Fifteen of the nineteen al-Qaeda hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia. In the decade since 9/11, Riyadh has been credited as an invaluable partner to Washington in fighting global terror and as one of the world’s best success stories for how to defeat domestic terrorist activities through law enforcement, security and intelligence measures, education, and rehabilitation. Still, some Saudi nationals remain an important source of funding for terrorist networks despite Riyadh’s efforts to crack down on illicit financing.

In a Q&A, Christopher Boucek assesses the threat of terrorism coming out of Saudi Arabia ten years after 9/11. Boucek argues that Washington and Riyadh have enjoyed a successful relationship in combating global terror and Saudi Arabia is remarkably effective in containing the terrorist threat—but if the country loses focus on this priority, terrorism could come back with a vengeance.


What is Saudi Arabia’s connection to global terror?

Saudi Arabia is an important location for funding global terrorist activity and it also serves as the spiritual home of al-Qaeda. Since 2003, when terrorism came back to Saudi Arabia—most notably with the May bombings of residential compounds housing foreigners in Riyadh—and the Saudi authorities started taking the problem seriously, the country has made huge efforts to crack down on terrorism. Right now, there are no major terrorist operatives or cells openly operating in Saudi Arabia—but funding remains the big problem today.

To what extent are Saudis funding terror and what has the government done to limit financing?

With the Hajj attracting millions of Muslims every year to Mecca, there are ample opportunities to make connections and fundraise with people from all over the world. It is relatively easy to get money for many things in Saudi Arabia—and there is certainly money to be had. And terrorist groups can receive cash (or other convertible instruments) from individuals and groups even today, because there are still people who believe in the actions of these groups.

The government has done quite a bit to crack down on fundraising. Laws have been implemented to curtail sending charitable money abroad outside government channels. People are not allowed to fundraise in mosques or on the streets, although such fundraising likely persists to some degree. There have also been educational and advertising campaigns letting people know that such money is often used for illicit activities—this has helped increase awareness about the methods terror groups use to raise funds.

A fatwa was also issued saying that raising money for terrorism is the same as being a terrorist. And many prominent religious officials have condemned terrorism and worked hard to undermine support for terrorism and counter the intellectual or ideological justifications for terrorist activities.

But the real problem is that we are talking about mostly small amounts of money and often cash, so it is incredibly difficult to regulate and prevent. Saudi Arabia is good at cracking down on terrorism, but the financing is incredibly hard to control. There are people who give money that gets diverted to other purposes and groups that use similar methods to collect cash.

And it’s important to remember that terrorist groups do not need large amounts of money to operate. Global terror is a cheap business to be in, so cutting funds to the point that it prevents terrorist acts is an uphill battle.

Where is terrorist funding from the kingdom going?

Fundraising in Saudi Arabia is said to support both al-Qaeda-style activity and Taliban-style activity—it is important to look at the broad categories separately. Recognizing the domestic threat, Saudi Arabia is more focused on ending fundraising for groups akin to al-Qaeda and less aware of the extent of the problem of money going to other jihadi groups.

Money coming out of Saudi Arabia reportedly goes to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda central, and its affiliated groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani militant group. Groups employ a variety of strategies to receive donations and support. Potential funders are often shown videos on mobile phones of direct requests from terrorist leaders operating on the ground in Yemen or other countries, even if they do not personally come to Saudi Arabia. And there have been instances where women have gathered together to raise money—it’s not entirely clear if everyone who donated money knew where the money was actually headed or if they believed it was for humanitarian or charity work.

What more can be done to shut down the flow of money?

It should go without saying that there needs to be better international cooperation to make it increasingly difficult to ship money abroad to support terrorism, but it is very difficult to cut back on the informal methods. The world’s policymakers, bankers, and law enforcement officers are always going to be playing catch up on this stuff.

Financing is important, but countries are not going to stop terrorism by clamping down on the money. The money terrorists need is small. This all needs to be kept in perspective—terrorism financing should be contained, but it is not as important as the willingness of a government to go after these guys.

Are there still terrorists operating inside Saudi Arabia?

