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
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)