Historically, Saudi Arabia has been targeted by “jihadist” terrorist organizations more than most other countries. Official estimates say that between 1979 and 2017 there were more than 840 terrorist attacks targeting the kingdom. As a result, the country has accumulated a certain degree of know-how in how to combat violent extremism and radicalization.
Released in July 2018, a report by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies called “DeRadicalization in the Mediterranean: Comparing Challenges and Approaches” looks at policies and measures being adopted to counter violent extremism, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, a region which has been most affected. The report’s final chapter authored by Abdullah Khaled AlSaud and Yousuf Zarea examines three initiatives being taken in Saudi Arabia.
2003 marked the beginning of al-Qaeda operations in the Arabian peninsula. In response, Saudi Arabia launched an online counter-radicalization campaign called “Sakinah” (the Arabic word for tranquility) under the supervision of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. In its early days, campaign staff entered into discussions with radicals on online forums and chatrooms. However, as the nature of both social media and radical propaganda changed. so did the techniques and methods used by the campaign staff. Instead of assuming a defensive posture engaging in debates about theology, campaign staff went on the offensive. They began to challenge the ingrained beliefs of the radicals by posting infographics, caricatures, and challenging hashtags. According to the campaign leader, Abdul Muni’m al-Mushawwah, radicals and extremists “respond more to hard-hitting provocative doses of reality about the barbaric, un-Islamic, and unrestrained nature of their organizations than to long and deep religious fatwas” The authors note that while it is difficult, albeit impossible, to properly measure the success of online interactions with radicals, they are certainly useful but they are no substitute for more important and measurable “real-life” initiatives.
Mohammed bin Naif Counseling and Care Center
In 2004, the Saudi government set up “Munasahah” (the Arabic word for counseling), a program for prison detainees aimed at countering violent extremist ideologies and correcting the misconceptions of Islam embraced by radicals. Under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior, Munasahah produced studies analyzing the ministry’s experience in dealing with detainees. It was these studies that laid the foundation for what later became the Mohammed bin Naif Counseling and Care Center in 2007.
The center aims to counter extremist ideologies and rehabilitate radicals through a process it calls “intellectual treatment”. After completing their prison sentence, those deemed “qualified” are sent to the center for three months where they are able to live in a non-prison environment. The center has a small garden, a fully equipped gymnasium, a swimming pool, an art studio and a number of classrooms The goal is to gradually re-integrate former detainees back into society and to become contributing and productive members of the community. The center refers to them as “beneficiaries” and beneficiaries who pass the center’s programs and receive authorization to be released are referred to as “graduates”. The time spent at the center is considered a period of “life transition”.
The center’s program comprises three stages: counseling, rehabilitation, and aftercare. The counseling stage begins as soon as prisoners are detained and continues until they become beneficiaries at the center. Counseling consists of a collection of a number of the rapeutic and educational programs. Counselors include religious scholars, psychologists, social workers and experts who engage with inmates one-on-one as well as group discussions inside prison. Programs can be extended for an additional three months if the supervising committee considers the beneficiary unable to graduate and be released or not yet fit tore-integrate into society.
Once prisoners serve their full sentences, they move to the center to begin the next stage of treatment: rehabilitation. The rehabilitation stage consists of five major components. The first is an educational component which covers six areas: religion, psychology, art therapy, history, economy, and politics. The religious activities are a continuation of counseling sessions started during the beneficiary’s time in prison and aim to correct ideological misconceptions. Research and publications by the center play a major role in this. One landmark work completed by the center is a book in which religious scholars and experts identify and refute many of the religious misconceptions on which terrorist groups rely.
The psychological component of the program aims to help beneficiaries better understand themselves and equips them with skills to be more accepting of others and to communicate positively with members of the community. Topics covered by the program include self-improvement, positive thinking, stress and mental health as well as principles of success such as setting and achieving goals. Art is also utilized by the center as a therapeutic technique allowing beneficiaries to express feelings and repressed emotions such as anger, fear and depression. According to the center’s staff, in the early days of the program some beneficiaries drew violent and cruel paintings. Yet, over time, a fascinating shift happened. After spending a couple of months at the center the themes of the paintings became brighter and more colorful.
As many young terrorists and radicals are driven by emotions but lack any real political awareness, the political component aims to introduce beneficiaries to basic political ideas. It covers an introduction to international relations, sessions on international organizations and treaties, and an overview of historical and current national, regional, and international politics. There are also sessions on history and economics.
The rehabilitation stage also includes a training program designed to equip beneficiaries with the educational and professional skills necessary to find and keep a job after graduation from the center. Beneficiaries can learn computer skills, information technology (IT), business management and English language as well as vocational skills such as plumbing, carpentry, and electrical work. Courses are organized with the help of private and public training institutions such as the Ministry of Labor and Social Development and the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University.
