JEDDAH/DUBAI (Reuters) - Loath to foster a new generation of militant Islamists, Saudi Arabia is trying to stop its citizens from joining what some of them see as a holy war against the Syrian government.
The Saudi public has grown incensed at the bloody images continuously broadcast of Syria’s violence alongside reports of government forces massacring civilians, and $140 million was raised for Syrian refugees in the first two weeks of a government-organized campaign in August.
Riyadh has backed the rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad, publicly calling on the international community to “enable” Syrians to protect themselves, while sources in the Gulf, Syria and Turkey have said it is secretly funneling money and arms to the Free Syrian Army.
But mindful of the blowback it previously suffered after Saudi nationals returned home from foreign conflicts politically fired up and ready to wage war on their own government, Riyadh has moved to prevent volunteers from going to fight in Syria.
Islamists in Saudi Arabia, who follow a puritanical version of Sunni Islam, denounce Assad and his regime as infidels because of their roots in the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam.
But in June, Ali al-Hakimi, a member of the Senior Judicial Council, a government-appointed religious body, said in response to calls for jihad on online forums that this was forbidden unless permitted by the authorities. He added, “Some individual actions can place the state in an awkward position”.
Another cleric, Siraj al-Zahrani, was quoted in Okaz daily last week expressing regrets he had participated in jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and warning “families must watch over sons who can be lured into the hot spots in this world”.
“It’s illegal to go abroad and get involved in any ... military actions or fighting. This is known to all Saudis and many people have been prosecuted,” said Mansour Turki, the Interior Ministry security spokesman.
“If we have evidence that somebody is leaving Saudi Arabia for the purpose of joining militants he will be stopped and investigated for that,” he said, adding that the authorities had no evidence that Saudis had traveled to Syria so far.
“If you allow these things to go on, you are effectively militarizing society. And if you allow your people to get involved in these things and the so-called jihad, other people use it against you,” said Saudi analyst Khalid al-Dakhil.
Some Saudis already appear to be fighting in Syria alongside anti-government rebels, but in seemingly much smaller numbers than during Iraq’s civil war last decade, analysts say.
In an online film called “A message from a Saudi fighter with his Syrian brothers”, a young Saudi hunched against a wall clutching a rifle alongside rebels wearing bulletproof vests and carrying bazookas.
“I ask God to unite us in heaven and say to my brothers in the Arabian peninsula to fight in the name of God as your brothers in the Levant need fighters of strong faith and chivalry,” he said in a Saudi accent.
The video, posted on August 16, has been watched more than 121,000 times, according to YouTube, hinting at the allure of jihad in a war constantly broadcast on both private and state-run Arabic satellite channels.
A Gulf source familiar with military movements in the region said thousands of Saudis had sought to head to Syria to join the uprising against Assad, although there is little evidence that many of them have succeeded.
“Saudi fighters went into Syria to fight with the rebels ... These fighters are from the people and not official fighters,” the source said, adding they were entering Syria via Turkey and Jordan and that some had been captured.
Those who have gone, caught up in the spirit of adventure and religious zeal, are following a well-trodden path.
Saudi Arabia is Islam’s birthplace and the ultra-conservative clerics who controlled the education system in the 1980s and 1990s preached a message of intolerance towards other religious groups and what they saw as heretical Muslim sects, a message they have since reformed.
Saudi-born Osama bin Laden led a battalion of Arab volunteers fighting as mujahidin against the Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s, while others joined local Muslim forces in civil wars in the 1990s in Bosnia and Chechnya.
“If you’re Saudi it’s less logistically difficult than for other Arabs. You can buy a ticket to Beirut or Istanbul and make your way. And there is a feeling in Saudi Islamist circles you have to go and fight for Islamic causes,” said Stephane Lacroix, the author of Awakening Islam, a book about Saudi Islamism.
At first, bin Laden and the other fighters were lionized in the Saudi press, welcomed effusively by top royals and praised by the kingdom’s powerful clergy.
But even before he dispatched 15 young Saudis and four other Arabs to carry out the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, bin Laden had turned against the ruling al-Saud family, mainly because of its cozy relationship with the West.
“They don’t want to repeat the same mistake they made in Afghanistan. Young men went there and learned to fight with many groups of jihadists. Some of those groups accused Islamic countries of being infidels and the young people were influenced by that and went back to their countries and caused problems,” a Saudi who fought in Afghanistan said.
The effect of September 11 and a series of attacks by al Qaeda inside Saudi Arabia from 2003 to 2006 heightened the government’s alarm just as a new generation crossed the permeable border with Iraq to fight against Shi‘ite Muslim militias and occupying Western forces.
The result was a crackdown on militants that included those who had fought in Iraq, and a fatwa from the Grand Mufti against travelling abroad to wage jihad.
In the years since, some of the thousands of suspected militants arrested by the Interior Ministry who have been tried in a special criminal court were accused of travelling to Iraq to fight alongside al Qaeda.
While state-affiliated clerics have spoken out against fighting abroad, they have also used strong language to denounce the Assad government and urge support for Syrians.
Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the Senior Council of Ulama, said that those in charge of carrying out the fighting and jihad in Syria are the Free Syrian Army, “who must be supported”.
The talk in Saudi Internet chatrooms does not focus on such distinctions.
“Abdullah, call for jihad against this Syrian tyrant and his aides and you will find, God willing, strong men who have faith in God to lift the banner of Islam. Enough weakness,” one user said on a forum on news site al-Weeam, without giving his name.
A Saudi who fought in Afghanistan said Saudis were going to Syria but under the radar of the state. “The youth of jihad don’t listen to the Council of Senior Clerics,” he said.
The approbation of society at large was a different matter, however.
“For me personally, if it were not for my family and current circumstances, I would have gone. The banner is clear for jihad. These are Alawites, hostile toward the Sunnis and Islam,” he added. “The numbers (of Saudi jihadists) will be a lot less than the past. In the past the fighter goes and his family is proud of him, now instead they worry about the issue.”
Additional reporting and writing by Andrew Hammond and Angus McDowall; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall