Analysis & Opinions - CNN

Trump Can End ISIS by Learning from Saudi Arabia

| Apr. 27, 2017

Given the decision this month to drop "the mother of all bombs" on an ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan, it's clear the United States now intends to deliver on President Donald Trump's campaign pledge to destroy the terrorist group.

As the new administration seeks a strategy for doing so, it would be worth its while to look more closely at the counterterrorism program of Saudi Arabia.

Over the past decade, this successful campaign has thwarted a large number of potential terror attacks and saved thousands of lives.

The Saudi counterterrorism program was developed over the last two decades by the kingdom's interior minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

The program's mix of aggressive and organized paramilitary tactics working in conjunction with established, globally collaborative intelligence alliances and innovative de-radicalization initiatives has proven highly effective.

Central to the program is the philosophy that raw firepower is not enough; the government must win the public theological battle against the misguided interpretations of Sunni Islam by ISIS and al Qaeda.

Such strategic thinking has led to various "soft" anti-terror initiatives by various Saudi government agencies, including a recent project carried out by the Saudi Justice and Islamic Affairs ministries in which activists counter terrorist rhetoric and recruitment online.

These methods have generated a forceful yet intelligent approach to terror that emphasizes pre-emptive interception of future terror attacks by the kingdom's security forces. For instance, a new border security program is being launched that will cover 900 kilometers (560 miles) of the northern frontier of the kingdom with Iraq to prevent infiltration by ISIS-affiliated fighters.

Further, the Saudi government has made it a crime for anyone to support ISIS and al Qaeda and has blocked all support — including funding — from inside the kingdom.

These strict controls have forced ISIS and al Qaeda operatives to self-fund from Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi and other Persian Gulf sources. Hence, targeting these funding sources has become a central objective of the Saudi counterterrorism program.

The program has also evolved to target Shia terrorist groups looking to operate inside the kingdom. Clandestinely operating out of Bahrain, these groups receive support and funding from Iran.

For example, the Ashtar Brigades, led by Iranian-based terrorist Bahraini cleric Murtada al-Sanadi, has carried out bombings and shootings directed at the kingdom's police forces in its eastern province.

And while there have been casualties, Saudi counterterrorism forces have utterly destroyed the nascent foundations of what could have become a major Shia terrorist movement based in Awamiya (a village in the eastern Shia enclave of Al Qatif).

The pre-emptive interception of terror attacks is not only central to the Saudi program, but it has its origins in the personal experience of its architect, the Saudi crown prince, who has survived a number assassination attempts since May 2003.

The third attempt in 2009 involved a suicide bomber linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In that attack, the would-be assassin, Abdullah al-Asiri, hid a body cavity bomb inside his underwear.

The same type of device was allegedly used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in his attempt to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day in 2009.

Perhaps because their founder has been able to glean so much firsthand knowledge of terrorist methods, Saudi counterterrorism forces have excelled at using intelligence gained from attacks and attempted attacks to stop future ones. For instance, over the last decade, Saudi intelligence has prevented at least two suicide attempts on planes meant to explode over major urban centers in the United States and UK, thus preventing the possible death of thousands.

One involved explosives in toner cartridge containers in 2010 and another an explosive device designed to be worn in clothing in 2012.

The Saudis have also taken to coalition building to broaden the war on terror and take advantage of all international opportunities to root out terror cells wherever they may reside.

The most recent and far-reaching outcome of this coalition building is the establishment of IMAFT, or the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism.

With 41 member nations, it is a Saudi-led intergovernmental counterterror alliance in the Muslim world united for the purpose of using military intervention and counterterrorist tactics to destroy terrorist groups.

In February, Mike Pompeo, the new CIA director, visited Saudi Arabia and gave Crown Prince Mohammed the George Tenet Award in recognition of his counterterrorism work.

As the Trump administration seeks to get its bearings in this complicated war on terror, it is reassuring to see that one of its first gestures was to visit the kingdom and honor the creator of its highly successful anti-terror program.

It will do well to continue to work with Saudi Arabia in establishing tough, cooperative and widespread counterterror initiatives if it hopes to fulfill Trump's promise to eradicate ISIS once and for all.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Obaid, Nawaf.“Trump Can End ISIS by Learning from Saudi Arabia.” CNN, April 27, 2017.