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Country Reports on Terrorism 2021: Saudi Arabia

(February 27, 2023)

Overview:  In 2021, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continued to work closely with U.S. and international counterparts to deploy a comprehensive and well-resourced counterterrorism strategy that included security measures, threat detection and deterrence, measures to counter terrorist financing, and counter-radicalization efforts.  The leading terrorist threat was Houthi cross-border attacks, some of which the United States has described as terrorism, which more than doubled in 2021.  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 to Coalition activities.

Terrorist Incidents:  Houthi cross-border attacks, some of which the United States has described as terrorism, surpassed 400 in 2021, more than double the number of attacks in 2020.  Incidents included the use of ballistic and cruise missiles, unmanned aerial systems, unmanned surface vessels, and floating mines.  Significant cross-border incidents in 2021 included the following:

  • On February 10, shrapnel from a Houthi attack on Abha International Airport caused a fire on a civilian aircraft and injured 12 people.
  • On March 2, a Houthi drone attack against Jizan injured five civilians and caused damage to several buildings.
  • On August 30 a Houthi drone attack on Abha airport wounded eight civilians and damaged the airport and a commercial airliner.
  • On September 4 a Houthi complex drone and missile attack in the Eastern Province resulted in injuries to two children and damage to 14 private residences.
  • On October 8 a Houthi drone injured 10 civilians after it struck a commercial airport in Jizan.

On March 30, a man was arrested at Masjid al-Haram, the Great Mosque of Mecca, after brandishing a weapon and shouting terrorist slogans.  No injuries were reported.  Separately, French prosecutors announced that they were investigating a December 30 vehicle explosion in Jeddah as a possible terrorist attack.  The incident damaged an automobile associated with the Dakar Rally auto race and injured one civilian, a French national, according to press reports.

Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security:  Comprehensive counterterrorism legislation has been in place since 2017, and no changes were made in 2021.  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 issued travel documents with security technology, advance passenger name record information, and biometric screening capabilities at ports of entry.

The Saudi government continued to partner with the United States through Saudi-funded and U.S.-implemented programs that, among other objectives, sought to improve the country’s counterterrorism capacities.  Projects included training to protect critical infrastructure sites such as maritime ports, aviation assets, energy infrastructure, and desalination plants from terrorist threats.  Saudi Arabia also participated in multilateral engagements with Persian Gulf state counterparts, including joint counterterrorism operations in Yemen.

The counterterrorism law’s definition of terrorism drew criticism from local human rights activists, international human rights organizations, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism for its overly broad and vague definitions of terrorism, which has been used by the government to prosecute political dissidents, women’s rights activists, and members of minority faiths.  In October, the Specialized Criminal Court of Appeals upheld the six-year prison sentence of women’s rights activist Mohammed al-Rabea.  In April, the court sentenced al-Rabea under the country’s counterterrorism law to six years’ imprisonment, with credit for time served, and a travel ban.  Detained in 2018, al-Rabea’s arrest was also tied to his activism for women’s right to drive and against the guardianship system.  Human rights groups reported authorities used the cybercrimes law and the counterterrorism law both to monitor terrorist and extremist discourse on social media as well as to restrict freedom of expression, including by prosecuting numerous individuals under these laws on charges related to statements made on social media.

Countering the Financing of Terrorism:  Saudi Arabia remained a regional leader in countering terrorist financing, hosting the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center that brings together the United States and Gulf partners to confront new and evolving networks and lead efforts on anti-money laundering and counterterrorist financing measures.

Saudi Arabia is an active member of FATF and 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.

Saudi Arabia streamlined its process to restrict financing to individuals and entities listed by the UN Security Council and completed an assessment to evaluate its compliance with UN resolutions.  It imposed sanctions against individuals and entities associated with an international network funding the Houthis.

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.  Etidal touted the signing of an MOU with the UN Counterterrorism Center (UNCCT) in April, and Saudi Arabia continued to be the UNCCT’s largest donor.

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

The Muslim World League promoted a message of tolerance and focused efforts on acceptance of other faiths.  On August 30, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Call, and Guidance issued circulars to every Saudi mosque that included a directive to remove extremist literature and a prohibition on proselytizing.  In contrast, antisemitic language was used in several Friday sermons at the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina.

The Saudi government made further progress in revising textbooks used in the public K-12 curriculum to reduce “intolerant and extremist” content.

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

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

Source: Country Reports on Terrorism 2021, U.S. Department of State, (February 27, 2023).