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Young Saudis join jihadist groups to help fellow Sunnis in Iraq, Syria

RIYADH: As anger has grown in Saudi Arabia over what many Saudis see as oppression of their fellow Sunnis in Iraq and Syria by Shi'ite Muslims, an increasing number of young Saudis have sworn to help by taking up arms themselves.

Until last year, the population of inmates at security prisons like Ha'er, just south of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, had been dropping as those detained during an al Qaeda uprising a decade ago were gradually released.

As of March, nearly 2,300 Saudis had travelled to Syria to join jihadist groups like Islamic State and Nusra Front, according to the Saudi Interior Ministry.

In recent months, fear has grown of attacks at home by Sunni militants on Saudi Arabia's own Shi'ite minority, found mainly in Eastern Province where much of the country's oil wealth is found. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for two attacks on Shi'ite mosques in eastern Saudi Arabia in May that killed 25 people.

In the security prisons, the number of inmates had fallen by nearly 60 per cent to just 2,289 in November 2013 from a high of 5,501 in December 2010. Today, there are 4,209 security prisoners, said Ha'er Prison's director, Colonel Mohammed ‘Abu Salman’, who for security reasons preferred to give his nickname instead of a family name.

Early last year the government, which backs the fight against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad but regards some of the jihadist groups in the opposition as a threat, decreed tough sentences for any citizens who joined the cause themselves.

"I was just one of the young guys who went to fight. My cousin's mother was Syrian so I wanted to help," said a 25-year old with dark flowing hair and a cheerful face sitting up in bed in the prison's hospital wing.

He was shot in the back by a sniper in Syria's Idlib province after spending two years with Nusra Front and is paralysed from the waist down. Like other inmates, he was forbidden by the prison authorities from giving his name to visiting reporters.

Many of the prisoners sitting on benches in an exercise yard, in the prison hospital, in the library or in shared cells, were young and fresh faced. They said they had gone to Syria by themselves after watching news reports and social media propaganda.

One group, enjoying the night air in a courtyard with high walls and astroturf floor, included a 17-year old with braces still on his teeth and an 18-year old who had started travelling to Syria before changing his mind and turning himself in.

Unlike al Qaeda a decade ago, Islamic State does not have an elaborate network of members inside Saudi Arabia, said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst with close ties to the Saudi Interior Ministry.

Instead it plans attacks, like the two May suicide bombings at Shi'ite mosques, from abroad and then communicates electronically with sympathisers inside the kingdom who provide logistical help to its few trained, committed operatives.

Down another empty corridor a glimpse into one of the half dozen occupied interrogation cells showed a stocky, handcuffed man, his blindfold around his neck, waiting to be interviewed. For him, the gates of Ha'er prison are still opening. (Reuters)