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. The Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman vowed October 24 to return Saudi Arabia to a country of "moderate Islam." During President Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, the two countries released a Joint Strategic Vision Declaration announcing new initiatives to counter terrorist messaging and disrupt the financing of terrorism. Saudi Arabia remained a key member and active participant in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
On November 4, the Saudi government announced a revision of its Counterterrorism and Counter Terror Financing Law (CT Law, detailed below) to reinforce its capacity to counter terrorism. Saudi Arabia implemented the UN Security Council ISIL (Da'esh) and al-Qa'ida sanctions regime. It expanded existing counterterrorism programs and messaging to address returning foreign terrorist fighters and leveraged terrorist finance provisions of the new CT Law to counter the funding of terrorist groups.
Saudi Arabia maintained a high counterterrorism operational tempo, made a number of highly publicized arrests of alleged terrorist suspects, and disrupted active terrorist cells across the Kingdom.
2017 Terrorist Incidents: On October 7, a terrorist conducted a small arms attack at one of the entrances to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah that resulted in the deaths of two Royal Guards and the attacker. According to an official statement June 23, Saudi security forces thwarted a terrorist plot to carry out a major attack near the Grand Mosque in Mecca, resulting in the death of the suicide bomber near the mosque and the wounding of five security officers and six bystanders when the bomber blew himself up to avoid arrest.
On October 4, security officials released details of a counterterrorism operation targeting three locations in Riyadh that resulted in a raid of a presumed makeshift suicide vest factory and arrests or deaths of members of the suspected ISIS cell, who were reportedly in the final stages of executing a plot against two Ministry of Defense targets.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: King Salman issued major decrees July 20 amending the organizational structure of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and creating a new independent domestic intelligence and counterterrorism authority called the State Security Presidency (SSP). In October, the Saudi government also established the National Cyber Security Authority to formalize its cybersecurity infrastructure and combat cyber threats. The Saudi government announced an expansive new CT Law November 4, updating its 2014 law. Among the most significant aspects, the new law expands the range of activities defined as "terrorist" crimes and transfers many of the counterterrorism authorities previously held by the MOI to the SSP and the new Public Prosecutor's Office. Human rights organizations have asserted that the new law – like its predecessor – restricts freedom of expression and association by establishing an overly broad definition of terrorism that is applied to nonviolent offenses, including peaceful political or social activism.
On April 30, the Saudi government announced the arrest of 46 alleged militants belonging to a terrorist cell in Jeddah on charges related to the July 2016 attacks near the Prophet's Mosque in Medina and the U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Saudi Arabia is a member of the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force, a FATF-style regional body. Its financial intelligence unit, the Saudi Arabia Financial Investigation Unit, is a member of the Egmont Group. In 2017, Saudi Arabia reaffirmed its commitment to countering terrorist financing in the Kingdom and the Gulf region. Saudi Arabia, along with the United States, co-chairs the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC), a U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council initiative announced during President Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia in May. In October, Saudi Arabia joined the United States and the other TFTC member countries in jointly announcing designations against individuals and entities supporting AQAP and ISIS-Yemen. The new CT Law aims to further buttress the government's effort to obtain full membership in FATF.
Earlier in the year, the Government of Saudi Arabia directed domestic authorities to impose financial sanctions on individuals and entities providing support to or acting on behalf of Hizballah. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA, the Kingdom's central bank) suspended three leading money service businesses in late-September for deficient anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) controls.
While the Kingdom has maintained strict supervision of the banking sector, tightened the regulation of the charitable sector, and stiffened penalties for financing terrorism, some funds are allegedly collected in secret and illicitly transferred out of the country in cash, sometimes under the cover of religious pilgrimages. To address this issue, the Saudi government continued efforts to counter bulk cash smuggling. Regional turmoil and the sophisticated use of social media have enabled charities outside of Saudi Arabia with ties to terrorists to solicit contributions from Saudi donors, but the government has worked to pursue and disrupt such funding streams.
For further information on money laundering and financial crimes, see the 2018 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), Volume II, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes.
Countering Violent Extremism (CVE): Saudi Arabia continued to lay the groundwork for a long-term CVE strategy. In April, the Center for Ideological Warfare, which operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense, officially started operations designed to blunt ISIS's ideological appeal and counter terrorist messaging by discrediting "distortions" of Islamic tenets. King Salman inaugurated the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (or Etidal in Arabic) in Riyadh May 21, further expanding efforts to counter terrorist messaging. President Trump attended the Center's inauguration.
Senior Saudi officials reinvigorated outreach with visits, including to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis September 20 and to the Grand Synagogue in Paris November 20, in an effort to cultivate an image of greater tolerance with followers of other faiths. King Salman issued a royal order on October 17 creating a religious center in Medina to scrutinize the written collections of the Prophet Muhammad's hadiths (sayings) for content that could be interpreted as encouraging terrorism. The Saudi government expanded counter-radicalization programs through the King Abdullah Center for National Dialogue to address the rising threat to youth from recruitment efforts by groups like ISIS.
The Saudi government continued to modernize the educational curriculum, including revising textbooks to eliminate teachings that may encourage intolerance of other peoples and religions. While the Saudi government has reported progress, some textbooks continued to contain teachings that promote intolerance. Saudi Arabia has also taken steps to rein in unauthorized religious proselytization since April 2016, including restricting the authorities of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the so-called religious police), tightening control over Islamic charities, and restricting the ability of Saudi-based clerics to travel abroad for proselytization without first obtaining Saudi government permission. The Saudi government has also reiterated existing restrictions on the content of Saudi imams' sermons, charitable activities, and media appearances at home.
International and Regional Cooperation: Saudi Arabia continued to encourage greater international coordination on counterterrorism issues. The Saudi government hosted international conferences on subjects ranging from countering violent extremism to cyber-terrorism. On May 21, participants of the Arab-Islamic-American Summit released the Riyadh Declaration to demonstrate the close partnership between the leaders of the Arab and Islamic countries and the United States to counter terrorism and terrorist ideology. In December, Saudi Arabia pledged US $100 million to support the G-5 Sahel force to counter terrorism in West Africa. Saudi Arabia is a founding member of the Global Counterterrorism Forum.
Throughout the year, Saudi security professionals continued to participate in joint military and counterterrorism programs around the world and with partners inside the Kingdom. The Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), established in December 2015, hosted its Inaugural Meeting of the IMCTC Ministers of Defense Council on November 26 to address the ideological, financial, military, and media aspects of counterterrorism.