There are no high-level operators from al-Qaeda or similar outfits at large in Saudi Arabia today. The most-wanted terrorists are no longer inside the country, but if Riyadh were to ease up on the pressure being applied on violent extremism and terrorism, there is a real possibility that violence could return. Sympathy for their cause remains inside the country.

The number of people behind bars suspected of having terrorist ties fluctuates. Before 9/11, there were 192 prisoners in Saudi Arabia detained for terrorism and related allegations. But after terrorist activity came to Saudi soil with a vengeance in 2003, there were over 11,000 people interrogated and eventually set free. There are slightly less than 6,000 people now being held, including approximately 1,600 serving sentences.

With renewed urgency in fighting terrorism, Saudi authorities built a whole new series of special security prisons—and they are reportedly full today. There have been regular, large batches of arrests of al-Qaeda-affiliated figures in the last several years.

There are of course still Saudis involved in terrorism—they just are not in the country. Saudis made up the largest group operating in al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan before 9/11 and some are still active abroad. A significant number of Saudi nationals are believed to be in Yemen operating with AQAP.

How successful is Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism program? Is terrorism and terrorism financing a priority for the Saudi government?

Saudi Arabia has made combating terrorism a major priority. Terrorism is one of the biggest threats that Riyadh faces. Before 2003, the effectiveness of Riyadh’s counterterrorism activities was questionable at best. But in response to the rising levels of violence in the country in 2003 through 2006, the government did a good job of clamping down.

There are not too many countries that have successfully dismantled and muzzled terrorism like Saudi Arabia has done. The government dedicated a great deal of money to the issue and employed both hard-security methods and softer tactics. This included arrests, better intelligence, amnesties, and counter-radicalization programs, as well as efforts by the governing and religious establishments to mobilize the population against terrorist activities.

Every six to eight months, the Ministry of the Interior will announce a series of arrests and accuse the suspects of targeting members of the royal family, foreigners, energy infrastructure, and moderate clerics, but release limited details. This helps communicate to the public that homegrown terrorism is still a serious, ongoing threat despite the lack of a successful, high-profile attack in recent years.

Early on, however, Saudi Arabia realized that it did not want to make the same mistakes that Egypt and Syria made when too many people were arrested. Massive, unaccountable arrests run the risk that family members will be radicalized. Riyadh realized that it needed to reduce the impact of arrests and prove to the population that it was working to take care of them. The government and religious authorities worked to drive a wedge between extremists and the public by proving that extremists are not acting in the population’s best interests and funded disengagement and rehabilitation programs. Riyadh put all kinds of resources and money into this and has enjoyed some success, but the sheer amount of financial backing, resources, and top-level focus makes the programs hard to emulate in different countries.

Who are on Saudi Arabia’s list of the most wanted terrorism suspects?

Saudi Arabia released the names of 85 of its most wanted terrorists in February 2009, shortly after AQAP was created with the merger of the Saudi and Yemeni al-Qaeda affiliates. The list includes 83 Saudi nationals and two Yemenis and 66 are still at large today. It includes the terrorists operating outside of Saudi Arabia that Riyadh is most interested in getting back. This January, Saudi authorities named 47 additional alleged terrorists in a new most wanted list.

Those identified include people who are trained in weapons, known to be targeting energy infrastructure, connected to al-Qaeda cells active in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, or Iran (there have been fears that Iran has officially protected some of them), and potentially involved in plots or plans to attack Saudi Arabia. When you start to analyze the groups of networks that these men are connected to, it quickly makes sense as to why they are more important than just the individuals by themselves.

Eleven of the terrorists named in 2009 had been released from the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay and then attended a Saudi rehabilitation program for former militants and extremists. The so-called Saudi Eleven subsequently fled the country in waves and rejoined terrorist groups abroad.

A new interactive site—The Saudi Eleven—explores the people, places, and organizations that impacted each man’s radicalization and, for some, their ultimate renouncement of radical, violent extremism. By representing relationships visually, shared patterns of behavior become apparent.

Why is it important to understand the connections among terrorists?

