HOME January-February 2009 Featured Stories Background Information News On The Web



by Olivier Guitta


Saudi Arabia very recently released a list of eighty-five most wanted terrorists. Eighty-three of the individuals are Saudi nationals, the other two are Yemenis. These individuals are suspected of wanting to revive Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, attack oil facilities inside the kingdom and overthrow the monarchy. Because of the pedigree of the suspects, the Saudi regime is taking this threat very seriously.

Interestingly, out of the 85, fourteen had been previously detained at Guantanamo Bay and undergone the Saudi rehabilitation program for jihadists. This program that was trumpeted by Saudi authorities as extremely successful is obviously now showing its limits. Indeed rehabilitating hard-core jihadists is a huge challenge, especially when these individuals have been brainwashed since their early age.

The Saudi regime has at this point a lot of introspection to do since its education system is at fault along with the hyper-present extremist and intolerant Wahhabism. It is no coincidence that among foreign jihadists in Iraq fighting coalition troops, the Saudis were the largest group. Most of these jihadists were between 18 and 25 and upon their deaths, preachers would visit their families in Saudi Arabia to underline the virtues of jihad and to confirm their son's martyrdom and his place in paradise.

A telling example of how the regime had radicalized a generation of youngsters is that of Abdallah Thabet, a 34-year-old literature teacher. Thabet was born in a tribal world, in a village in the Assir region near the Yemen border, where people lived without Wahhabi influence. This until 1979 when after the siege of Mecca, the regime decided to empower the radical religious clerics who started to spread their propaganda throughout the kingdom. Thabet affirms that throughout Saudi Arabia, fired up by the religious rhetoric, high school students, as well as students, were radicalized and in some cases plunged into violence. He was one of them, wanting to restoring the caliphate and viewing Osama Bin Laden as one of his heroes. Thabet left his family to head two clandestine cells that launched raids "against non-believers". Inspired by his jihadist years, Thabet wrote a novel entitled "The 20th terrorist". Out of the 19 terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks, 15 were Saudi, many of whom came from the Assir area. Thabet wanted to show in his book how so many young Saudis plunged into terrorism. Indeed, in the real world, some of its former companions are or were fighting in Iraq, or clandestinely preparing attacks in Saudi Arabia.

The role of the Saudi education system in radicalizing its youth is not a secret. Two weeks ago the Saudi Al Watan published a column entitled: "Who is behind the deviants" - for information, deviant is the word used in Saudi Arabia to describe terrorists-. In this column, the author clearly places the blame on the education system that teaches youngsters to memorize the Koran but not to learn much in other disciplines. He also noted that radical preachers have the upper hand throughout the kingdom and pollute the minds of the youth with extremist ideas.

The situation has been so dire that it looks like that, now after 30 years, Saudi authorities are realizing the hugeness of the problem. The tipping point was clearly the fact that some of its own citizens that joined Al Qaeda are very determined to overthrow the monarchy. So that is why for instance Saudi Deputy Minister of Education and Teaching for boys (coeducation is forbidden in Arabia), Mohammed Said Maliss, ordered the removal of certain radical and extremist books from school libraries and education centers. Among these books is one about Sayyed Qutb, one of the most influential Islamist thinkers who serves as a reference to Al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups. Another book now banned clearly calls for Jihad, in the name of Islam.

The second step taken by the regime was the reshuffling of the government that took place on Feb. 14. Most importantly was the replacement of the hardcore Wahhabi Education Minister Abdullah Bin Saleh al-Obaid by prince Faisal bin Abdullah, that is viewed as more moderate. Time will tell if the new incoming Education Minister will really reform the system and get rid once and for all of the extremist views that permeates the school curriculum. Faisal will have at his disposal huge amount of funds since the education minister gets about one quarter of the Saudi budget.

King Abdullah also fired the head of the religious police, the "Mutawaa" which ensures proper application of the Islamic Sharia law. The Mutawaa has been criticized for its heavy hand: back in August, the site reported that a member of the force murdered his own sister after learning she had converted to Christianity. He stoned and burned her and cut her tongue, leaving her agonizing until death. The assassin is currently in custody, and authorities are trying to stifle the case for fear of the reaction of international opinion. Indeed, such revelations are damaging for Saudi Arabia's image.

The recent moves implemented by the regime are little tiny steps to tackle the problem of extremism in the kingdom. It might be way too little too late because so many mostly young men have been poisoned by radical ideas. Interestingly enough, Riyadh never listened when the West pointed out the risks of playing fire. But now that the threat is against the regime, they seem to be more attentive.

Olivier Guitta is an Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant. You can read his latest work on The Croissant, at

This essay was submitted February 23, 2009.


Return_________________________End of Story___________________________Return

HOME January-February 2009 Featured Stories Background Information News On The Web