Saudi Arabia walks a fine line in backing Syrian rebellion

Western and Saudi officials fear Syria could produce a generation of extremists the kingdom cannot control

Saudi Arabia is trying to prevent young people from going to fight in Syria.
Frederic Laarargue/AFP/Getty Images

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Last summer, Badr al Nizi had seen enough of the killing in Syria as the world stood by and did nothing.

The soft-spoken 28-year-old Saudi held radical political views at the time and admits he was against “the Saudi government, non-Muslims and (was) also thinking about going for jihad.”

Agents from Saudi Arabia’s internal police force, run by the Ministry of the Interior, had taken notice of Nizi and the radical group of men he had been hanging around.

So when he applied for a passport at a Riyadh immigration office in July, he raised red flags in a country closely watching any signals that its citizens may be planning to go fight for the rebels in Syria.  

King Abdullah and his government in Saudi Arabia have warned their subjects against traveling to Syria to wage jihad and have forbidden citizens to send money to Syrian groups, apart from the three state-sanctioned charities tasked with providing humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees. A Saudi security official told Al Jazeera that since 2011, the government has seized about $10 million from some 30 Saudi bank accounts being used to send money to bundlers in other Gulf countries such as Kuwait and Qatar, where it is forwarded to more radical groups in Syria. 

“Ten million dollars could do a lot of damage in Syria,” the security official said.

Bundlers conduct much of their fundraising on the Internet, especially through social media. Saudis sympathetic to what’s happening in Syria report receiving regular solicitations for money through friends broadcasting messages on Facebook, Twitter or the instant-messaging service WhatsApp. Some respond with donations, even though they don’t know exactly who the money is being sent to. 

“My own wife wants to donate to some of these charities,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Mansour al-Turki. “She gets a text message or email, and I have to tell her, ‘No, that’s not legal, and you can do it through the approved channels.’ We can't guarantee that the money will end up in the hands of the right people.”

The Saudi Interior Ministry says it goes after any social media account that tries to solicit money. It says it’s barred all transfers to 10 suspect Kuwaiti accounts. And it’s also redirected transfers from about 25 Saudi accounts that were sending funds to Kuwait. The funds were instead channeled into the government-approved Saudi charities, security officials say. 

If I weren’t caught last summer, maybe I’d be in Syria right now.

Badr al Nizi

The state regulations result from hard lessons learned in Afghanistan, when many young Saudis, most notably Osama bin Laden, went to fight the 1979 Soviet invasion. Many of these men became the core of Al-Qaeda, and the Saudi government fears that Syria could be the occasion for another generation of its young men radicalized in a foreign war.

“The issue really alarms them,” said a Western diplomat who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.

Nizi is among those who were arrested and sent to jail and then to a Saudi-run rehabilitation center for extremists that the Interior Ministry has established in Riyadh called the Mohammed Bin Naif Counseling and Care Center.  

Nizi spent four months at the center, where patients — or “beneficiaries,” as the staff likes to call them — are taught an interpretation of Islamic teachings that conforms to government policy. 

Interviewed at the center as Interior officers sat nearby, he said he’s much happier now that he no longer harbors what he called “bad thoughts.” The government gave him $25,000 to start a business as part of his rehabilitation, and he’s now making good money selling refrigerators and other household appliances, supporting his wife and four children. 

“If I weren’t caught last summer, maybe I’d be in Syria right now,” he said.  

But when asked to explain what the rehab center taught him about the error of his ways, Nizi gave an answer some in the West may find unsettling.

“I’ve learned that there are some conditions for jihad,” he said. “The most important three are the following: one, that I should have permission from my parents; two, that we Muslims should be under one flag and one leader when we wage jihad; and three, that I should receive permission, in this case, from King Abdullah to wage jihad. 

“I don’t have any of these three,” he said.

There’s a desire (on the Saudis’ part) to support moderate groups. But many are concerned about funding groups that have an extremist bent to them.

