Overview: In 2019, Saudi Arabian government officials continued to work closely with their U.S. counterparts to deploy a comprehensive and well-resourced CT strategy that included vigilant security measures, regional and international cooperation, and measures to counter terrorist radicalization and recruitment. Saudi Arabia maintained a high cooperation tempo with U.S. and international partners in a range of CT fields, including terrorist information sharing, monitoring of FTFs, border security, countering unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and CVE. The Saudi Arabian government worked to disrupt, and supported U.S. and international sanctions against, terrorist finance networks, focusing heavily on entities supporting Iran’s IRGC-QF, Lebanese Hizballah, and other Iranian proxy groups active in the Gulf.
Attacks by Iran on September 14 targeted some of the Kingdom’s most important oil-processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. Saudi authorities moved quickly to bolster the facilities’ security posture, restore oil processing and export capacity, and repair damaged infrastructure. To help deter Iranian aggressive behavior and enhance Saudi capacity, Saudi Arabia agreed to host U.S. service members.
As in previous years, Saudi Arabia was a full partner and active participant in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and provided significant operational and logistical support for Coalition activities in Syria and Iraq. Saudi operations in Yemen included CT missions against AQAP and ISIS.
2019 Terrorist Incidents: Saudi Arabia suffered from numerous terrorist incidents in 2019. Terrorist incidents included both external attacks by Iranian and Houthi actors and small-scale attacks, largely perpetrated by lone offender actors including ISIS sympathizers. Militants instigated violence using IEDs, gunfire, and UAS. Attacks in 2019 included:
- On April 7, two suspected terrorists were killed and another two arrested by Saudi security forces when they attacked a vehicle checkpoint in Abu Hadriya on the Dammam-Jubail highway. Two non-Saudi civilians were injured in the exchange of gunfire between the suspects and Saudi security forces. Two Saudi security officials also sustained injuries.
- On April 21, Saudi security officials killed four suspected terrorists in a failed terrorist attack on a Ministry of Interior building in the town of Al Zulfi, Riyadh Province. The militants detonated an explosive suicide belt, and three Saudi security officials were injured in the exchange of fire. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.
- On May 14, unmanned aircraft systems targeted two pumping stations on the East-West pipeline carrying crude oil from Dhahran to Yanbu. Yemen-based Iran-backed Houthi militants claimed responsibility.
- On June 12, Saudi-led coalition senior officials reported a cross-border cruise missiles attack at Abha International Airport, injuring 26 civilians. Yemen-based Iran-backed Houthi militants claimed responsibility for this attack.
- On August 17, Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militants struck a natural gas liquids plant at Shaybah oilfield in the Kingdom’s Empty Quarter with drones. The drone strike damaged the facility and caused a fire. No deaths or casualties were reported.
- On September 14, Iranian attacks hit the Abqaiq and Khurais oil processing facilities in the Eastern province, initially taking 5.7 million barrels per day of crude oil production offline. Although Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militants claimed responsibility for the attack, investigations led by Saudi Arabia and the United States concluded the Iranian government was behind the attack. Saudi Aramco resumed pre-attack production levels less than two weeks later, ahead of schedule.
In addition, on December 6, 2019, a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force opened fire in a classroom at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, killing three and wounding eight. The gunman, 2nd Lt Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, was a student who was receiving training at the base. The FBI later noted that Alshamrani had coordinated with AQAP before the terrorist attack, for which the latter claimed credit. The Government of Saudi Arabia continues to work closely with the United States on the investigation.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: In 2019, the Saudi Arabian government used its 2017 counterterrorism law to prosecute cases. The State Security Presidency (SSP) and the Saudi General Investigations Directorate, also known as the Mabahith, took the lead in terrorism-related investigations. Well positioned to respond to incidents, the SSP aggressively investigated terrorist suspects and dismantled suspected ISIS terrorist-related cells within its borders. According to press reports, the Specialized Criminal Court, tasked with judicial oversight of criminal hearings, heard several terrorism-related cases. The court sentenced 38 convicts to death for terrorism-related crimes, with one Yemeni executed on April 9 and 37 Saudis executed on April 23. Some international human rights and press groups continued to assert that the Kingdom has misused counterterrorism laws to prosecute religious and political dissidents, women’s rights activists, and prominent Saudi clerics. Saudi Arabia remained a country of particular concern, a designation it has held since 2004 for systematic violations under the International Religious Freedom Act, including for repression of religious freedom and religious minorities. The Anti-Defamation League and other human rights organizations reported that Saudi textbooks, media, and preaching continued to feature content that condones violence against Jews, Christians, Shia, LGBT persons, and others. See the 2019 International Religious Freedom report.
