR) 2178 and 2199, and the UN Security Council ISIL (Da'esh) and al-Qa'ida sanctions regime; expanded existing counterterrorism programs and rhetoric to address the phenomenon of returning foreign terrorist fighters; and leveraged terrorist finance provisions of its Law for Crimes of Terrorism and Terrorist Financing (CT Law) and Royal Decree A/44 to counter the funding of violent extremist groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere. The government also launched several new countering violent extremism (CVE) initiatives to blunt the appeal of extremist messaging and improve oversight of Islamic charitable and proselytization (da'wa) activities at home and abroad.
According to the Saudi Ministry of Interior (MOI), as of December, there were 2,093 Saudis fighting with terrorist organizations in conflict zones, including ISIS, with more than 70 percent of them in Syria.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other international human rights organizations criticized what they characterized as the Saudi Arabian government's use of the 2014 terrorism law to suppress political expression and dissent, citing broadly written language that criminalizes "acts that disturb public order, defame the reputation of the state, or threaten the kingdom's unity."
2016 Terrorist Incidents: Deadly attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups against Saudi targets occurred despite continued Saudi efforts to detect and disrupt terrorist activity aimed mostly against Saudi security forces and the minority Shia community. Figures released by the Saudi Arabian government indicate there were 34 terrorist attacks in 2016. These included:
On January 29, four worshippers were killed in a suicide bomb attack in the Eastern Province when a 22-year-old Saudi national blew himself up at the entrance to the Shia Imam Rida Mosque in al-Ahsa after security officers stopped him. A second alleged bomber was arrested at the scene after exchanging gun fire with security forces. Separate ISIS-affiliated cells in Medina, Mecca, Jeddah, and Shaqra were uncovered before carrying out large planned attacks, according to media reports. In all cases, the Saudi government worked to clarify the circumstances regarding these attacks and responded quickly to ensure proper security measures were in place, coordinating with U.S. counterparts.
On July 4, coordinated bombings struck three cities across Saudi Arabia: a suicide bomber struck near the U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah, wounding two security officers and killing the bomber; an attack on a security post near the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, killing four guards; and an attack near a Shia mosque in the Eastern Province city Qatif, killing only the bomber.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Saudi Arabia enacted its current counterterrorism law containing 41 articles in 2014 that strengthened its existing counterterrorism provisions; international and local human rights organizations have claimed that this law has been applied to nonviolent offenses and used to prosecute political activists for social media posts critical of government policy. The Saudi MOI General Investigations Directorate (GID) is responsible for conducting counterterrorism investigations in the Kingdom and, upon its discretion, will cooperate with other elements of the Saudi government to further investigate specific cases. Once the investigation is complete, the case is usually transferred to the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecutions Office for the duration of the trial. The Saudi government continued its programs to improve physical border security through the employment of biometric systems, aerial reconnaissance, thermal imaging, and remote unattended sensors along its borders. The Ministry of Justice continued its reform process, including codification of crimes and associated sentences.
Neighborhood police units engaged and worked directly with community members in Saudi Arabia, encouraging citizens to provide tips and information about suspected terrorist activity. The government offered rewards for information on terrorists, and Saudi security services made several announcements throughout the year pertaining to the arrest of large numbers of ISIS and AQAP terrorists and supporters. The government announced more than 190 arrests of ISIS-affiliated terrorists in 2016, according to an official press release.
In a widely publicized press statement, the MOI said security officials successfully prevented a terrorist attack targeting al-Jawhara Stadium at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah during a match between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on October 11. The terrorists allegedly planned to detonate a car full of explosives parked in the stadium's lot. This incident led to the identification and arrest of four individuals with links to ISIS in Syria. The same statement highlighted the arrest of four Saudi nationals after law enforcement officials raided their terrorist cell, based in Shaqra. They allegedly had been planning to target security forces based on orders from an ISIS leader in Syria.
Saudi Arabia continued its efforts to disrupt terrorist activities in the Kingdom by tracking, arresting, and prosecuting terrorist suspects. According to the GID, Saudi security forces arrested more than 1,390 suspects accused of terrorism in 2016. The suspects were of different nationalities: 967 of those arrested were Saudi nationals, followed by 154 Yemenis, 76 Syrians, 45 Egyptians, and 38 Pakistanis.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Saudi Arabia is a member of the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force, a Financial Action Task Force (FATF)-style regional body. Saudi Arabia earned observer status in the FATF in June 2015 and is working to obtain full membership in the organization, pending a successful mutual evaluation. Saudi Arabia, along with Italy and the United States, co-leads the CIFG. Its financial intelligence unit, the Saudi Arabia FIU (SAFIU), is a member of the Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units.
The Saudi Arabian government further directed domestic authorities to impose financial sanctions on individuals and entities providing support to or acting on behalf of Hizballah, al-Qa'ida (AQ), Lashkar e-Tayyiba (LeT), and the Taliban. Saudi Arabia affirmed its commitment to countering terrorist financing in the Kingdom and sought to further establish itself as a leader in disrupting terrorist finance within the Gulf region. In 2016, Saudi Arabia increased its public designations of individuals and entities for violating the Kingdom's laws criminalizing terrorist financing and support. In February, Saudi Arabia designated three individuals and four entities acting on behalf of Hizballah's commercial procurement network. In March 2016, Saudi Arabia and the United States took steps to disrupt the fundraising and support networks of AQ, the Taliban, and LeT by imposing financial sanctions on four individuals and two organizations with ties across Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. In October, Saudi Arabia and the United States took joint action to simultaneously designate two individuals and one entity acting on behalf of Hizballah.