Western diplomat

Nizi’s situation represents the fine line that Abdullah and his government are walking on the Syria question. Riyadh has basically told Saudis to leave the jihad to the professionals, and the government has sanctioned a state-run jihad of sorts. It is being led by the kingdom’s Intelligence Directorate, headed by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former longtime ambassador to the United States and the country’s current intelligence chief, and forms part of a three-decade proxy battle — often but not exclusively waged along sectarian Shia-Sunni lines — for regional influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran that began with the latter’s revolution in 1979. Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime and its Hezbollah allies in neighboring Lebanon are long-standing clients of Tehran’s; their enemies are in many cases clients of Riyadh’s. 

Nizi’s fate reflects Saudi Arabia’s complicated Syria policy, in which efforts to empower the Sunni-dominated rebellion against Assad, in line with Riyadh’s regional strategy, raise the danger of creating a group of extremists the kingdom cannot control. In the context of Saudi Arabia, extremists are those who may invoke the authority of Islam to question the legitimacy of the kingdom, for reasons that may include its close ties to the U.S.

Another Western diplomat, who also was not authorized to speak publicly, described the kingdom’s Syria policy as “schizophrenic.” 

“On the one side, you have the Interior Ministry saying this is going to come back and hit us at some point,” the diplomat said. “Meanwhile, Bandar is actively aiding the Syrian opposition.”

Concern among some Saudis and Western officials over Riyadh’s Syria policy is amplified by the kingdom’s declaration that it would “go it alone” in Syria after the Obama administration failed to carry out threats to take military action against the Assad regime last summer. The U.S. instead settled for a deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons capability — which had not been a major factor in determining the course of the civil war — pointedly refusing to take action to topple Assad.

“We have a humanitarian responsibility to do what we can to end the suffering in Syria,” wrote Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.K., in a December New York Times op-ed piece. “We will act to fulfill these responsibilities, with or without the support of our Western partners. Nothing is ruled out in our pursuit of sustainable peace and stability in the Arab world.”

Western officials fear that the unpredictability of insurgent movements and the Saudis’ lack of experience in guiding such efforts could lead to dangerous consequences.

“There’s a desire (on the Saudis’ part) to support moderate groups,” said a Western diplomat. “But many are concerned about funding groups that have an extremist bent to them.” 

But where some Western diplomats see a tension between Saudi domestic security goals and its regional proxy warfare, Asaad al Shamlan, a professor of political science at Riyadh’s Institute of Diplomatic Studies, doesn’t see any evidence of a cleavage between different parts of the government. He says Bandar’s intelligence service and Mohammed bin Naif’s Interior Ministry pursue different aspects of the same policy set by the king.

“The general policy is state policy. There is an agreement that the uprising of the Syrian people has to be supported, and it cannot be successful except by toppling the regime — that is, that this regime must go,” said Shamlan. “This theory of rivalry between senior policymakers — I’ll take that with a grain of salt, actually. I don’t take it as being serious.” 

Shamlan said this policy is in part a product of an outpouring of sympathy and anger at many levels in Saudi society regarding Syria.

“Even before the government announced its outright support to the demands of the Syrian people, there was already a strong popular sympathy to those demands,” he said. “Some even want the government to do more.”

Saudis feel a duty to go help the Syrians. There is a sectarian sympathy. There’s the Islamic solidarity. Some of our tribes are even related.

Abdullah al Shamlan

Saudi political analyst

Like the rehabilitated radical Nizi, many Saudis are upset by the daily bloodbath in Syria they see broadcast on TV and splashed across newspaper front pages.

Young people pass around videos of massacres in Syria and view on their cellphones pictures of atrocities perpetrated by Assad’s troops. Many Saudis claim to know young men from their country who were killed fighting the Assad regime.

“The (news) images and video clips shown from Syria provide a recruiting machine which drives young Muslims to participate in the fight and to donate money,” said the Interior Ministry’s Turki.

One example Turki gave of the images beamed around the region that upset Saudis and other Arabs was of Hezbollah troops, after routing anti-Assad forces, raising their yellow flag over a mosque in the Syrian town of Qusair. The battle was the first major involvement in the conflict for the Lebanese Shia militant group and is seen as a battle that helped change the tide of the war in the government’s favor.

