ISIS supporters watch from the shadows in Saudi Arabia

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi tells of his experience regarding a threatening tweet sent to him by a Saudi Islamic State supporter, raising questions about the popularity of the organization in the kingdom.

al-monitor A screenshot shows an English language twitter feed promoting the Islamic State, July 14, 2014 Photo by Twitter/ISIS_Media_Hub.

Topics covered

tunisia, syria, saudi arabia, islamic state, iraq, education

Jul 14, 2014

Just like any moderate Muslim, I love life. At the beginning of the month of Ramadan, I took my family to a Turkish pastry shop in the city of Jeddah following the evening prayers. It was a normal Ramadan evening during which we had a family dialogue, filled up on a lot of calories, and sipped Turkish tea.

The next day, I was tagged in the following tweet: “I saw you yesterday in the restaurant. ... [Islamic] State supporters are everywhere, watch yourself.”

Was this a threat or advice? Did the tweet sender want to convey the message that “we are here”? I visited the page of Abu Abed al-Muwahed, the sender of the tweet, and I came to find that he has been a committed member of the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS) for a couple of months and that it was not just a joke on his part.

Muwahed has been actively spreading [IS] publications and news while widely promoting this organization. He does not, however, get into arguments, insults, threats and intimidation with other Twitter users, as do many of the extremist supporters. This made ​​me think that he is not an amateur or a mere supporter, but a “committed working member.”

I tried to guess who it could have been in that shop, which had nothing to do with IS or its view of life and people. The restaurant did lack the usual music heard in restaurants across the world, but this music is always absent from our restaurants in [both] Ramadan and non-Ramadan periods, as per the local directives, which find in music some kind of devilish abomination.

To the left of our table, there was the families’ section, and I can’t seem to remember having seen anyone with a [distinguishing] IS character. To our right there was the singles’ section. These were ordinary young men enthusiastically talking about the World Cup. One of them lit a cigarette, and this is contrary to the system imposed by the Jeddah Municipality months ago, and when I protested, the waiter told me that the owner of the restaurant got an exception from the municipality. I asked who the owner was, and the name was sufficiently “influential.” This is a small example of the state of chaos plaguing our nation that breeds IS organizations and the like.

Of course, there was no masked man dressed in black, but Muwahed was definitely there, sitting among us. His tweet confirms this. It's a strange feeling to know that there is a young man who believes in the extremist, revolutionary and angry IS, one who defends and promotes such a state and sits a few meters away from you. He looks at you. You don’t know whether he was calling on us to follow the right track or saying, “We came to slaughter you.” The two options are possible for such members; they would grant you compassion and advocacy if you agree with them, but slaughter you if you don’t.

Do we have in Saudi Arabia an IS case that is more dangerous than that of other countries? I think that this is a question that can be scientifically verified through the economic criteria method, such as “the rate of per capita income” or “the proportion of deaths among newborns.” These criteria can measure the progress or deterioration of the conditions in the concerned country. What if researchers met and tried to reach a number of the IS proportion to the population. We need transparency on the part of the Interior Ministry, which has documented security statistics, but until then, we will remain hostage to the figures offered by the Western research centers such as the Suphan Group, which issued a report midyear estimating the number of Saudis in Syria at 3,000 members. According to these figures, the Tunisians, for example, are slightly ahead. If this turns out to be true, then this means that our IS state is better than Tunisia compared with the population. An analyst can also defend the Saudi curriculum by saying that education in Tunisia is more modernized and open than Saudi education, and that there are fewer religious courses in Tunisia, but that this education has still managed to bring about more IS members than Saudi Arabia’s.

The above is certainly not scientific talk, as the figures are not accurate, but I am sure that the Saudi Interior [Ministry] has accurate figures about the number of Saudis suspected to be fighters in the ranks of the IS organization, based on travel databases and unexplained absences or intelligence information security and analytical statistics about age, areas and education. Such information would be useful to assess the IS situation in which we live.

What is harder, however, is to assess the “sympathy with IS,” which can identify the map and power of sleeper cells, like my friend in the restaurant — Muwahed — who may either be a local leader interested in recruiting or just a young man charged with promoting the organization, and this cannot be determined except through intelligence information not possessed by the media. However, there is a huge window overlooking the IS and extremism world, namely the “social media.” A tour of these media outlets reveals that [extremism] enjoys wide popularity.

A specialist researcher can track the location of those supporters to map their geographical belonging. This is what the analyst Noam Benshtok, an Internet-based reporter — as per his own description —said on the Vocativ website. He noted that most of the pro-IS tweets come from the UK and that the most trendy hashtag to support IS is [one that translates into “the billion Muslims campaign in support of IS”] started in Saudi Arabia. Ninety-five percent of the tweets came from there in the beginning, before this hashtag went viral across the world. Thus, IS supporters started sharing it with pictures indicating their countries to denote the size of the support for this extremist group.

Meanwhile, the Saudis in general massively reject IS and other extremist groups, and this was clearly manifested after the terrorist attack against the al-Wadiah center crossing, located in the south of the kingdom, and then the Sharorah City, which is about 60 kilometers [37 miles] away and where a number of security men were martyred at the hands of terrorists who followed the famous rehabilitation program but failed to comply with its directives. This strongly angered the Saudis and reminded them of the danger of al-Qaeda and IS. It has also removed some of the fog that made some celebrate IS following their victories over the Iraqi government, deemed by the Saudis as sectarian and close to Iran.

This sympathy, however, must not make us Saudis overlook the fact that the presence of 3,000 to 4,000 Saudi fighters in IS today — as per several intelligence estimates — is a serious call for concern, not to mention the non-visible sympathizers. This requires deeper digging and calls for considering all factors that would explain such sympathy.

Until then, I will be awaiting Muwahed’s opinion about the reason behind his sympathy with IS — if he reads this article. I have actually followed him on Twitter to start direct [communication] with him. If he does, then I will be sharing his opinion with the readers.

More from  Jamal Khashoggi

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