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Middle East: Saudi Arabia Hosts International Antiterror Conference

Attack against U.S. Consulate in Jeddah on 6 December, 2004. Nearly 50 countries will take part in a four-day international conference on the war on terrorism starting tomorrow in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Officials from Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, Ukraine, and several other European countries are expected to attend the conference. Representatives from the United States and Iran -- which Washington has called a state sponsor of terrorism -- are also scheduled to attend.

Prague, 4 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Saudi Arabia is holding the kingdom's first international conference on the roots of terrorism and ways to successfully combat it.

Saudi Arabia has been closely associated with terrorism, as Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers behind the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States grew up in Saudi Arabia.

Since May 2003, Saudi Arabia has also been fighting a wave of internal terrorist attacks that have left more than 100 dead and scores injured. Militant groups connected to the Al-Qaeda network have been blamed for the attacks, and several of them have been killed or detained by Saudi forces.

Saudi officials say they will inform the conference participants about their efforts in fighting the terrorists in their own country.

On 2 February, the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, Ali Asseri, said his country is hosting the antiterrorism conference to prevent "something worse than 11 September [from happening]."

Dr. Saleh al-Namla, a deputy to the Saudi culture minister, said the conference will also highlight the international nature of terrorism. "Terrorism is an international phenomena and has nothing to do with a particular religion or race or a particular region," al-Namla says. "It's international, and it should be addressed as an international phenomena."

Some observers believe Saudi Arabia is organizing the antiterror conference in an attempt to improve its image.

Dr. Magnus Ranstorp is the director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland.

"Saudi Arabia is trying to show, to take some initiative that they are serious about this and that they want to be seen through secret intelligence sharing and secret bilateral and multilateral efforts against the common enemy," Ranstorp says. "But also that they are having a more visible public role as becoming a sort of a locus and nexus for international cooperation on [the fight against] terrorism."

Representatives from the United Nations, Interpol, and the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering will also attend the conference.

The conference brings together countries such as the United States and Iran, which U.S. President George W. Bush on 3 February called "the world's primary state sponsor of terror."

Saudi officials say they have invited countries that have been targeted by terrorism in the past or are still suffering from it.

But Ranstorp, who says he won't be in attendance, believes the gathering is "too ambitious" because it encompasses countries from too many regions.

"I think that the larger the conference, the less I think will come out of it," he says. "I think that it may have been useful to limit the participation and also, of course, coming out with some useful policy advice, particularly pertaining to the Arab world or the Middle East or the greater Middle East, rather than to mix in other geographical regions."

The conference will discuss ways to reduce the root causes of terrorism, its relation with money laundering and arms and drug trafficking, as well as the composition of terrorist organizations.

Ranstorp says the human-rights aspect of the fight against terrorism should not be forgotten.

"One cannot fight terrorism just by aggressive intelligence; that’s tactical firefighting," he says. "The other systemic problems and issues, the root causes of conflict -- not just the actual conflicts in the region but also other issues that coalesce and that produce the environment in which extremism is growing. I think it’s very important to underline and underscore at the conference that counterterrorism cannot be fought at any price. There has to be also respect for individual freedoms and liberties."

In recent months, several Saudi clerics have warned against the distortion of Islam by terrorist groups. And senior Saudi education officials have reportedly called for a ban on the dissemination of extremist views in schools.

The conference will end on 8 February with the issuing of a final communique that will include suggestions on ways to curb terrorism.

"I hope the conference will succeed and produce some good recommendations," Ranstorp says. "These meetings are important -- maybe not for yielding practical results but at least for people to talk. And that's a beginning, at least."

(RFE/RL correspondent Peyman Pejman contributed to this report.)
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.