Other activities at the rehabilitation stage include sports and entertainment which aim to foster a positive attitude and mental well-being, cultural programs to improve the ability of beneficiaries to engage positively with others and reconnect with the world beyond prison walls and a services program which includes a wide range of social, legal, medical financial and other services offered to beneficiaries.
Toward the end of the three-month period, the center’s experts evaluate each individual and provide a recommendation on whether the beneficiary should be released or stay another three months if the beneficiary is deemed unfit to graduate. Specialists evaluate beneficiaries based on four categories: religious, psychological, social, and behavioral.
The aftercare stage begins once a beneficiary graduates. During this stage, the center supports the graduates in achieving personal and social integration into society. Aftercare programs include social support (such as family and/or marriage counseling), logistical support (such as help with university admissions, job applications, traveling, etc.), and in some cases, financial support. The objective is to ensure that graduates do not feel lost once outside of prison which, in turn, minimizes the risk they become vulnerable again to the influence of radical views. The process of radicalization is a complex one, and de-radicalization is equally so. However, the center says it has achieved high rates of success. According to its own estimates, by the end of 2016, more than 3,300 individuals had benefited from the center’s programs including around 130 detainees transferred from Guantanamo Bay prison. Around 80 percent of graduates successfully re-integrated into society and were leading normal lives, while the rate of recidivism was 20 percent.
Since declaring a so-called “caliphate” in June 2014, ISIS and other radical terrorist groups have carried out more than 140 terrorist attacks around the world. The spread of radical ideology is rampant on social media and there is a clear need to counter violent extremism online. The Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (also known as Etidal which is the Arabic word for “moderation”)) was officially opened in Riyadh in May 2017 by H.R.H. King Salman, US President Donald Trump and Egyptian President Abdelfatah el Sisy.
Etidal’s approach to countering violent extremism is based on the premise that terrorism is a symptom of the problem. Extreme views are the problem Fighting the symptom (terrorism) will not eliminate the problem (extremism). The solution lies in targeting the ways extremists think and challenging their religious understanding and world views. Etidal aims to do this in the virtual world by conducting research, devising analytical methods, developing technologies and digital tool, and utilizing media outlets. It is currently working on three main projects: an innovation lab, a global extremism index and a media affairs department.
The innovation lab collaborates with leading tech companies such as Google’s Jigsaw to develop new and innovative technologies to counter violent extremism. According to the center, it has developed software and predictive models capable of recognizing extremist content uploaded to the internet within seconds after it is posted this enables the lab to collect data about extremist organizations and their supporters and to better understand which extremist organizations pose the greatest threat to public safety. The lab can also weaken the ability of extremist groups to spread their messages by deleting posts and producing media aimed at exposing the hypocrisies of terrorism.
A strategic and long-term project at Etidal is the global extremism index (GEI), a predictive index to monitor the increase or decrease in extremist mindsets based on levels of extremist ideologies (concealed, propagated, and/ or violent) and demographics (social background, age, geographic distribution, and educational level). GEI is a continuation of the important work done by other projects such as the global terrorism database (GTD) and the global terrorism index (GTI). It targets violent extremist ideologies, rather than terrorist incidents. The project has begun with a local focus but will build an index that is measurable and adaptable to extremist ideologies in the wider global context.
A third project, the media affairs department, challenges extremist ideologies, exposes false propaganda, and provides a counter narrative on social media. Media products include videos (documentaries or educational features), pictures (infographics), and articles focused on raising public awareness of political trends and extremist discussions on social media. Content is posted on Etidal’s official accounts on three major social media outlets: Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.
The authors conclude their report by noting that while great efforts are being made to combat violent extremism, both online and offline, terrorist organizations will continue to innovate and adapt. ISIS, for example, not only evolved its military strategies and tactics to defend its so-called caliphate but also improved its use of digital platforms After major social media outlets, such as Twitter, removed violent extremist content, ISIS shifted to Telegram The three initiatives discussed in the report and other initiatives not mentioned place Saudi Arabia at the forefront of the fight against violent extremism. In the years ahead, write the authors, international cooperation will be a key to success. Saudi Arabia has much to offer in terms of sharing intelligence and the transfer of knowledge.
Abdullah Khaled Al-Saud is the director of research, and head of the security studies unit at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He is also an assistant professor at the College of Strategic Sciences at Naif Arab University for Security Sciences in Riyadh, and an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. Yousuf Zarea is a research fellow in the security studies unit at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. He holds an MA in international relations from the University of Sussex in the UK and a BA in political science from Texas A&M University.