By Kieran Baker | PBS - NOW
I've been in Riyadh all week attending Saudi's first conference on 'thought security'. The meeting began with a 'made-for'-Saudi TV event, a mixture of rapture and sobriety, where survivors and policemen were honored for their role in their fight against violent extremism here in the Kingdom.
When they say 'thought security', what they really mean is the 'influence of deviant ideas', something that began perhaps over a decade ago, but only came to prominence (or was officially recognized here) in 2003 when the attacks by al Qaeda on Western compounds rocked Riyadh.
Up till then Saudis held sympathies for the al Qaeda struggle, seeing it more in terms of Islamic brotherhood or solidarity than 'real' terrorism, but the events of 2003 - 2006 dramatically altered that thinking and brought them, head to head against al Qaeda. With this conference comes an intellectual examination of that struggle and a look at how best to defeat 'deviant thoughts' or extremism in the future.
Whenever academics get involved it is a sure sign that most of the hard 'practical' work -- in this case: the Saudi police confronting and defeating the terrorist ideologues -- has taken place and now it's time to write about it. Perhaps it's little known that Saudi has had it's own ongoing 'war on terror' over the last 6 years and that they have countered it by starting a rehabilitation program that doesn't spend all day water boarding their inmates- but actually counsels and cares for them.
It's been so successful that the Saudi 'soft policing' tactics are now copied in as diverse places as Malaysia, Yeman and even Iraq. While there have been violent exchanges here between police and al Qaeda -- resulting in deaths on both sides, the battle now is to prevent future jihadi ideology and thinking- hence this conference on 'thought security'.
Over 50 papers are being presented and pored over by academics, clerics, and sociologists to get a better sense of why, particularly youngsters, are still 'harboring deviant thoughts'. The conference was opened by one of Saudis most powerful ministers.
Prince Naif Bin Abdul Aziz, Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, who remarked: "The Kingdom has been at the forefront of nations warning against immoderation and extremism... and has been affected by a breach in the fabric of it's intellectual security by some of its sons who fell under the influence of deviant thought'.
A veiled reference to terrorists of course and in the West we quickly point to the 15 Saudi sons who flew into the Twin Towers and ask why wasn't anything being done here 10 years ago? However, sat in Riyadh now, observing the complexities of this Kingdom, you have to acknowledge that it's better to admit mistakes, and try to correct them, than not address them at all.
Quietly that's what this conference symbolizes to an outsider, that under King Abdullah, there is an ongoing recognition here, that change, particularly amongst the youth, needs to happen, so that there isn't another 'generation jihad' around the corner. These academics have an important task ahead to point this emerging and youthful society away from interpretations of Islamic extremism, and help secure some of those 'deviant' thoughts along the way.
Kieran Baker is a TV Producer who has spent a year and half researching extremism inside the Kingdom. See more on "Terrorist Rehab" here.