Saudi Arabia must address youth fighting abroad

Amid increasing news reports of Saudis fighting in Syria, the Saudi government must address the roots of this problem and develop preventive campaigns to stop the spread of extremist ideology.

al-monitor Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah arrives at the the opening ceremony of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) summit, Mecca, Aug. 14, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Susan Baaghil.

Topics covered

youth, saudi arabia, jihadists, jihad in syria, extremists, education

Feb 7, 2014

In mid-January, I wrote an article about the phenomenon of Saudi youth going to Syria and joining different extremist organizations, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra. Bashar al-Assad’s regime and other parties benefited from these men, and intelligence departments treated them as a cheap commodity. Thus, Saudi men started fighting and killing fellow countrymen in battles led and supported by unknown parties.

I thought about a title for that article, and I decided that the only appropriate title was an exclamation mark accompanied by a question mark “?!” Then, a few days later, my friend and colleague Abdullah bin Bakheet wrote an article in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, commenting on the content of the article and posing important questions. Shortly after, the esteemed professor Daoud al-Sheryan let out an echoing cry on MBC and ever since, it has been reverberating in Saudi Arabia and abroad. Sheryan demanded that the people responsible for inciting these men to go to the regions of tension be held accountable.

This voice should be raised for the security of the nation and the future of its citizens. Even if some people try to hide the truth under a veil of ardency and emotions, there will still be important questions that must not be dismissed, intentionally or naturally. These questions should be discussed honestly, especially since the radicalism of Saudi youth has been at the center of global media. This is not a transient phenomenon, but one that is fed by deep roots in society.

On Feb. 3, the Saudi king issued a royal decree punishing those who participate in fighting outside the kingdom with prison sentences ranging from three to 20 years. Undoubtedly, this important and brazen decision will solve part of the issue, especially since the punishment applies to the members of extremist groups and organizations or those deemed “terrorist,” whether locally or internationally. Moreover, the anti-terrorism law has become applicable in Saudi Arabia.

The fact of the matter is that the “provokers” are not the only ones responsible for this phenomenon, but the government is to be partially blamed. It should have stopped these men from leaving the country, before turning into ticking time bombs. 

The families are also held responsible for ignoring their children and overlooking the change of thought that they underwent. Parents should have reported the people who led their children astray to the security authorities before these men left to hot spots. They shouldn’t only file such reports after their children have traveled, to retrieve them and punish those who incited them or facilitated their travel.

The fragile educational environment and the curricular and extracurricular activities in Saudi Arabia have failed to immunize students against extremist teachers, who have an exclusionary thought that is indignant at anyone who goes against their ideas, approaches and beliefs. These activities have rather contributed to limiting normal thought and enabled extremist ideologies that incited hatred, blasphemy and exclusion.

One example is the story of the young men who were arrested in Mecca in 2003, after they planted bombs in copies of the Quran and confronted the armed security men while some of them blew themselves up.

Furthermore, there is a complete absence of prevention campaigns. Such campaigns require knowledge about the extremist ideas that may pose a threat to the minds of the youth, and about how these youth are attracted to extremist groups through meetings, seminars and lectures held in rest houses and inside mosques. The solution to this problem requires opening channels of dialogue with the youth and giving them the right space to express their views, find out the reasons behind their extremism and explain to them the risks that such extremism poses to them, to their religion and to their nation. This process should take into consideration that many of them were cheated, deceived and sold, according to the Saudi mufti.

Moreover, there are satellite channels that incite takfiri ideology and hatred, spread sedition and call for retribution for violators. The establishment of channels aimed at warning citizens about extremist groups and people with extremist inclinations is necessary to counter this phenomenon. This also requires the creation of a sincere rhetoric characterized by cohesion and influence, that can restore fooled minds.

I still believe that responsibility falls first and foremost on the family, which is why family members of those fighting outside the country should be held accountable. Anyone who neglects his or her son’s behavioral shift can undoubtedly neglect the future of his or her home and country. Moreover, schools and universities are partners, and they ought to actively participate in the rehabilitation of extremists before they turn into future terrorists.

Extremist ideologies cannot be countered through security solutions alone, but dialogue and persuasion is needed. Only then will popular sympathy with extremists and radicals be dispelled. Only then will their plans be exposed and their provocative tactical discourse revealed. This requires the development of eligible and skilled minds whose jobs are not only limited to giving advice, or what is known as “the counseling program,” from which some Saudis graduated and soon fled to the mountains of Yemen and the caves of Tora Bora!

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