“Saudis feel a duty to go help the Syrians,” said Abdullah al-Shamlan, a Saudi political analyst. “There is a sectarian sympathy. There’s the Islamic solidarity. Some of our tribes are even related.”

But the kingdom has barred young men from going to Syria to fight. In October, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz al Sheikh, said Saudis should not go to Syria to wage jihad.

The mufti also warned other Saudi religious leaders and preachers against encouraging the country’s men to fight in Syria.

“The Saudi government is saying, ‘Jihad is the business of state. Leave it to us,’” said a Western diplomat.

Despite that, 72 Saudi imams in early December signed a petition asking Saudis to support the Islamic Front, a coalition of armed groups separate from the three officially sanctioned state charities. Some clerics, observers say, are subtly encouraging Saudis to fight in Syria or donate money outside official channels. Such encouragement led some young men to travel to Syria. 

As of December, Saudi security officials said, approximately 1,125 Saudis had traveled to fight in Syria since 2011. Some 260 Saudis have returned from Syria to the kingdom, either having fought or having intended to fight. Western diplomats have been told by Saudi government officials that since 2011 about 180 Saudis have been killed in Syria and 650 are still fighting in the country.   

Beyond the sympathy, solidarity and anger regarding Syria, Saudi officials fear two possible effects of the conflict: that the longer Syria goes on, the more young men will want to join the fight and that the young men who go to Syria will return radicalized and turn against the state.

The rehabilitation center for extremists is being expanded, and although that was planned before the Syria conflict began, Western diplomats believe it will accommodate an increase in the number of young Saudis radicalized in Syria.

“It shows what they’re expecting as to the fallout from Syria,” said one Western diplomat.

Saudi security officials believe their problem grows more acute the longer the Syrian conflict persists.

“Syria is a humanitarian disaster,” said one security official. “The Islamic world is watching — watching what will the international community do. We hope the international community will do something.

“Until now, we are doing a good job controlling our people as much as we can,” he said. “But we don’t know about what will happen in the future.”

Political scientist Shamlan concurs. “Acting is what the Americans and Europeans are shying away from, which I think is a rather shameful and dangerous thing and fuels the very disease that they are saying they don’t want to spread in Syria.” 

But some analysts and observers view Saudi foreign policy as taking too many risks. There is also concern about which groups the Saudis are supporting in Syria. 

“The Saudi leadership should be careful what it creates in Syria,” wrote the Carnegie Middle East Center’s Yezid Sayigh in October. “(Saudi-funded fighters) may eventually come home to Mecca.”

Who are the Saudis funding?

Sayigh was one of the first Syria observers to suggest that Saudi Arabia was funding the Islamic Front. The alliance’s founding principles include contempt for secular democracy and the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria, but it is challenging Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. 

“The differing groups (in the Islamic Front) have varying ideologies,” wrote Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Jaysh al-Islam is far less ideologically extreme or rigid as, say, Ahrar al-Sham, which would be the only one of the seven that I'd consider as truly jihadi. Only a small amount of foreign fighters even fight with Islamic Front member groups.”

An incident late last year, when Islamic Front fighters took over warehouses of nonlethal equipment sent by the United States to the Free Syria Army, prompted Washington to cut off all military aid to northern Syria. 

Al Jazeera could not confirm which groups Saudi Arabia is funding in Syria. But Abdel Rahman al Hadliq, an adviser to Interior Minister Bin Naif, dismissed concerns that the kingdom’s Syria policy could empower Al-Qaeda or other extremist groups or work against Saudi Arabia’s allies, like the U.S., in Syria and the region.   

“We are only funding the moderate groups in Syria,” he said, without offering specifics. “I don’t see any contradiction in our policy. We don’t help radical groups.”

But what some Saudis see as moderate and what the U.S., other Western countries and some other Saudis consider moderate could differ widely. 

“The Islamic Front could be the moderates in the Saudis’ eyes,” Sayigh said in a phone interview. “You can call anything moderate — and they could mean moderate compared to the (Al-Qaeda-affiliated) Islamic State of Iraq and Sham — and that could mean a wide range of people. It’s not very meaningful.”

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