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What is Saudi Arabia's Counter-Terrorism Program, and would it have Worked in Iraq?

Updated on June 20, 2014

Saudi Arabia's Counter-Terrorism Strategy

Many news reports today have mentioned that the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal, has criticized Iraqi Presdient Nouri al-Maliki for not learning from the example set by Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism program. How has Saudi Arabia battled counter-terrorism? Would its model work in Iraq?

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Saudi Arabia was afflicted with numerous terrorist attacks, the most visible one being the Riyadh compound bombings in 2003. Saudi Arabian security forces had been battling insurgents with conventional weapons, but following the 2003 bombings the government decided to adjust its approach. Numerous government ministries pooled their ideas together, and they came up with the PRAC program. PRAC stands for prevention, rehabilitation, and aftercare.

Saudi Arabia Exports the Most Terrorists to Iraq



Basically, the government discovered that Islamist extremism and the insurgency in Saudi Arabia could not be entirely defeated with bullets and bombs. They recognized that the real enemy was an ideological one. This “soft” counter-terrorism strategy sought to “fix” the terrorists’ understanding of Islam, and replace their misguided extremism with piety and Saudi nationalism.

The first pillar of PRAC is prevention. Prevention entails sensitivity training in schools, awareness campaigns, and the surveillance of “problematic” imams and school teachers. Imams and school teachers that arouse suspicion with the authorities are thoroughly reeducated in what “true” Islam is. Prevention programs are always difficult to evaluate, because it is impossible to compile statistics on how many people resisted becoming radicalized. However, their prevention strategies are accompanied with rehabilitation programs.

The Saudi government views religious extremism as a corrupted understanding of Islam, and thus they rely on religious clerics to correct the terrorist’s world view. This kind of rehabilitation is done in one-on-one sessions in which the cleric is supposed to actively engage with the inmate. It is not supposed to be a lecture. Instead, only clerics who can create a constructive dialogue are allowed to participate. Inmates are encouraged to engage in religious studies, and some are released early for being able to demonstrate in-depth memorizations of the Quran. The fact that the majority of apprehended terrorists exhibited minimal understanding of the Quran is used as evidence to justify this kind of religious focus.

Another aspect of rehabilitation is that the government compensates the family of the inmate while he is in prison. Usually, they try to match the salary of the man imprisoned so that the family may continue to live as normally as possible. The reasoning behind this is twofold. Firstly, because Saudi Arabia has a strong patriarchal culture and the radicals apprehended tend to be working-age men, many Saudi Arabian families could slip into poverty if their sole bread-winner is unable to provide for them. Secondly, if that family should slip into poverty, there is a good chance that other members will become radicalized. This would undo the efforts the state has undertaken.

The final aspect of PRAC is aftercare. This is essentially a continuation of rehabilitation, but it is over a longer term. There are half-way houses for the now “reeducated” inmates, and there are other employment certification programs that help ease their way back into society. The interesting thing about these half-way houses is that they divide the inmates into three distinct groups, and they are not allowed to intermingle. The groups consist of those who were caught in connection to domestic terrorism, those returning from Guantanamo Bay, and those who fought in the Iraq War against the United States. These three classifications seem to encompass the vast majority of those included in the PRAC program.

According to data from 2008, the recidivist rate of PRAC was between 1% and 2%. These are very good numbers and clearly indicate success. Exactly how much this program costs is anyone’s guess since the Saudi Arabian government keeps most of its finances opaque. There still are terrorist attacks occasionally in Saudi Arabia, but there does seem to be a dramatic decrease of attacks since PRAC was instituted.

Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai (in white robe), the head of the Sunni Endowment, hands a Qur'an to a detainee (with cane) before his release. Other Sunni sheikhs from Anbar Province present Qur'ans to departing detainees.
Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai (in white robe), the head of the Sunni Endowment, hands a Qur'an to a detainee (with cane) before his release. Other Sunni sheikhs from Anbar Province present Qur'ans to departing detainees. | Source

Detention Policies in Iraq

The government of Maliki took control of detention centers in Iraq following the withdrawal of US troops in 2011. Before that, detention of terrorists and suspected terrorist was controlled by the American military. After the infamous Abu Ghraib debacle in 2004, the Pentagon did some investigating on alternative detention policies.

