CIA Chief Says Saudi Arabia Must Adapt Society to 21st Century

John Brennan

John Brennan at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Brennan says Saudis are allies to the U.S. in terrorism fight
  • Saudi-backed fundamentalist groups were ‘exploited’ in past

While Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally in the fight to defeat Islamic State, the Gulf Arab nation must modernize a traditional society that has been exploited in the past to spawn terrorists, according to the chief of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

"Saudi Arabia is among our closest counterterrorism partners," CIA Director John Brennan said Wednesday in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The kingdom has been a target of Islamic State attacks and, before that, of al-Qaeda terrorists, he said.

Still, he added, fundamentalist, Saudi-supported organizations were "fully exploited" by those who sought a springboard for militancy and terrorism. After Iran’s 1979 revolution, the Shiite Islamic Republic sent funding abroad to propagate its ideology. Saudi Arabia tried to counter that by promoting its conservative vision of Sunni Islam, Brennan said.

"The Saudi government and leadership today has inherited a history whereby there have been a number of individuals both inside of Saudi Arabia as well as outside who have embraced a rather fundamentalist -- extremist in some areas -- version of the Islamic faith, which has allowed individuals who then move toward violence and terrorism to exploit that and capitalize on that," Brennan said.

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, who serves as deputy prime minister and interior minister, has focused on trying to maintain internal security and counter the growth of Islamic State inside the country and along its borders, he said.

Recent attacks in the kingdom, including a suicide bombing near the Prophet’s Mosque in the holy city of Medina, bear the hallmarks of Islamic State, Brennan said. The militant group presents a "very, very serious threat" not just to the U.S. and Europe, but also inside of Saudi Arabia, Brennan said.

"There is no light switch that can transition a country like Saudi Arabia, that just a generation or so ago was really anchored in a very traditional environment," Brennan said. "They have all the trappings of modernization, but yet the environment, the culture, the society and the religious traditions really have not yet adapted to the 21st century world, which is one of the things the Saudis are having to deal with."

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