What We Can Learn From Saudi Intelligence

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In late 1979, several hundred armed members of a messianic Islamic cult stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, seizing Islam's holiest site and hundreds of hostages for a siege that lasted two weeks. The cult's brutal terrorist method and its extreme conservative ideology, many tenets of which would later become founding principles of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, marked the beginning of a dangerous new genre of security threat. Though the U.S. considered the gunmen to be little more than a passing fringe, the Saudi monarchy and its lavishly funded General Intelligence service immediately recognized the siege as a turning point and would spend the next three decades developing one of the world's most sophisticated and effective counterterrorism programs.

From Sept. 11, 2001, when we discovered what the Saudis had known for years, through this week's foiled mail bomb plot, the U.S. has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia's unrivaled intelligence network. There is much we can learn from Saudi counterterrorism practices. While the Saudi government has proven a consistently reliable ally in the fight against al-Qaeda--after all, Osama bin Laden declared war against the Saudi royalty long before he turned his attention to the U.S.--there's no telling what the future could bring. It's time for U.S. counterterrorism to catch up. Fortunately, we have a good model to follow.

There are three Saudi counterterrorism tools that stand out as especially successful. The first is probably the most obvious but most difficult to replicate: Foreign language speakers who, to put it bluntly, aren't white. U.S. intelligence agencies, owing to understandable concerns about foreign infiltration, have long preferred hiring U.S.-born American citizens over immigrants or foreign nationals, who are frequently used as short-term assets or sources but less commonly integrated into the agency as a whole. But white faces stand out in places like the Middle East, and most American universities teach formal Arabic rather than the many local dialects more commonly used. U.S. intelligence agencies will have to start fielding agents who can blend in and who speak the local language or dialect.

Second is the Saudi program of terrorist rehabilitation, which seeks to reintegrate terrorists back into society by way of counseling, job training, and even financial assistance. The program, which I explored more fully in 2009, not only neutralizes individual terrorists but also seeks to roll back the social causes of their entire movement. Reformed terrorists, once they return to their communities, serve as walking--and, sometimes, proselytizing--arguments against terrorist radicalization or recruitment. Sending a suspected terrorist to Guantanamo or Bagram risks angering his community and inspiring even more militancy.

The third tool, though it has proven invaluable for Saudi counterterrorism, would go against many of the core operating principles of the U.S. intelligence community: don't kill or capture every terrorist we find. Rather than eliminating them one by one, the Saudis monitor suspects, often for years. Sometimes they even work with them, seeking to turn an individual from an enemy into an informant.

This Saudi methodology has proven so much more effective at counterterrorism than the American system because it understands terrorism as a permanent phenomenon--something to be monitored rather than eradicated--and because it prioritizes infiltrating terrorist networks above seizing individual terrorists. At the heart of the American approach is the assumption that terrorism can be eliminated outright. If we could just seize enough al-Qaeda officers or shut down enough funding streams or launch enough drone strikes, the thinking goes, threats could be ended forever. But this approach has proven self-defeating. Extreme Islamic terrorists are ultimately guided by abstract ideology, and though specific networks can be eradicated, the ideas behind them cannot.

In the U.S. model, when we locate a terrorist cell, we capture or kill its members. This only ensures that, another cell will pop up in its place, except this time we won't have as much intelligence on it. In the Saudi model, the network is left preserved so that it can be monitored or one of its members can be turned. In this way, the Saudis not only neutralize that one cell, but any other cells or individuals it comes into contact with. This is how Saudi General Intelligence may have been able, according to sources speaking to the New York Times' Robert Worth, to do what the U.S. has failed to do despite billions of dollars in intelligence spending: infiltrate al-Qaeda itself.

Some central aspects of the Saudi counterterrorism program are not suited for American values or laws. Domestic surveillance is widespread in Saudi Arabia, especially online, and dissidents are regularly jailed without cause or due process. The Kingdom, after all, is an authoritarian monarchy of a severe style no Western nation has endured since before the enlightenment. These are not practices to which the West could or should return. But there is no reason that the Saudis' better ideas could not be built into the already robust U.S. justice system.

The U.S. present enjoys the staunch support of Saudi intelligence for a variety of reasons: we have a common enemy in al-Qaeda and similar groups; the U.S. defends Saudi Arabia with arms sales, a large, in-country U.S. military presence, and the extension of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, to act as a regional bulwark against Iran; and, of course, our oil-fueled economic intertwinement. But the future is uncertain, especially in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia's oil, the exact reserves of which are a closely guarded secret, could run out. U.S.-Iran relations could normalize. Any number of unforeseeable changes could complicate U.S.-Saudi relations. While the Saudi General Intelligence have carried the day in halting this latest, Yemen-based plot against the U.S., reliance on foreign intelligence to protect American national security is neither sustainable nor especially wise in the long-term.

Image: Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud and President George W. Bush meet on the latter's arrival in Riyadh. The Bush administration worked hard to strengthen U.S.-Saudi relations, first in reaction to the threat from al-Qaeda and later to contain Iran. By Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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