How the Saudis Can Actually Fight Terrorism

Religious surroundings.

Photographer: Mohammed al-Shaik/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia's announcement that it will create a Muslim-nation coalition against terrorism was greeted with faint praise and loud skepticism, and with reason. It turns out that Pakistan had no idea it was part of the alliance, and Afghanistan and Indonesia are only contemplating joining. No Shiite-majority states have been invited. And even by standards of international diplomacy, the Saudi statement was vague: It said nothing about what the partners would do, or whether any military action was contemplated.

Saudi Arabia: Opening for Business

All this suggests the pact is little more than a face-saving initiative by a country that has killed and wounded thousands of civilians through its air campaign in neighboring Yemen, cut back its effort to fight Islamic State, and keeps fueling Middle Eastern tensions through its public feud with Iran.

If the Saudis are serious about combating global Islamic extremism, however, there are many useful steps they could take -- beginning by cleaning their own house.

For decades, private Saudi money and influence has gone toward creating mosques and schools across the Muslim world that indoctrinate young people into Wahhabism, the Saudi extremist Islamic doctrine. The Saudi influence on terrorists extends to Europe as well. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last January, French legislators considered a law to ban foreign funding of fundamentalist mosques. Austria has such a law

While there's little government financing for the export of Wahhabism, the Saudis could do more to stem the flow of private money to "charities" linked to terrorism whose operators the Saudi government shields from prosecution. The kingdom also harbors individuals and companies sanctioned by the U.S. for aiding terrorist organizations.

Saudi Arabia could crack down on extremist clerics at home, and not just those who explicitly back Islamic State. Hateful ideology is so prevalent in the kingdom, it's no wonder that at least 2,500 Saudis have joined Islamic State. Saudi leaders should also fulfill their promise to remove from state-issued textbooks passages so intolerant -- including instruction on how best to execute heretics and homosexuals -- that Islamic State has downloaded them for children in its territories.

As it begins a campaign against extremism, Saudi Arabia should end its crackdown on free speech. One law, for example, equates open demonstrations and insults to the state as terrorist acts. The blogger Raif Badawi, who was awarded the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Human Rights just last week, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for merely calling for moderation.

Saudi Arabia could also fight terrorism by redoubling its diplomatic efforts to make peace with the Houthi rebels in Yemen. That country's continuing disintegration makes it a hotbed for terrorist activity. At the least, the Saudis need to stop indiscriminately bombing Yemeni civilian areas.

Finally, Saudi Arabia should fulfill its obligation to provide air support and financial aid for the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It now averages only a single token airstrike per month.

Saudi leaders have already pledged to undertake many of these measures. In the so-called Jedda Communique of September 2014, they swore to "cut off the resources for terrorists" and become a "model" for addressing extremism. That's a promise they can make good on all by themselves.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.