Only by understanding the connections between all actors tied to global terrorism can effective strategies be developed to combat the threat. To fight terrorism, it is essential to look at the social networks that tie jihadist groups together. A better understanding of where people come from, their life experiences, and their links to other individuals help countries come up with tools to prevent terrorism in the first place and better methods for containing the threat.

There is a tendency to look at the most notorious terrorists—those with the highest media profile or the loudest rhetoric—and target them, but this is not enough and does not automatically deal with the real problem. Countries can dismantle terrorist outfits by taking apart the leadership, but this does not make the movement from which radicalism flourishes go away. Losing leaders weakens al-Qaeda and it degrades its capacity, but not necessarily the threat of terrorism. Dealing with the manifestations and not the cause means that the fight on terrorism is unwinnable. The world is just treading water.

If you want to dismantle networks, you need to take them apart where they come together. Terrorist groups do not operate like corporations. They are more amorphous. What ties them together is not geography or socioeconomics, but shared world views. Violence is not an end to them, but a means to an end. As perverse as it sounds, many violent Islamists are people who believe they are doing the right thing and believe that violence is how they have to achieve what is best. It is black and white in their minds.

This means that counterterrorism methods need to be prioritized. More focus and more resources need to be directed to the troublesome areas (neighborhoods, prisons, schools, etc.) that have radicalized people. If there are limited counterterrorism resources—and there are—funds need to find the perfect balance between prevention and containment and direct action.

This is the only way to get ahead of terrorism.

What is Riyadh’s role in the fight against terrorism in Yemen?

In August 2009, AQAP, the al-Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen, tried to assassinate Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of Saudi Arabia’s antiterrorism efforts. It has been reported in the Saudi press that Prince Mohammed has survived four assassination attempts linked to Yemeni-based militants. So the situation in Yemen is personal for Saudi Arabia—Riyadh considers the terrorists in Yemen a major threat.

Saudi Arabia is Yemen’s largest foreign aid donor—by far. Riyadh’s primary concern with Yemen is its stability and security, particularly the Saudi nationals affiliated with AQAP hiding out in the country. Saudi Arabia is spending more money on counterterrorism training and improving intelligence collection.

Saudi Arabia’s influence and interest in combating terrorists operating in its smaller neighbor mean that Riyadh has a leading role in reducing the threat of terrorism coming out of Yemen. And the Saudis can do things in Yemen that Americans cannot. Saudis tipped off U.S. officials to the bombs concealed inside cargo packages destined for the United States in October 2010, demonstrating the good intelligence that Riyadh collects and shares with Washington. This averted what was likely to be a major attack.

How effectively has Saudi Arabia partnered with the United States to combat terrorism since 9/11?

This is one of the better relationships in the world on counterterrorism. The cooperation between Washington and Riyadh is strong and on the issue of terrorism the Saudis and Americans basically see eye to eye. There is also a regular exchange of information to help both countries prevent attacks.

This was not the case for the first few years after 9/11, as Saudi Arabia did not fully appreciate the problem. But when violence started in Saudi Arabia in 2003, the relationship with the United States on terrorism improved markedly and quickly grew strong. Now there are programs to improve the security of Saudi’s energy infrastructure, training, officials share databases, photos, fingerprints, etc., and there is a great deal of cooperation on Yemen where there are Saudis hiding out and operating with AQAP.

The relationship today shows how two governments can cooperate. If every country was willing to cooperate like Saudi Arabia, the world would be a much safer place. There are two things that are needed to fight terrorism—political will and capacity. Saudi Arabia has demonstrated both. Other countries haven’t. Saudi Arabia recognized that it was at risk of terrorism and then focused a great deal of attention on the problem.

Will heightened tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia amid the Arab awakening compromise cooperation on terrorism?

No. This is the key issue that Washington and Riyadh see eye to eye on. It is considered an existential threat to Saudi Arabia and it remains the concern the United States cares most about. Terrorism is too important and nothing is going to change the high level of cooperation.

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is not going to fundamentally change in the face of unrest and change across the Arab world. Relations will look different on the outside, but the substance will stay the same. The two need each other and leaders from both countries recognize the importance of the relationship.