x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Saudi move will help to counter extremism

Saudi Arabia's designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation requires a parallel effort of strengthening moderates.

By designating the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups as terrorist organisations, Saudi Arabia has sent the strongest warning so far to its citizens fighting or sympathising with extremist factions in Syria and elsewhere in the region. The move also represents a recognition of the enormity of the challenge the country faces today – as it did a decade ago – from battle-hardened extremists returning home to turn their guns on domestic targets.

The decision, which comes close on the heels of a diplomatic offensive that resulted in the UAE and Bahrain, in addition to Saudi Arabia, withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, is an indication that the region is waking up to the magnitude of the threats of extremism. The question is, why has it taken Riyadh so long to put them on the terrorist list, and why now?

The answer partly lies in the success of the Brotherhood in portraying itself falsely as a moderate group and downplaying its sinister motives, which is why few governments tried to stop the group until the military overthrow of president Mohammed Morsi in Egypt last year.

Apart from the Brotherhood, the interior ministry has listed as terrorist groups Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s official group in Syria; its offshoot, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant; as well as Shia Houthi rebels fighting in northern Yemen; and a little-known internal Shiite group called Hizbollah in the Hijaz. In an unprecedented move, Saudis fighting abroad have been given a 15-day ultimatum to return home or face imprisonment for between three and 20 years. By doing so, Saudi Arabia has set a concrete strategy to counter extremist ideology.

This is not the first time that Saudi has initiated counter-terrorism measures. Since 2003, it has compounded standard security measures against violent extremism with a programme intended to rehabilitate extremists and ensure that they don’t return to violence once they are freed. It also set up specialised terrorism courts in 2011 to try nationals and foreigners accused of belonging to Al Qaeda or being involved in bloody attacks in the country. But with the Syrian violence growing more entrenched and a growing number of Saudis travelling to Syria and elsewhere, the urgency to tackle terrorism has never been more imperative.

Since the September 11 attacks on the United States, terrorists have continued to hijack Islam for political and ideological reasons. This strategy of firmness, if combined with an effort to strengthen the moderates, will also help Riyadh to present the true meanings and understanding of the religion.