The MOI continued to provide specialized training programs for financial institutions, prosecutors, judges, customs and border officials, and other sectors of the government as part of its effort to enhance programs designed to counter terrorist financing. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority has standing requirements for all financial institutions within the Kingdom's jurisdiction to implement all of the FATF's recent recommendations on anti-money laundering and countering terrorist financing.
Despite serious and effective efforts to counter the funding of terrorism within the Kingdom, some individuals and entities in Saudi Arabia probably continued to serve as sources of financial support for terrorist groups. While the Kingdom has maintained strict supervision of the banking sector, tightened the regulation of the charitable sector, and stiffened penalties for financing terrorism, funds are allegedly collected in secret and illicitly transferred out of the country in cash, sometimes by pilgrims performing Hajj and Umrah. To address this issue, the MOI continued efforts to counter bulk cash smuggling in 2016. Regional turmoil and the sophisticated use of social media have enabled charities outside of Saudi Arabia with ties to violent extremists to solicit contributions from Saudi donors, but the government has demonstrated a willingness to pursue and disrupt such funding streams.
For additional information on money laundering and financial crimes, see the 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INSCR), Volume II, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes: http://www.state.gov/j/inl/rls/nrcrpt/index.htm.
Countering Violent Extremism: Saudi Arabia laid the groundwork for a long-term countering violent extremism (CVE) strategy, partly as a response to international media criticism that alleged Saudi Arabia's export of extremism abroad. The Saudi government launched a new Center for Ideological Warfare designed to blunt ISIS's ideological appeal and counter extremist messages by discrediting what Saudi officials characterized as "distortions" of Islamic tenets.
The Saudi Arabian government also increased oversight of proselytization and Islamic charitable activities, especially during Hajj. The Saudi Arabian government appointed new leadership in various Islamic organizations to bolster CVE efforts. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA) announced restrictions on foreign travel of Saudi-based clerics for charitable and proselytization activities, requiring them to obtain the government's permission before traveling. Additionally, the MOIA promulgated regulations restricting Saudi clerics' internal activities, for instance, requiring clerics to obtain permission before making media appearances even on Saudi networks. These are all part of centrally-coordinated efforts driven by the Saudi Arabian government's leadership to limit the ability of individuals with questionable credentials or affiliations to propagate extremist messages at home and abroad.
Additionally, Saudi Arabia enhanced its existing CVE programs on counter-radicalization and rehabilitation. Efforts included organizing seminars that refuted violent Islamist extremist interpretation and ideology as well as launching an international conference on media and terrorism. Public awareness campaigns were aimed at reinforcing the values of the state's interpretation of Islam and educating Saudi citizens about the dangers of violent extremism. Methods used included advertisements and programs on television, in schools and mosques, and at sporting events. The Saudi government expanded these programs to address the rising threat to youth from recruitment efforts by groups like ISIS and to dissuade its citizens from engaging as foreign terrorist fighters in Syria and Iraq.
The MOI continued to operate its de-radicalization program, including the Sakina Campaign for Dialogue to counter internet radicalization, as well as its extensive rehabilitation program at the Mohammed bin Naif Counseling and Care Center that seeks to address ideological and psychosocial causes of terrorism.
During 2016, the Saudi government continued its ongoing program to modernize the educational curriculum, including textbooks. While the Saudi government has reported progress, some textbooks continue to contain teachings that promote intolerance and violence, in particular towards those considered to be polytheists, apostates, or atheists. Under the rubric of the National Transformation Program and Vision 2030, the Ministry of Education worked to consolidate and reduce religious courses to increase the focus on secular education, limiting the ability of teachers to propagate extreme religious interpretations in the K-12 curriculum.
The MOIA continued to train and regulate imams, prohibiting them from incitement of violence, and continued to monitor mosques and religious education, imposing new regulations prohibiting posters and other publicity about potentially extremist causes and organizations in local mosques. Some privately funded satellite television stations in the Kingdom continued to espouse sectarian hatred and intolerance.
International and Regional Cooperation: Saudi Arabia cooperated regionally and internationally on counterterrorism issues. Saudi Arabia is a founding member of the Global Counterterrorism Forum. Saudi officials issued statements encouraging enhanced cooperation among GCC and Arab League states on counterterrorism issues. The Saudi government hosted international counterterrorism conferences on subjects ranging from countering violent extremist ideology to media and terrorism.
Throughout the year, Saudi security professionals continued to participate in joint programs around the world, including in Europe, the United States, and a GCC joint military exercise focusing on counterterrorism and border security drills in Bahrain.
After the establishment of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism in December 2015, the government hosted its first meeting of military chiefs on March 27. Representatives from 39 countries focused on ideological, financial, military, and media aspects to counter terrorism.