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Saudi Arabia's Misunderstood Relationship With Extremism


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in Washington.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: And I'm Rachel Martin in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It's a country that, because of its vast oil reserves and political monarchy, has enjoyed a certain level of stability in a very turbulent part of the world. But in the past year, Saudi Arabia has found itself in new territory facing new threats. It's fighting a war in Yemen that's not going well. It's part of the U.S.-led coalition air campaign in Syria. And then there's the revelation that the San Bernardino attackers spent time here. I sat down with the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia. His name is Tim Lenderking. I asked him specifically how the Saudi regime reacted to the reports that 29-year-old Tashfeen Malik spent several years here.

TIM LENDERKING: As far as we know, there's nothing indicating that there was a radicalization element to the time in the kingdom. They also spent a lot of time in other places. And no country is as concerned about whether people get radicalized in the kingdom as Saudi Arabia.

MARTIN: Saudi Arabia gets a lot of blame for exporting a kind of religious extremism that breeds violence in the region. It's often cited that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden was from a Saudi family. And Saudi fighters continue to join the ranks of the Islamic State. But Tim Lenderking says any suggestion that Saudi Arabia is responsible for the creation of ISIS is wrong.

LENDERKING: It's sort of laughable because the Saudi's, again, are pretty much in lockstep with us, with our objectives, as the administration has defined them, to degrade and destroy ISIL. They've participated in airstrikes even when their military is also engaged in a war in Yemen.

MARTIN: But the textbooks that are used in Saudi schools are the same textbooks that ISIS uses in its madrassas.

LENDERKING: Well, the Saudi textbook's something that we've, you know, talked to the Saudi leadership quite extensively about. There have been improvements, but, you know, in terms of a commitment to the fight, I mean, Saudi Arabia wants Daesh destroyed just as much as we do. They do not want these people in the kingdom. They do not want them recruiting Saudi youth.

MARTIN: Do you think the threat feels more urgent to them right now than it has in the past?

LENDERKING: Well, I think so because Daesh is responsible directly for attacks inside the kingdom. So, as we say, they're inside the wire. And that's why you've seen the Saudi security services act so aggressively to - to round up people. They have found bomb-making factories inside the kingdom. They have found suicide vests and there's no question that they have interrupted attacks that would have taken place.

MARTIN: Lenderking says because Saudi Arabia feels invested in the fight against ISIS, or Daesh, the U.S. can push the kingdom to be more aggressive against the group in Syria.

LENDERKING: We're going to be asking the kingdom to do more in terms of the military piece of this. I expect that they will want to do that.

MARTIN: Air campaign or boots on the ground.

LENDERKING: Certainly, the air campaign, which, as I mentioned, they've already participated in. In my personal view, I think at the end of the day there has to be some sort of fighting force. And I think the onus is on the region to provide the bulk of that force.

MARTIN: My colleague Deb Amos has spent years covering Saudi Arabia and the region. So I wanted to know from her how likely this would be. I called her up. She's in Jeddah right now in the south of the country. Deb, the U.S. deputy ambassador in Riyadh says he wants Saudi Arabia and its neighbors to step up in Syria, which could mean ground forces. So how likely is that?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Well, let's talk about the region first. The UAE, the Emirates, actually said publicly that they are willing to contribute forces. The Saudis have said nothing publicly so far. Western sources here and Saudi sources say that the princes haven't talked to the generals yet. Now, we know that Saudi generals are laser focused on their war with Yemen on the southern border. And it hasn't been a good story on the ground there. So it'll be lessons learned from Yemen that will determine what the answer is in Syria.

MARTIN: So Saudi Arabia is calculating its moves carefully, trying to win a war in Yemen, trying to push Bashar al-Assad out of power in Syria, all the while rooting out the extremist networks that have buried themselves further into Saudi society.

WERTHEIMER: That's WEEKEND EDITION host Rachel Martin, who's been reporting in Saudi Arabia. And, Rachel, we heard the deputy ambassador say the Saudi regime has been more aggressive in rounding up terrorist suspects. Does that make the Saudis feel safer?

MARTIN: Not really because this more aggressive response to would-be terrorists has also meant a crackdown on anyone who seems to be speaking out in a way that threatens the regime. And that means especially targeting human rights activists, like a woman I met named Hala Aldosari. For the last year, she's been in the U.S., actually, where she's been doing a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. And I sat down with her before this trip to Saudi Arabia to talk about the challenges that she sees back home.

HALA ALDOSARI: Very early on you realize that as a woman in Saudi growing up there are certain things that you can't pursue - sport, independence, being in the public.

MARTIN: Aldosari writes critically about women's issues for Saudi websites and international media. And as a result, she's been stigmatized at home as someone who wants to import Western values into Saudi culture. She's supposed to go back to Saudi Arabia at the end of her fellowship, but she told me that she's afraid.

ALDOSARI: I listen to other activists being summoned for interrogation and being threatened and being warned and being silenced and I don't want to end up like that. So I do feel intimidated. I do feel threatened.

MARTIN: She misses her family, her nieces and nephews especially, but she thinks she can affect more social change in Saudi Arabia from the outside. So she doesn't know when she'll go back.

ALDOSARI: I don't think of it as a price or a cost. I think it's whether you want to live aligned with what you believe in. I believe it's a duty that everyone should do their part. And I don't think I've paid the price of men and women who have been imprisoned and still imprisoned for years, for 10 years or so, for stating their opinions. And I'm safe. I'm able to voice my concerns. I live in autonomy. I'm protected.

MARTIN: So, Linda, this is still one of America's most crucial allies in the region. Yet, you just heard one of its citizens doesn't feel safe enough to go back.

WERTHEIMER: Rachel, there's certainly been a lot of criticism of Saudi Arabia from human rights groups over the treatment of some prisoners being held there.

MARTIN: That's right. A Saudi blogger named Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam. A couple of months ago, a Palestinian artist living here in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to death for apostasy. And there are also reports that the regime will execute at least 50 people convicted on terrorism charges. The country has already carried out 150 executions this year.

WERTHEIMER: WEEKEND EDITION host Rachel Martin, she's been in Saudi Arabia all this past week reporting on changes in that country. Rachel, thank you.

MARTIN: You're welcome, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.