In a bid to reach Saudi youth, al-Qaeda recently used the Syrian revolution as a pretext to spread its extremist ideas through its numerous Twitter accounts. At first, these accounts took on an innocent character. Yet lately, al-Qaeda has used the cards of identity, belonging and nation to attract young people and push them toward the battlefields [of Syria].
Al-Qaeda’s use of the Internet is not new, but Saudi Arabia has continuously fought this development with its Communications and Information Technology Commission, which would block the group's websites and forums within the kingdom. However, the emergence of social networking sites, especially Twitter, has allowed the organization to bypass the blocking. But why has al-Qaeda resorted to the website that only allows a 140 characters per post? How did the young Saudis fall for this trick?
Saudis started to sign up for Twitter in 2011, and the number of users has increased by the day. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said in a 2012 interview, “Twitter is seeing some of its most torrid growth in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is the fastest-growing country with a 3,000 growth last month.”
Amid the [growth of Twitter use], it was not easy for al-Qaeda to open an account and tweet, “I am back,” especially considering Saudi difficulty in sympathizing with the group after its attacks in the last two decades against the capital and other vital areas of the country. These strikes on civilian and industrial facilities have actually played against al-Qaeda, starting with the community members themselves who voiced concerns that their children could be dragged into such acts.
Al-Qaeda realized that it had lost its presence on the ground due to its alienation of people. This was a far bigger loss than the one it reaped after the Saudi Ministry of Interior launched anti-terrorism policies. Thus, it started to draw a new plan for its return to the community through the platform that brought more than 4 million users together in the kingdom.
Al-Qaeda did not need to think very hard to find a conflict to use as a base for its propaganda. In the past two decades, it has justified its attacks in Saudi Arabia by saying that it wanted to expel “the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula.” But the Syrian regime’s current calls for Shiite fighters from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq to participate in the suppression of the Syrian revolution have significantly helped mobilize young people in Saudi Arabia. The latter were told that the war in Syria is sectarian, and that they should help their Sunni brothers march to victory.
Al-Qaeda did not actually care much about the Syrian revolution, as its presence in Syria had more negatives than positives at all levels, according to many analysts. But the organization saw the Syrian situation as a way to get money from Saudis sympathetic to the Syrian cause, as well as an opportunity to implement the old tactic of deploying Saudi youth to combat zones and then, when they return to their home countries, to carry out terrorist operations.
One notices that those who carried out kidnapping and bombing operations in the early new millennium in Saudi Arabia had participated in combat operations outside the country and then returned to implement the organization's agenda at home. This means that, before they left, many youth did not even think of harming their country. They were pushed to “fight the enemy of the Muslims.” Yet, in the battle zones, they were brainwashed and they returned to kill Muslims in their own countries.
The return of al-Qaeda to Saudi society via Twitter was not initially associated with the developments on the Syrian scene. The organization had started to use Twitter before Jabhat al-Nusra announced its creation in Syria and before the Islamic State of Iraq moved there. The subjects of the tweets were purely local. In this context, the Assakina campaign website, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Dawa and Guidance, found on social networking sites explicit calls for sedition in Saudi Arabia and clear incitement to violence, way before the Syrian crisis erupted. Issues of detainees in Saudi Arabia were also used to foment public opinion hostile to the state.
Sheikh Abdel-Moneim al-Mashouh, head of the campaign, previously revealed to Al-Hayat that the campaign has monitored a large number of fake accounts on social networking sites, under Saudi and Gulf names, and that these accounts incite public opinion. The campaign inspected the identity of these accounts, and found out that most of them are managed from Iran and Iraq.
It seems that Saudis are of considerable financial importance to al-Qaeda. The group has sought to benefit from Saudis after it emerged in Syria through fatwas on financial and personal jihad, which were posted by some preachers on Twitter. Funds were raised under the slogan of alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people, while in reality the money went to the terrorist group. The Saudi Ministry of the Interior had to warn people about “unofficial calls for fundraising for the Syrian people, given the potential fraudulent maneuvers, and loss or arrival of these funds to suspicious bodies.”
According to the statement of the Interior Ministry, the administrative local authorities have actually monitored “calls by a number of citizens and residents on social networking sites to raise funds,” although Saudi Arabia has launched an official campaign to support the Syrians. Yet al-Qaeda knows that it will not get anything from the official campaign, and thus resorted to social networking sites to collect funds.
The presence of Saudi fighters in Syria under the black banners of the group was great publicity on Twitter for the group, which views Saudis as just financial sources. The number of donation campaigns has increased following the presence of famous Saudi figures as fighters in Syria.
Suleiman al-Subaei, also known as “Sympathique,” is a star on social networking sites in Saudi Arabia and went to Syria. His presence in Syria was clear evidence that al-Qaeda is using Saudis as publicity tools. After returning from Syria, Subaei told the Saudi channel al-Oula that Saudis did not play a role in leadership or planning operations in Syria. Rather, “they were placed on all fronts to fight.” In fact, the number of dead Saudi fighters announced by the group on Twitter is greater than that of other foreigners, an issue that has raised serious questions.
Subaei explained on the television program "Humumuna" ("Our Concerns") how the organization used his Twitter account to invite youth to fight in Syria, and how it attacked [state-supported] religious scholars and incited action against the Saudi government. The terrorist organization knew exactly what it wanted from Saudis and how to manage a public relations campaign to distort their image of Saudi Arabia. It also called on them, through its members, to donate money and transfer it to personal Saudi and Gulf bank accounts. The organization also held gatherings near mosques where donations were hand-delivered.
Deep influence of royal decree
King Abdullah issued a royal decree punishing Saudi citizens with a minimum of three years and a maximum of 20 years in prison for fighting outside Saudi Arabia, or for belonging to extremist religious or ideological groups classified internally, regionally or internationally as terrorist. The sentence is also applicable to the supporters of said groups and movements and to anyone showing empathy to them through any means. This decree has affected al-Qaeda’s campaign inside Saudi Arabia.
Making things worse for the terrorist organization are the many armed factions in Syria mobilized to fight members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), knowing that this group comprises a large number of Saudis. This has prompted Saudis to wonder about the true colors of ISIS, which is attacked by groups that have been fighting the Syrian regime since the eruption of the revolution. News articles and television shows have begun to shed further light on the organization that originated in Iraq. Finally, public opinion strongly opposing the organization grew, and many refused to send donations outside of official sources.
Al-Qaeda has always survived crises in the region. Even if there was no crisis, it would create one, as with the 9/11 attacks and subsequent woes.
Many Saudis supported al-Qaeda during that war and tried to deliver financial aid to the organization. Then, there was the US-led invasion of Iraq. At the time, Saudis offered money to unknown parties in Iraq, while others volunteered to go fight in the country and ended up dead or detained in Iraqi prisons. When the Syrian crisis erupted, Saudis flew there to fight the regime alongside organizations that perceive their country as “apostate.”
The Saudis who went to fight with al-Qaeda or offered money without any consideration forgot what the organization had done to their country. They forgot about both civilians and soldiers who were killed at the hands of the organization. They also forgot what it cost them in terms of scrutiny at airports in foreign countries, the way other people perceive them and how fingers are pointed at them if they happen to pass by an explosion or incident. What happened at the Boston Marathon is the most recent example.
The important question remains: In 10 years, will a new crisis take place through which al-Qaeda will return to a society it perceives as apostate when it is having good days, and implores it in the name of religion during its bad days? Will Saudis be fooled by this trick again?