Over the years, the Saudi government has compiled a highly ambiguous record in its relationship with Islamist terror. But since 2003 it has been cooperating with the U.S. with growing consistency, and even more recently it has moved from combating terrorist groups to trying to counteract the ideology that gives rise to them. Lori Plotkin Boghardt explains:
Recently, the Saudi leadership has expressed a desire to break with the past regarding religious extremism. . . . Muhammad al-Issa, the new secretary-general of the Mecca-based Muslim World League, echoed these sentiments in a November interview. Declaring that “the past and what was said, is in the past,” he said the organization’s current mission is to “wipe out extremist thinking” and “annihilate religious . . . extremism, which is the entry point to terrorism.” This language is a startling contrast to the league’s past agenda of promoting an extremist interpretation of Islam across the globe, which in turn helped fuel the terrorism problem. . . .
Apparent shifts in the way Riyadh is approaching the terrorism challenge present opportunities for the United States to encourage broader and deeper changes that address longstanding American interests. One area to support is continued tightening of Saudi supervision over religious figures traveling internationally for work, over religious and educational materials sent abroad by Saudi institutions, and over religious figures doing media work—all toward the goal of restricting the export of extremist ideology. A related interest is the accelerated removal of extremist content that remains in Saudi schoolbooks.
Another area to support is added transparency and measurable advancement in new training, supervision, and reeducation of religious figures and teachers (or, if necessary, their dismissal). The kingdom has already registered successes in these areas and is now building on them; further progress could be discussed during the first annual meeting of the U.S.-Saudi Strategic Joint Consultative Group expected later this year.