Saudi Arabia remained committed to securing its borders and denying safe haven to terrorists. With an extensive border security network, the Ministry of Interior closely monitored passenger manifests for inbound and outbound flights and used travel document security technology, API/PNR, and biometric screening capabilities at ports of entry. The General Directorate of Border Guards expanded search operations to detect and disrupt terrorist activity and effectively patrolled land and maritime borders. Officials from the Saudi Border Guards, charged with monitoring the coast within the Kingdom’s territorial waters, called for international agreements to combat the growing threat of maritime terrorism targeting oil tankers and coastal installations in the Gulf.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Saudi Arabia is a member of FATF and MENAFATF. Saudi Arabia became the first Arab nation to achieve full membership in the FATF in June. Its FIU, known as the Saudi Arabia Financial Investigation Unit, is a member of the Egmont Group. Saudi Arabia is also a member of the Defeat ISIS CIFG and the TFTC.
In collaboration with other TFTC member states, Saudi Arabia in 2019 imposed one round of sanctions against individuals and entities affiliated with the Iranian regime’s terror-support networks in the region.
Countering Violent Extremism: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform package calls on all ministries to undertake measures to confront and weaken the violent ideology that underpins terrorist propaganda. The Muslim World League Secretary General, Dr. Mohammed al-Issa, pressed a message of interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and peaceful coexistence with global religious authorities, including Muslim imams outside the Arab world. He also conducted outreach with a variety of Jewish and Christian leaders, including prominent U.S. rabbis and Christian evangelicals.
Saudi Arabia has recently initiated lines of CVE effort to foster reform and regulate religious activities. The government reported that it continued to work to constrain the discriminatory content of its education, satellite, and religious advocacy output both overseas and domestically. Nevertheless, its decades-long support for organizations that propagated intolerant interpretations of Islam overseas remained a concern, as did uneven implementation of educational content reform. Ministry of Islamic Affairs officials continued to conduct outreach to imams across the country, encouraging them to refute “radical extremist” ideology in their sermons and replacing imams who included inflammatory rhetoric in their mosque sermons. Through routine monitoring of terrorist websites and social media accounts, authorities attempted to dispel what the Saudi government views as misinterpretations of Islamic theology. In 2019, there also was an increased emphasis on family outreach mechanisms to reduce the risk of travel to conflict zones to avoid terrorist radicalization or participation in terror-related activities. Terrorist de-radicalization programs in Saudi prisons and at the Mohammed bin Naif Care and Counseling Center remained a main feature in the reintegration and monitoring of former terrorists.
International and Regional Cooperation: Saudi Arabia’s regional diplomatic efforts to fight terrorism saw a strong uptick in 2019, as the country partnered with several nations on a bilateral and regional basis to improve information sharing related to CT activities. Through the UN Counter-Terrorism Center, the GCTF, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudi Arabian government worked to strengthen capacity and monitor new terrorist trends through policy coordination, capacity building, and operational collaboration with international partners. Saudi Arabia signed multiple CT MOUs with international partners and hosted three diplomatic conferences – the Makkah Summit, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Summit, and the Arab Summit – all of which included counterterrorism discussions. Saudi Arabia is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.