Saudi Arabia

Overview:  In 2022 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continued to work closely with U.S. and international counterparts to deploy a comprehensive and well-resourced counterterrorism (CT) strategy that included strong security measures, threat detection and deterrence, measures to counter terrorist financing, and counter radicalization efforts.

The leading terrorist threats were Iran-backed proxies and partners.  While not a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, the Yemen-based Houthis committed several cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia during the first three months of the reporting period, some of which the United States publicly described as terrorist attacks.  No additional cross border attacks originating from Yemen were reported following the United Nations-brokered truce in Yemen went into effect in April.  Saudi Arabia served as a co-lead of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS’s Counter-ISIS Finance Group and provided significant operational and logistical support to Defeat-ISIS Coalition activities.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.  It was redesignated a CPC in 2022.

2022 Terrorist Incidents:  Terrorist incidents fell sharply in 2022.  Significant attacks in 2022 included the following:

  • On February 10, shrapnel from a Houthi explosive drone injured 12 after it was intercepted by Saudi air defenses at Abha International Airport.
  • On March 19 and 20, Houthis fired a barrage of missiles and drones, targeting a Saudi petroleum products distribution terminal in the southern Jizan region, a water desalination plant in al-Shaqeeq, a power station in Dhahran Al Janub, a gas station in Khamis Mushayt, and a liquified natural gas facility in the Red Sea port of Yanbu.
  • On March 25, Houthis claimed responsibility for an attack that caused an oil fire in Jeddah immediately before F1 races that took place in the city.
  • On August 10, a Saudi man detonated an explosive belt in Jeddah during a Saudi CT operation, killing himself and injuring four others.

Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security:  Comprehensive counterterrorism legislation has been in place since 2017, and no substantial changes were made in 2022.  Saudi Arabia was committed to securing its borders and denying safe haven to terrorists.  The Ministry of Interior monitored passenger manifests for inbound and outbound flights and used travel document security technology, advance passenger name record information, and biometric screening capabilities at ports of entry.  Saudi passports meet international security standards, as promulgated by the International Civil Aviation Organization.  New Saudi passport security features are comparable to the U.S. next-generation passport.

The Saudi government continued to work with the United States through Saudi-funded and U.S.-implemented programs that, among other objectives, improved the country’s counterterrorism capacities.  Projects included providing training to protect critical infrastructure sites such as maritime ports, aviation, oil platforms, power grids, and desalination plants from terrorist threats.  Saudi Arabia also participated in multilateral engagements with Persian Gulf state counterparts aimed at improving regional CT cooperation.

Terrorist and violent extremist discourse on social media was monitored heavily by the Saudi government and affiliated organizations and formed a major component of the Kingdom’s CVE strategy.  Government authorities regularly surveilled websites, blogs, chat rooms, social media sites, emails, and text messages.  The CT law allowed the government to access a terrorism suspect’s private communications and banking information in a manner inconsistent with the legal protections provided by the law of criminal procedure.  In addition, this monitoring was sometimes used to target family members of activists and critics of the government.

The U.S. government, foreign missions in Saudi Arabia, and international human rights groups remained concerned about the Saudi government’s misuse of CT laws to restrict freedoms of expression, religion or belief, peaceful assembly, and association by prosecuting otherwise law-abiding dissidents, human rights activists, and members of the Shia minority, as well as individuals (including U.S. citizens) whose commentary on social media was perceived as critical of the Saudi regime.

The counterterrorism law’s definition of terrorism included “any conduct… intended to disturb public order… or destabilize the state or endanger its national unity.”  Local human rights activists, international human rights organizations, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism criticized the law for its overly broad and vague definitions of terrorism and criticized the government for using it to prosecute the exercise of freedom of expression, including dissent.

Countering the Financing of Terrorism:  Saudi Arabia is a member of FATF and the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force.  Its FIU, the Saudi Arabia Financial Investigation Unit (or SAFIU), is a member of the Egmont Group.  In 2022, Saudi Arabia completed a Virtual Asset/Virtual Asset Service Provider risk assessment in line with FATF recommendations, which will serve as the basis for a national action plan focused on the mitigation of money laundering and terrorist finance risks.

Alongside the United States, Saudi Arabia co-chairs the regional Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC), which is headquartered in Riyadh.  The TFTC is a multilateral body created to strengthen cooperation among the GCC and the United States to disrupt terrorist financing networks and coordinate related activities of mutual concern.

In 2022 the TFTC sponsored three collaborative workshops and two information sharing sessions in Riyadh and one workshop in Kuwait.  These sessions covered terrorist financing threats from regional terrorist organizations, the basics of the U.S. Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control’s sanctions designation process, virtual asset-enabled terrorist financing, asset forfeiture, and links between illicit narcotics and sanctioned entities.

In collaboration with other TFTC member states, Saudi Arabia in June sanctioned 16 individuals, entities, and groups affiliated with a variety of regional terrorist organizations, including IRGC-QF, ISIS, and Boko Haram.  The Government of Saudi Arabia rolled out six additional designation packages on ISIS, ISIS-Khorasan, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hizballah, Boko Haram, and the Houthis.  In total, Saudi Arabia designated 57 individuals, 44 entities, and 5 vessels.

Countering Violent Extremism:  Saudi Arabia had numerous government and government-affiliated entities devoted to CVE, including the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (Etidal), the Intellectual Warfare Center, and various entities within universities and the military and security services.  Major CVE organizations focused on refuting “extremist ideology” through scholarly interpretation of the Quran and other Islamic religious sources.  Following the fall of Kabul in August 2021, Saudi officials have become increasingly concerned by actions of the Taliban and supported calls for Taliban leadership to reverse extremist decisions such as the one denying women’s right to university education.

Saudi Arabia continued its flagship program at the Center for Counseling and Care, which seeks to deradicalize former terrorists and facilitate their reentry into society.

The Saudi-based NGO Muslim World League (MWL) promoted a message of tolerance and focused efforts on acceptance of other faiths.  In May the MWL convened the first-ever “Forum on Common Values Among Religious Followers” in Riyadh, which was attended by 90 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim leaders.  The forum’s purpose was “to enhance cooperation and trust between [sic] global spiritual leaders, … promote values of moderation and harmony, effectively support efforts to advance tolerance and peace, and … immunize against the dangers of extremist ideology and behavior.”

International and Regional Cooperation:  Saudi Arabia is a member of the following organizations engaged in CT cooperation:

  • G-20
  • GCTF
  • GCC
  • Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition
  • Organization of Islamic Cooperation
  • UN Counterterrorism Center

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