Fighting terrorism is a war of many battles. It is a tough slog against a hidden enemy. The key is to wrest the initiative from the terrorist. The fight must be taken to them.
Saudi Arabia is showing the world how to do this successfully. It has just arrested Oqab Al-Otaibi, the number five on its “Most Wanted” list. Last week, a terror attack in the southwestern Bisha province was foiled by alert security personnel. Two terrorists were shot dead.
The Kingdom has learned the hard way. Al-Qaeda opened its terror campaign here in November 1995 with a car bombing at the National Guard HQ in Riyadh. Five Americans and two Indians died. Worse was to come in the following years. But with each new outrage, the security forces understood better the nature of their enemy. By 2009 the back of the terror campaign had been broken. The success had been achieved by a combination of intelligence and public vigilance. The authorities did not allow their guard to drop. In 2012, eight people were arrested in Riyadh and Jeddah where they were planning a new bombing campaign.
It was only in 2015 when a new enemy in the shape of Daesh emerged that the terrorist emergency returned. Inevitably, the initiative once again lay with the attackers. The security forces had to start afresh to identify new networks. Daesh had learned lessons too. It had seen how Al-Qaeda had been crushed in the Kingdom. It sought to operate in tighter cells. It strengthened its communications. It pressed home six attacks last year, killing 37 people, the majority of them policemen.
But it had underestimated the Kingdom. The intelligence-led security machine that had beaten Al-Qaeda once again went into overdrive. So far this year there have been only two major attacks. Both were in January. No one is claiming that Daesh has yet been defeated. As long as it maintains its power base in Syria and Iraq, all neighboring states remain under threat. And even when Daesh-held territory has been overrun, the threat will not have gone away. Yet the Saudi defeat of Daesh in the Kingdom is as inevitable as that of Al-Qaeda.
It is not simply the efficiency of our security forces. It is not simply the high state of alert to which members of the public have returned. What will also defeat Daesh is the math. Their suicide bombers may kill dozens. Their gunmen may shoot down more. But in the end, Daesh faces the same problem as terrorists have always faced. They and their murderous tactics are confronted by an insuperable number of decent people. Every terrorist crime is an isolated outrageous act. Its consequences are of course greatest among the family and friends of the victims. But for the rest of the Kingdom as with any other civilized state, the reaction is one of cold fury. How dare these creatures seek to disrupt a peaceful and stable state.
Terrorists are all about terror. They imagine that they can inspire such fear that society collapses before them. It is a delusion. But it is a deadly delusion for innocent people while the terrorists try to slaughter with the aim to grab power.
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his inaugural address, people have nothing to fear but fear itself. There is one important lesson the Kingdom is sharing with the rest of the world. It is that populations must not give the terrorists a first victory by being terrorized.
On top of this, Saudi security forces have been eager to set in place the regular interchange of intelligence with the rest of the world. The terror threat is global. It cannot be defeated piecemeal.
Nothing better illustrates this than the UN Counter-Terrorism Center in New York. Started with $100 million from the Kingdom, it is dedicated to exposing shadowy terror networks by the efficient and timely exchange of data. Snippets of information are aggregated to produce a bigger intelligence picture. Little by little the terrorists and their plans are unmasked.
In these circumstances, it is unbelievable that the Kingdom is still criticized for its counterterrorism work. Saudi Arabia arguably has the greatest insights into the secret menace of terror. It won this understanding in a long and bitter fight against Al-Qaeda here in the Kingdom. It will win the battle against Daesh as well. And meanwhile it will give every assistance to other countries in their own counterterror campaigns.