Sunday’s failed terrorist attack on the General Directorate of Investigations Center in Zulfi, 260 kilometers northwest of Riyadh, underlined that the Kingdom continues to battle extremist groups that target Saudi security forces. In a message broadcast by its Amaq News Agency, Daesh quickly claimed the attack, which resulted in the deaths of four suspects and minor injuries among security personnel.
A January police raid in Al-Jish and an early April checkpoint shootout near Abu Hadriyah offer further evidence that such attacks have repeatedly failed in their objective to weaken Saudi political and military might.
These attacks aimed to strike at the heart of public safety, yet they achieved the exact opposite. Over the years, Saudi security agencies have unflinchingly eliminated terror cells in a powerful reminder that stability reigns supreme for the Kingdom’s 33 million residents. Ever-evolving counterterror tactics among Saudi forces have made this year in particular a remarkably secure one to date.
Low frequency, low impact attacks like the one committed in Zulfi demonstrate the government’s competence in neutralizing emerging threats. Contemporary Saudi responses to terror are the product of years of experience battling violent extremism. According to the Presidency of State Security, Saudi Arabia was targeted by 841 terrorist attacks between 1979 and 2017, with the loss of 3,007 lives, including 333 security personnel. Most notable were the 2003 Riyadh compound bombings by Al-Qaeda and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing at the hands of Hezbollah Al-Hijaz, which fundamentally reshaped the nation’s consciousness of terror and marked a pivotal moment in Saudi security strategy.
Isolated terror attacks on security forces cannot disturb the widespread perception that Saudi Arabia is becoming a safer country. These incidents provoke little concern among citizens and residents, whose everyday lives intersect with the defenses put in place by Saudi security services.
Furthermore, the surge of Al-Qaeda activity in the early 2000s led to a decisive push by the Saudi government to develop secure infrastructure, including checkpoints throughout cities and multi-layered gating around critical installations. These security enhancements later paved the way for the stationing of security personnel at strategic residential points and the implementation of advanced biometric systems at border crossings — changes that underscored the Kingdom’s commitment to enhancing predictive and preventive counterterror capabilities.
While the Saudi government fixed security flaws in the physical contours of major cities like Riyadh, key allies were instrumental in enabling the Kingdom to eradicate the material resources and manpower behind domestic attacks. Since 1973, the US-led Office of the Program Manager, Saudi Arabian National Guard Modernization Program (OPM-SANG) has built local capacity to improve force readiness and increase the lethality and effectiveness of domestic anti-terror operations. Joint efforts between the US and the Saudi Ministry of Interior to strengthen land and coastal security have solidified bilateral defense cooperation across administrations. In addition, US-Saudi recognition of shared threats — namely extremist groups and Iranian expansionism throughout the broader Middle East — indicates that both nations will continue to address the region’s geopolitical complexities hand in hand.
As a result of such cooperation, Saudi forces’ skillful management of flare-ups in areas of interest like Riyadh and the Eastern Province shows that the Kingdom remains steadfast in thwarting large-scale attacks. For years, the Ministry of Interior has pinpointed extremist hotspots nationwide, methodically disrupting safe houses, seizing weapons caches, and detaining or eliminating suspects.
Should one need additional proof of the Saudi security establishment’s record of excellence, simply note the fact that 13 individuals were publicly named and arrested on terror charges just one day after the attack in Zulfi.
Examining aggregate data on terrorism also provides cause for optimism regarding counterterror success in Saudi Arabia. While the 2018 Global Terrorism Index shows that Saudi Arabia’s threat ranking worsened from 2002 until 2017 due to a rise in terror incidents, the Kingdom’s score improved by three spots from 2016 to 2017. That year, the US and UK were ranked as being more vulnerable to acts of terror than Saudi Arabia. Government-endorsed data backs this up. The Quality of Life Program states that Riyadh is one of the most secure cities in the world, according to the Safe Cities Index, scoring among the top 50 places for personal and infrastructural security.
In short, isolated terror attacks on security forces cannot disturb the widespread perception that Saudi Arabia is becoming a safer country. These incidents provoke little concern among citizens and residents, whose everyday lives intersect with the defenses put in place by Saudi security services. Comforting is the notion that the Kingdom will continue to build upon decades of counterterrorism experience gained by fighting Al-Qaeda, Daesh and violent Iranian offshoots to root out homegrown and foreign menaces.
Those attempting to undermine the Kingdom’s internal security would be wise to heed a time-tested message before they meet their demise: Saudi forces will learn from today’s attacks to defeat tomorrow’s transnational threats, duty-bound to make the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of a future unblemished by terror. To them we owe our gratitude for a safer Saudi Arabia.
• Madison Clough is a strategic communications professional residing in Riyadh. She holds a master’s degree in international security from George Mason University and formerly consulted as a monitoring and evaluation specialist on a countering violent extremism project funded by the US Department of Homeland Security.