x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

'Target fanatics, not terrorists'

After Thursday's attempt on the life of Prince Mohammed bin Naif, analysts are calling for the kingdom to adopt a new tactic to stop terrorism.

After al Qa'eda militants targeted a member of the royal family for the first time, analysts are calling for a shift in the strategy to confront terrorism in the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom. The suicide bomb attack at the residence of Prince Mohammed bin Naif on Thursday by a militant claiming to be renouncing terrorism prompted Mishari al Thaidi, a Saudi expert on Islamic movements, to tell al Watan newspaper that "Saudi society as a whole and the state should shift from fighting terrorism to fighting fanaticism".

Mr al Thaidi, a former militant, pointed out that there are many fanatics in the country who are potential terrorists because they believe their actions are guarding Islam. "Every terrorist was a religious fanatic at some point of his life," he said. "Saudis are effective when it comes to combating terrorist operations and plots but we [Saudis] are less effective when it comes to fighting religious fanaticism."

After the September 11 attacks, in which most of the attackers were Saudis, the kingdom implemented wide reforms, and the relationship between religion and extremist groups was widely debated for the first time in the media. Prince Mohammed leads Saudi Arabia's current antiterrorism campaign, and on August 19, Saudi authorities announced the arrest of 44 suspected militants with al Qa'eda links in a year-long sweep.

The country has tightened security at oil facilities, guards at Abqaiq oil processing plant said on Sunday, according to Reuters. Abqaiq, the world's biggest oil processing plant, was the first Saudi oil target since al Qa'eda launched attacks aimed at toppling Saudi Arabia's monarchy in 2003. Mr al Thaidi said that despite these and other efforts, terrorism in Saudi is difficult to combat because the terrorists justify their actions based on Sunni principles that appear close to the accepted mainstream religious discourse in the country.

He added that differentiating between the strict Islamic discourse that leads to terrorism and the general one is a problem that cannot be handled by the interior ministry alone. "[Terrorists] pose a great threat to the state and a greater one to Islam. Therefore, we can't accept any voices that say that by criticising al Qa'eda's thought we are implicitly criticising Islam," said Jamal Khashoggi, the editor-in-chief of al Watan and an expert on Islamism.

"People can go astray but their thought can go out of context, and that is why I think using the term 'Stray Group' is making the terrorists in Saudi appear merely as sinful Sunni Muslims, but they are not," said Khashoggi, referring to a term used in Saudi Arabia to describe militants. Khashoggi said whoever was behind the attack at Prince Mohammed bin Naif's home was invoking a ruling of the Khawarij - the first group known to engage in violent rebellion against an Islamic regime - that sanctions the assassination of Muslim rulers who deviate from Islamic principles.

The Khawarij, or those who left, is a general term embracing Muslims who rebelled against the caliphate of the fourth and final Islamic caliph Ali bin Abu Talib. Ali waged wars against the Khawarij and defeated them in the Battle of Nahrawan in 658, but some survived and in 661 they assassinated him. The Khawarij adhere to a different theological and legal doctrine than both Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Some Muslim scholars consider them non-Muslims.

Khashoggi said describing groups such al Qa'eda, which is believed to have been behind almost all terrorist attacks in the kingdom since 2003, as terrorists is no longer sufficient. He suggested that it was more similar to Khawarij and are thus not really Muslims. Khashoggi said battling al Qa'eda is harder because it is not only an organisation but a cult that has its leaders and followers who are willing to sacrifice their lives for its goals.

"Only when al Qa'eda is no more perceived as part of the general Sunni population, can it be excluded and therefore wiped out," he said. Khashoggi added that many intellectuals have disagreed with his calling al Qa'eda and other militants in the kingdom Khawarij as they see the insurgents as merely victims of religious fanaticism. And in the wake of the attack that lightly injured Prince Mohammed bin Naif, the Saudi government has insisted that it will not change its strategy against terrorism.

"The security efforts and strategy that the country is following for reform will not change," said Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, the interior minister and Mohammed bin Naif's father, in defending the kingdom's policy of enticing "repentant" militants while speaking to a gathering of businessmen in Jeddah on Saturday. wmahdi@thenational.ae