February 4, 2014 6:47 pm

Saudi Arabia cracks down on youths joining Syria jihadis

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Saudi Arabia will imprison citizens who fight in conflicts abroad as the kingdom seeks to minimise the flow of nationals fighting alongside extremist groups in Syria.

A royal decree aiming to stem the flow of fighters and money to radical Islamist groups in the Syria civil war gives three to 20-year jail terms for Saudi nationals who fight abroad, or join or endorse domestic and international terrorist groups, according to state media.

But clerics in Saudi Arabia have been encouraging youths to wage jihad in Syria, and constant promotion of the plight of Syrian Sunni muslims on social media has further fuelled an exodus of young men to fight.

As Syrian rebel groups challenge Islamist radicals in areas they control, they fear differing objectives within the Saudi elite are helping to boost the role of extremist fighters in the conflict.

Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry says it is doing its best to minimise the numbers leaving for the battlefield, and estimates that around 1,000 young Saudi men are currently fighting in Syria.

Western officials say twice that number have joined the fight, while Syrian opposition figures opposed to radical extremists within their ranks say there are “many more”.

General Mansour al-Turki, the ministry’s spokesman, says his government is doing all it can to prevent its nationals joining extremist fighters, and is trying to control money flows into Syria.

“We are trying to stop everyone who wants to go to Syria, but we can’t stop leaks,” he said.

Domestic critics in the Gulf kingdom believe that some officials in Riyadh are fanning the flames of violence in Syria and turning a blind eye to young nationals’ desire to take on the Assad regime. Saudi activists say senior officials are funding radical extremist groups, although the government and western officials deny this.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, who has close access to the king, is said to be leading Riyadh’s Syria policy and working with operational centres in Turkey and Jordan.

Western officials estimate that Riyadh has been pumping at least $10m a month into arms for rebel forces over the past 18 months but they say these funds have yet to be translated into adequate military equipment.

The flight of young Saudis into the ranks of extremists in Syria is generating fears of terrorist blowback. High security measures at Riyadh residential compounds attest to the fresh memories of al-Qaeda’s bloody domestic insurgency against the ruling family between 2003 and 2006.

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Observers say the recruits to Syria are different to the domestic insurgents of the last decade, many of whom were war-hardened returnees from conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They insist today’s fighters have been radicalised by emotional images of death and destruction emanating from Syria and are focused on the plight of their Sunni coreligionists, rather than ideologically committed to pursuing a global Islamist revolution.

“Often we only hear about these cases once they are dead,” Gen al-Turki said. “But many of the others who come back have realised that it was a mistake to go.”

He added the ministry is investigating domestic social media activity that seeks to coax fighters into Syria by posting images of victims and fomenting sectarian hatred against the Shia faith and its Alawite offshoot – to which the Assad family belongs.

But he acknowledged that clerics who promote jihad in Syria are difficult to control. The ministry usually has a “conversation” with clerics who promote jihad on social media forums, he said. The grand mufti and Islamic affairs ministry also contact clerics with whom the government has concerns.

“But if we have no proof that someone listened to them and travelled to Syria, it is hard to prosecute such people,” he said.

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