The desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's holiest shrines. It also has a reputation as a breeding ground for religious extremists and for doing little to curtail their activities. When it was learned that most of those responsible for the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were from Saudi Arabia, the kingdom came under intense criticism. But al Qaida soon set its sights on Saudi Arabia itself.
A warning, gunshots and the men move in. They're dressed in camouflage fatigues - black hoods covering their heads and faces. Their target is a suspected terrorist hide-out.
This time it's a mock assault for the benefit of visiting journalists, but such exercises are part of the training for Saudi Arabia's anti-terror commandos.
And, it doesn't stop there as soldiers train alongside regular police at a military compound on the outskirts of Riyadh.
Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman, Major General Mansour al Turki, says the training was prompted by a slew of terrorist attacks in the kingdom beginning in 2003, and a realization that the government could not rely solely on special forces units, but had to include police at all levels.
"Fighting terrorism requires readiness of every policeman, readiness on the road network, readiness in every city, every village in the kingdom. If you do not respond fast, terrorists could increase," says al Turki.
Tighter security is evident on Riyadh's streets. Concrete anti-blast walls protect ministry buildings, checkpoints are manned at roads in and out of the city's diplomatic compound, which houses foreign embassies, and metal detectors have become the norm in hotel lobbies.
Saudi forces have had considerable success in tracking down and arresting or killing al Qaida-linked extremists over the past few years following attacks against foreign and Saudi targets in the kingdom.
Critics say Saudi Arabia should have done more and sooner. They say September 11, 2001 should have been a wake-up call -- when it became known that 15 Saudis were among the 19 hijackers who did the bidding of Saudi-born al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to launch the worst terrorist attacks in modern history.
Saudi political analyst and member of the kingdom's Consultative Council, Khalil al Khalil, says September 11th was a turning point for Saudis.
"We were shocked, we were surprised, we were not believing what happened, particularly as 15 Saudis were part of that plan," says al Khalil. "They were part of the terrible, terrible crime that took place in Washington and New York. We came back to ourselves to say why? What happened?"
But critics say Saudis need not have been surprised. They say the authorities too long turned a blind eye to a growing climate of extremism in their midst manifested in radical sermons preached regularly in mosques, a school curriculum spouting hate and intolerance and financial support to terrorists through Islamic charities.
Danielle Pletka of the conservative research group, the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says that by teaching hate, intolerance and violence in its schools, Saudi Arabia set the intellectual foundation for terrorism. She says it is teaching an entire society that killing for religion is O.K.
"For those relatively few people who are willing to kill and blow themselves up, they live in an environment that is tolerant of them, they find safe haven, they find governments, neighborhoods and communities that accept that this is the right way -- that even if I don't blow myself up, I recognize that Abdullah has and he is a martyr," says Pletka.
Many Saudis agree that their school curriculum needs changing, but they reject accusations that the government is fostering a climate of extremism and condones terrorism.
Professor Ahmed Ibn Saifuddin of Riyadh's Imam Ibn Saud University tells VOA, the roots of Islamic extremism lie in politics, not religion. He says one must look to the Cold War when western and Muslim governments found religion a useful tool to fight communism.
"We had to fight all together - - the West and the Muslim world - - communism and we had to go into Afghanistan as everyone knows, and we had to drive the communists out of Afghanistan. They had to get the so-called jihadists, the Islamists, to be on board. They got them in place. Bin Laden himself was a key player. I think jihad was a very favorable term in the U.S. in the 1980s, early in the '90s. But then things changed a little, religion was not needed anymore, but these guys [i.e., the jihadists] were fed with so much religious zeal and they had to go to continue this," says Saifuddin.
The Quest for a Caliphate
And so the jihadists turned their attention elsewhere. Inspired by religious fundamentalism and a pan-Islamic ideology, they set their sights on driving out western influences, toppling secular and pro-western Muslim governments and establishing one, united Islamic entity, or caliphate, that would return Islam to the glory days of its history. Militants took their fight to Algeria, Bosnia and Chechnya and soon enough set their sights on Saudi Arabia as well.
Saifuddin acknowledges no one realized the threat early on, "I think we didn't realize that these people who returned were going to be a source of danger for our country and for the whole region, in fact for the whole world. We didn't realize that, no one."
He says no one stepped in to stabilize Afghanistan, which descended into turmoil and civil war once the Soviets left - - paving the way for the Taleban's rise to power and providing a base for al Qaida.
Saifuddin says Saudi Arabia also could have done more. "We should have taken these people and put them through some rehabilitation programs in order to [let them] contribute to the country rather than be a source of evil. But this did not take place, unfortunately," says Saifuddin.
And instead the emphasis became tighter security and a fight to root out the extremists. Interior Ministry spokesman, General Mansour al Turki says that strategy has been quite successful. "We believe the situation is under control at the present time."
But, there is growing concern about the future. In February al Qaida-linked militants tried to blow up the Abqaiq oil facility, the largest in the kingdom. The attack was foiled, but an al Qaida website left no doubt other attempts would follow. Saudi Arabia has the world's largest oil reserves, and a successful attack against its facilities would be felt across the globe.
There are increasing fears of a terrorist training ground right next door in Iraq. Officials confirm that young Saudis are still trying to cross the border into Iraq to fight the Americans and to help Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority. They fear that amid the continuing violence and chaos, Iraq is becoming a terrorist training ground, the way Afghanistan was under the Taleban. And the effects of that, they say, could be felt for decades to come.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.