The Limits of Territorial Denial

During the last few years, Saudi Arabia has pursued what many believe to be a successful counterterrorism strategy.  After a series of attacks in the kingdom between 2003 and 2005, the government acknowledged that it had a domestic terrorism problem and began cracking down on militants.  Officers in the security apparatus who were sympathetic to Islamic extremists were purged.  More SWAT teams were created and put on 24 hour standby, and regular police personnel now receive one month of counterterrorism training each year.  Radical clerics were suppressed and 218 jihadists were sent to “rehabilitation camps” where officials tried to put an end to their violent tendencies (14 of them later continued their illicit activities).


All of the 85 people on the “most wanted” list of terrorist suspects are no longer in Saudi Arabia, which suggests that the anti-terrorism campaign has been very successfully.   However, many of the jihadists have simply moved to Yemen and Afghanistan from whence they continue to launch attacks against the Saudis as well as Afghans and Americans.  Those jihadists have declared their intention to overthrow the Saudi government.  Although the odds of that happening are low, the terrorists can still create instability in the strategically important oil kingdom.


The Saudi situation demonstrates that territorial denial, which can be beneficial to some extent, has its limits in terms of curbing terrorist threats.  This is especially relevant with regard to the US mission in Afghanistan, the goal of which is preventing Al Qaeda from regaining a sanctuary in Afghanistan according to the new strategy revealed last week by the Obama administration.  While preventing Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist state is important, doing so will not solve the problem in Pakistan where Al Qaeda currently has a sanctuary that will probably not be eliminated anytime soon.  American and Pakistani officials recently acknowledged that elements in the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, have provided money, military supplies and strategic advice to Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents.  As long as the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to destroy America’s terrorist foes in Pakistan, US efforts to deny the militants a base in Afghanistan will only have a limited effect in terms of weakening Al Qaeda.


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