The threat from IEDs in Saudi Arabia returned in 2015 when the country suffered a string of suicide bombings. The first occurred May 2015, and four more followed throughout the year. The attacks resulted in 189 deaths and injuries, of which 90% (170) were civilians, as most attacks targeted Shia mosques. The country has already seen three bombings in 2016, though these have resulted in significantly less civilian harm. Where the perpetrators of such attacks have been identified, IS or affiliated individuals have been responsible for all attacks in Saudi Arabia.
The years preceding this recent escalation of attacks were relatively quiet since al-Qaeda’s attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003 and 2004. A few high profile attacks have occurred, such as the assassination attempt of a Saudi prince by a suicide bomber using a “Body Cavity Bomb” (BCB), but very little had occurred between then and 2015.
The Ministry of Interior (MoI) Special Emergency Force (SEF) is a special operations counter-terrorism unit of the Saudi Arabian General Security. It is the equivalent of a special weapons assault team (SWAT) and have a counter terrorism and counter piracy remit. They have 13 bases throughout Saudi Arabia and have been the target of IS attacks in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself. They have also been deployed to Yemen in the Saudi offensive against the Houthi rebellion. After the al-Qaeda attacks, Saudi Arabia bolstered these types of forces.
The personnel go through rigorous training programme designed to prepare soldiers for every possible contingency, from an attack on a VIP convoy to hostage search and recovery, bomb clearance, storming militant hideouts, pinpoint parachute landings, precision shooting and surveillance. There is a strong focus on explosives’ training, and some teams take specialised extra training in handling IEDs triggered by every-day objects, from the tab on a can of Pepsi to a doctored Quran or a small briefcase.
Every region of the kingdom also has unit of the engineering corps of the Saudi Army. These will respond to reports of mines and UXOs. They carry out EOD for the small residue of UXOs left from the 1991 Gulf War, including cluster munition remnants. The clearance of such ordnance not only protects civilians but stops militants from appropriating them.
In late 2015, Saudi security forces in Riyadh discovered and interdicted an IED cell and arms cache.
The Mabahith is the “secret police” agency of the Ministry of Interior in Saudi Arabia, and deals with domestic security and counter-intelligence. They are responsible for finding terrorist networks, conducting raids and collecting intelligence to bring down the terrorist networks that may be responsible for spreading IEDs. Their methods have been called into question however, and have often been the focus of human rights investigations.
Border security personnel man checkpoints and other entry-pints into the country. The latest reports from Saudi customs confirm that the total number of explosives confiscated in 2014 saw a 67% increase from the previous year. Security experts expect a 250% rise for 2015 following major seizures on the Saudi-Bahraini border. Terrorists have been trying to bring C4 and RDX explosives into the country. This is because “they are easily transported and can be used in small quantities, unlike conventional explosives”. It was suspected that the RDX explosives come from Iran.
Smuggling through the Yemeni border decreased because of the war in Yemen that led to the border coming under tighter control, but as a consequence smugglers have instead resorted to maritime channels to bring prohibited IED-making material into Saudi Arabia, as the Gulf coast is harder to control than the country’s land borders.
Neighbourhood police units have taken responsibility for engaging their communities in counterterrorism efforts. They encourage citizens to report suspicious packages, behaviour, or people. The government has also offered rewards for this community engagement.
Whilst Saudi Arabia is involved in multiple efforts at home and abroad to counter terrorism, it must be noted that they have also been accused of supporting terrorism. In Syria, through its opposition to Bashar al-Assad, Saudi have armed and funded terrorist-designated groups.
Sakina Campaign for Dialogue (SCD)
The SCD is part of the MoI’s counter extremism efforts. This is Saudi’s de-radicalisation program. The programme encourages and assists clerics and propagators of Islam to spread moderate Islamic ideology and to explain the problems of extremist ideologies such as those encouraged by terror groups and extremists in general. The programme gives answers to those who have questions or confuse by different Islamic narratives as well as engages directly with those who have expressed understanding for extremist ideologies – some of these are found and engaged with one-on-one in al-Qaeda affiliated forums.[i]
The SCD also has an online database for those who want answers through this avenue. On the database one can find research, religious texts, news and educational material. Some people may reach this site through Sakina’s social media efforts to engage young people, most vulnerable to recruitment. Staff can also be contacted through the online platform.
