The Saudis appear to be taking concerted steps to capture Islamist terrorists at home and to change the tone of religious rhetoric abroad. Is this cosmetic or fundamental change?
- The Saudi authorities say security forces have shot dead a suspected Islamist militant in a gun battle at a petrol station in the capital, Riyadh. The interior ministry said Ibrahim al-Rayes was listed among 26 most wanted terror suspects last week.
Security services said they attempted to arrest him after residents provided information as to his whereabouts.
The authorities had offered a reward of more than $1m for the capture of any of the 26 suspects on the list.
….Saudi Arabia has witnessed a surge of Islamist militant violence believed to be linked to al-Qaeda. More than 50 people have been killed by suicide bombings in May and November.
In a police raid on a suspected militant hideout last month in Suweidi, south of the capital Riyadh, one militant was shot dead while an unspecified number escaped.
Both the US and British embassies in Saudi Arabia have recently warned of more terrorist attacks. [BBC]
Of course even the Saudis don’t much like it when their own people are blown up by terrorists so this could be seen as primarily a criminal matter.
But this change does seem significant to me:
- U.S. authorities have revoked the diplomatic visa of an influential Islamic cleric, and the Saudi government has decided it will no longer sponsor an Islamic institute in Virginia where he sometimes lectured, moves that reflect both nations’ increasing efforts to curb the spread of extremist Islamic rhetoric, according to U.S. and Saudi officials.
Jaafar Idris, who was affiliated with the Fairfax-based Institute for Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America, left the United States two weeks ago after his visa was revoked, U.S. officials said. Idris is a native of Sudan, but was sponsored as a diplomat here by the Saudi embassy and had an office in that embassy’s Islamic affairs section, according to a lawyer associated with him.
Idris’s departure follows a decision by the Saudi government to stop providing diplomatic status to Islamic clerics and educators teaching overseas, according to a senior Saudi official who declined to be identified. The official said that in the future, only staff with legitimate diplomatic business at Saudi embassies around the world will be given diplomatic visas, part of a larger effort to get Saudi embassies out of the business of promoting religion.
“We are going to shut down the Islamic affairs section in every embassy,” the officials said. “That’s the objective.” [Washington Post]
Whether “the objective” is achieved is another matter, but perhaps the Saudis actually realize that words have consequences and that decades of extremist rhetoric.
- The Saudi action is part of that government’s increased vigilance toward expressions of religious extremism after the deadly May terrorist attack in Riyadh that shocked the oil-rich nation and its ruling family. The government has dismissed hundreds of imams from Saudi mosques for allegedly using extremist rhetoric, and has moved to delete language denigrating non-Muslims from school texts and curriculum.
The Saudis also have cracked down on violent Islamic extremists operating in the desert kingdom. In addition, U.S. law enforcement agencies are trying to learn whether hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the embassy here each year have aided extremists in the United States.
If the Saudi government follows through on its pledge to shut down the Islamic affairs offices in its embassies here and around the world, “It would be the first visible sign of an effort to tone down decades of extremist Wahhabi propaganda,” said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, a counterterrorism think tank. Wahhabism is a puritanical strain of Islam that sometimes views non-Muslims and Western cultures as enemies of Islam.
My guess is that the regime is finally responding to internal and external pressure for its own self-preservation. The darkest view of the Saudi regime posits that they made a deal with al Qaeda to allow Islamist teaching and rhetoric and even noninterference with terrorist activities as long as attacks were kept out of the country or at least confined to foreign interests. When you make a deal with the devil, however, it is only a matter of time before you get scorched.
Whether this reflects a real change of heart or merely a bow to intense political pressure remains to be seen.