In 2007, Task Force 134 came into being. This program set up a detention center that became known as the “House of Wisdom”. Following the troop surge ordered by President Bush in 2007, the number of detainees exploded, eventually peaking at 26,000. The US authorities followed the Saudis' example and invited moderate clerics to interview and evaluate the detainees. Their findings were interesting, because generally, they discovered that the religious extremists (aka “jihadists”) were in the minority. A lot of the detainees were illiterate and came from impoverished backgrounds. Many of them were bribed with cash or manipulated with other means. Another interesting finding was that the vast majority (approximately 85%) of the detainees were Sunnis. Many of them were recruited by ultra-nationalist Sunni groups, which had foreign patrons.

Following the withdrawal of US troops, Iraqi authorities took complete control of their detention facilities. It is not clear if they continued the policies of Task Force 134, but since 2011 there have been allegations from Amnesty International and others of torture and prisoner abuse at Iraqi prisons. We can also imagine that the majority of inmates are still Sunnis.

Secret Jail in Baghdad

Sunni Insurgents in Iraq


Would PRAC have Worked in Iraq?

Are Faisal’s criticisms against Maliki fair? In my opinion, it would be an oversimplification to assume that if Maliki had adopted full-heartedly the PRAC program, then he could have prevented this insurgency. Firstly, Iraq is a diverse country with large Shi’a and Sunni populations, compared to Saudi Arabia with its large Sunni majority. Secondly, Saudi Arabia has an immense amount of money to spend because of its extensive oil reserves. Iraq also has massive oil reserves, but considering that the country was torn apart by war just recently, it seems unreasonable to expect the government to have ample money for these kind of rehabilitative programs.

Another consideration is that the insurgency in Saudi Arabia and the insurgency in Iraq are fundamentally different. The majority of terrorists in Saudi Arabia seem to be motivated by religious extremism. While in Iraq, the insurgency seems to be caused by a serious schism between the Shi’a and Sunni populations of the country. This schism has exacerbated by authoritarian policies of Maliki that have been viewed by Iraqi Sunnis as pro-Shi’a and anti-Sunni.

Obama with the King of Saudi Arabia


Potential Problems with PRAC and Conclusions

The success rate of PRAC in Saudi Arabia is a good sign, and any decrease in terrorism should be welcomed. However, if the Saudi state is the one to decide what “true” Islam vs. “corrupted” Islam is, then there could be serious room for abuse. Saudi Arabia is not a country that embraces freedom of the press or expressions of political dissent, so it is certainly possible that PRAC could be used as an instrument to silence grievances against the government.

Currently, the Saudi approach is being utilized by other Muslim nations, because heavy-handed operations have not proved adequate in quelling this extremism. The Obama administration has ramped up its counter-terrorist activities, and they have relied primarily on targeted strikes from drones. This strategy may prove effective in the short-term, because it seriously degrades the capability of certain groups to carry out attacks. However, it does not address the underlying problem that causes people to engage in terrorism.

In the United States, there has been an increase of American citizens joining jihadist groups in the Middle East, and there was of course the first Fort Hood shooting in which the perpetrator was influenced by radical Islam. In order to fully address religious extremism, it seems that the Saudi’s “soft” approach may be an essential part of the long term solution. However, in the case of Iraq, I cannot say that Faisal is 100% accurate, but I do agree that the exclusionary policies of Maliki towards Iraqi Sunnis was certainly a determining factor for why so many Iraqis sympathize with groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.


What do you think about Saudi Arabia's Counter-Terrorism Strategy?

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    • Frienderal profile image


      4 years ago from Singapore

      Excellent anaylsis, Phillipe! On a side note, the uprisings and tension witnessed in Middle East (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, etc.) dates back to the colonial era. Colonial powers like France and Britain often chose a set of rulers who are from the minority group. It was a guile strategy as the minority administration will continue to require assistance from the colonial powers after their independence. This in a way could have played a vital role in modern middle east's political struggle.


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