Sakina volunteers are also engaged in research to better understand recruitment drivers and the attraction of extremist ideologies and groups.
Other counter violent extremism efforts have seen clerics and royalty denouncing extremism and terrorist group ideologies, as well as public awareness campaigns. Public awareness campaigns seek to educate citizens on the harm of violent extremism. These messages are taught in schools, mosques and sporting events, but can also be seen in advertisements and on television.
Mohammed bin Naif Counselling and Care Center
The Mohammed bin Naif Counselling and Care Center (MNCC) is considered a rehabilitation institution for youth that have a belief in Islamic extremism. It aims to deliver through “scientific and practical correction”, a change in behaviour. It encourages moderate Islam and national loyalty. Between 2007 and 2015 the MNCC has seen 3071 beneficiaries – some from Guantanamo. The MNCC uses religion, psychology and sociology to try and rehabilitate militants and reintegrate them into society if they are deemed able to do so.
The MNCC has been referred to as the “center-piece of Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism strategy”. Most of the militants at the MNCC were those responsible for al-Qaeda bombings between 2003 and 2006 that were being held in Saudi prisons. Of the 3,000 treated, only 13% are said to have returned to militancy, and half of these have been arrested.
Despite these efforts, many say more should be done to counter extremist ideologies earlier in a citizen’s life, such as an overhaul of the education system and an end to demonising Shia Muslims, which unfortunately is encouraged in the country’s national curriculums.
The Saudi Ministry of Defense in 2013 acquired several C-IED robots to be used by its bomb disposal units, and more than 2600 high security individuals have been trained to use these robots. The Saudi Security Forces have published online photos of the C-IED robot TEODOR (TELEROB EXPLOSIVE ORDNANCE DISPOSAL & OBSERVATION ROBOT) and praised its effectiveness.
The remote-controlled, heavy-duty robot is designed and manufactured in Germany by Telerob, a business unit of Cobham Unmanned Systems. The robot is designed to provide enhanced bomb disposal capabilities to EOD teams. It is used to identify and disarm booby traps, fireworks, IEDs and other dangerous objects in closed areas, buildings and vehicles. It also performs reconnaissance, monitoring and investigation of objects in exceptionally dangerous conditions. On July 4 2016, Saudi officers foiled an attempted bombing of the US consulate in Jeddah using TEODOR, which dismantled 8 IEDs around the consulate during a five-hour window. An attacker had just a few minutes before detonated his suicide vest when security guards approached him near the parking lot of a neighbouring hospital.
In December 2011, the United States finalised their “largest international defence sale in history — worth approximately $29.4 billion — to Saudi Arabia. This sale included 84 advanced F-15SA fighter aircraft and updates to the Kingdom’s existing 70 F-15S aircraft. Other large programs include 36 AH-64D Block III Apache helicopters, as well as ammunition for the Royal Saudi Land Forces; 24 AH-64D Block III Apache helicopters and 72 UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters for the Ministry of the National Guard; and numerous PATRIOT air defence systems and upgrades”. A sale of over $11 billion was made in October 2015 for Multi-Mission Surface Combatant ship and associated equipment, parts and logistical support.
Saudi Arabia has also bought millions of pounds’ worth of C-IED equipment from the UK – details of which can be found on Campaign Against the Arms Trade’s website. This includes bomb suits and other protective equipment, detection systems, disposal and jamming equipment, equipment for initiating explosives, robots and robot accessories.
Saudi security forces along with their Bahraini counterparts conduct frequent thorough searches of the cars crossing the bridge connecting Saudi Arabia with Bahrain. Saudi customs officers, helped by trained police dogs, have managed to foil numerous attempts to smuggle the highly explosive “RDX” material, according to the Interior Ministry of Interior. The smugglers are arrested and bomb-making manuals, along with documents relating to military patrols are often found with them.
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been involved in information sharing to better protect their countries, mainly along their shared border.
Saudi is also considered one of the US’ best partners in the Middle East, and in recent years they have further increased their bilateral cooperation. All counterterrorism efforts have involved consultation with the US, particularly given that US personnel have been the targets of terrorism within Saudi Arabia. This cooperation ensures security for US installations and interests. The US, in their 2016 Security Cooperation Fact Sheet, expressed their intention to continue to collaborate with Saudi Arabia in counterterrorism matters. This includes continued joint training for special forces operations and counterterrorism forces and bolstering maritime security. This will see the US maintain its training and advisory services within the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is a member of the MENAFATF as part of its efforts to combat terrorism financing. Saudi Arabia has attempted to gain recognition as a leader in fighting terrorism financing in the region. The MoI has offered training programs to Saudi financial institutions as well as personnel from other areas concerned with countering terrorism financing, such as judges and border officials. In 2015, Saudi Arabia became an “observer” in the FATF – a step to gaining full membership.
At the US-GCC Camp David Summit in 2015 Saudi Arabia reiterated its efforts to counter terrorism and in August 2015 hosted the US-GCC Counterterrorism and Border Security Working Group. Saudi Arabia continues to encourage greater information sharing and other cooperative efforts to contribute to global counterterrorism endeavours.
International initiatives and support
King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID)
The KAICIID is an intergovernmental organisation founded by Saudi Arabia, Austria, and Spain. It has the aim of promoting dialogue to prevent and resolve conflict through understanding and cooperation. They hope to foster dialogue among people of different faiths and cultures that bridges animosities, reduces fear and instils mutual respect.
Regarding C-IED work, they are part of the international efforts to counter the root causes of violent extremism that focus on the networks that facilitate terrorism and IED use. KAICIID consistently condemns terrorist attacks of all forms. They advocate that all forms of prejudice must be rejected and that no terror or violence is acceptable – it is hoped that the dialogue will achieve reconciliation.
KAICIID has facilitated workshops alongside the OIC, with C-IED consequences, such as those targeting the roots of extremism, including online radicalisation. KAICIID has also enabled dialogues between many experts as part of the fight against violent extremism.
Islamic Counterterrorism Coalition
In December 2015, the Saudi government announced a 34-state Islamic Counterterrorism Coalition to be headquartered in Riyadh. The coalition will focus on cooperative efforts between the member states, particularly those concerning countering violent extremism. Their main terror group of concern in IS, although they remain involved in countering other terror groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as well.
Counter ISIL Coalition
Saudi Arabia is also part of the Counter ISIL Coalition. As part of its efforts, it co-leads the Counter-ISIL Finance Group, alongside Italy and the US. The Counter-ISIL Financial Group aims to destroy IS’s financial infrastructure. Saudi Arabia has been part of significant efforts to hold terrorism financiers accountable. Despite Saudi Arabia’s counter terrorism-financing, it remains the case that individuals and groups in Saudi Arabia continue to provide financial support to Sunni-based terrorist such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Although this has had to take on new forms as Saudi strengths its counter terrorism financing. It is now the case that policing must better its efforts to stop cash being smuggled out of the country to support terrorism.
Saudi Arabia is also part of the Arab League, the OIC and the GCTF. Within these, Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism efforts have been applauded and Saudi Arabia has played an important role in encouraging such efforts within these larger organisations.
NGO and private companies support and initiatives
DSA Detection is a global manufacturer and distributor with offices in Saudi Arabia. They produce trace detection products for both the operation and maintenance of all explosive trace detection (ETD). Also, X-ray correct inert explosive simulants, IED training aids, and test articles used in training screeners to identify threats and to verify security checkpoint equipment are properly identifying threats. This equipment is used in training packages that DSA provides.
G4S is a global security company that delivers security and security related services across the world. They work across six continents and 100 countries and they have a $5bn annual turnover. G4S have delivered a 3-year integrated training transformation (ITT) programme for the Saudi Arabian MoI SEF to develop a team of operationally experienced instructors to train and mentor future SEF, particularly in EOD and C-IED.
The G4S personnel will be providing lessons and practical C-IED and EOD training exercises from awareness to clearance, training and tactics. G4S have also been engaged in other security projects in Saudi Arabia, such as combating terror threats during Mecca pilgrimages.
To see the areas of the published report, see here. To see a list of all the C-IED actors examined as part of the project, please go here. To read the full report, ‘Addressing the threat posed by IEDs: National, Regional and Global Initiatives’, see here. To see those engaged in the Middle East, the Sahel, North Africa or other highly impacted countries please see here, here, here, and here respectively. This research was made possible by funding from the NATO Counter Improvised Explosive Devices Centre of Excellence (C-IED COE) and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
[i] Counter Extremism, ‘CASE STUDY REPORT: Al-Sakina’, Institute for Strategic Dialogue
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