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Debate: Gulf citizens returning from the Syrian war are a serious threat | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Masked Bahraini anti-government protesters wearing handcuffs hold cameras up to show support for jailed photographers during a march in Saar, Bahrain, on Friday, Dec. 13, 2013. Thousands participated in the march organized by opposition parties to mark 1,000 days since the pro-democracy uprising began in the Gulf island kingdom. As the peaceful march dispersed, a […]

When Al-Qaeda first began its terrorist pursuits, Saudi Arabia operated as its launching pad, both in ideological and operational terms. Perhaps this is because Saudi Arabia’s religious structures and Salafist approach exposed the pronounced flaws in Al-Qaeda’s ideology. Hence the reaction by most Al-Qaeda members, who accuse Saudi Arabia of apostasy and deny its religious legitimacy. However, the Kingdom has succeeded after a lengthy battle with the organization—begun by a bombing in 1994—and has managed to deal a blow to Al-Qaeda both at home and abroad.

Today, Al-Qaeda is no longer a real source of terror and concern. Instead, some suggest it has become less of a threat in comparison to its ever-proliferating offshoots, which surpass it in violence and cruelty to the extent that they accuse Al-Qaeda’s central leadership of apostasy. According to an emerging generation of warmongering muftis, Al-Qaeda’s central leadership has an approach that is “not as purely Islamic as it ought to be.” It was also becoming highly isolated, inspiring only apathy in its potential members, until it found new recruiting grounds in the war-torn cities of Syria. Al-Qaeda descended on Syria carrying banners of jihad and advancing an agenda based on a unilateral interpretation of Islam that pushes its claim to be the bearer of the sole truth. Everything else was painted as unequivocal blasphemy in need of eradication in order to protect the Islamic Umma (community) and the victory of Islam.

This denouncement of others was not limited to governments which Al-Qaeda opposed; it was also extended to the group’s supposed colleagues and partners on the ground. The group declared an internal war to track down offenders, apostates, and suspected transgressors.

The irony here is that the internal conflict did not eliminate other groups, but actually attracted a range of young people committed to jihad who rushed to join one group or another. Thus, the splinter groups grew in both number and viciousness.

The fundamental problem is that the people driving these groups are from the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. This foreshadows a new wave of terrorism that could be on the way, possibly surpassing the Al-Qaeda of previous eras in terms of size, manner and bloodshed—if the Syrian crisis comes to an end. Without a Syria at war to occupy them, hordes of young men could return to the Gulf in a manner similar to what happened after the Afghan jihad. This is unlikely insofar as the regimes in Iran, Syria and Iraq rely on these groups in the Syrian arena, and recognize that they will become a useful playing card—elsewhere—in the near future, when they are driven back to the Gulf to return to their previous lives.

The other problem is that this wave of jihad embedded within contemporary religious extremism inspires similar ideas within the Gulf, and stimulates zeal among groups of young people who share this vision. However, they will no longer head for Syria, making the danger they pose more acute and attempts at controlling them even more difficult, for their ideological sustenance is abundant inside the Gulf. Al-Qaeda openly works to stimulate and develop that energy via television and radio broadcasts, sermons, meetings, and social media websites. These efforts are at their most pronounced in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where remnants of Al-Qaeda-inspired thought have lain dormant for some time, and have managed to survive the successful Saudi security services campaign that targeted Al-Qaeda cells and preempted their operations.

These remnants manipulate Saudi Arabia’s religious identity and promote an interpretation of Islam that surpasses Saudi Salafism. They take advantage of underlying contradictions and manipulate religious interpretations in light of the limited knowledge among some sheikhs and community leaders. They seize on some sheikhs’ inclinations towards demagoguery and their desire to appease the fervor of jihadi youth and maintain their appearances so as not to lose their audience and popularity—not to mention their fears for their own personal security.

Many times sheikhs have raised their voices and called for jihad from official pulpits and driven the youth to leave. In fact, this is exactly what happened with the rush of young people to Syria to take part in jihad. Saudi Arabia alone senses the danger today, and is working to put out the flames, which is clear from the recent Royal Decree to prosecute those who fight abroad. However, the jihadist tone in Kuwait grows louder in an unrestricted arena, and so those who did not find an opening in Saudi Arabia will turn to Kuwait. If terrorist instigators join forces with those on the ground, then the horrifying picture will be complete and the true extent and nature of the danger will be revealed.

The Syrian conflict revived jihadist tendencies and provided the movement with opportunities for development. The splintering of political allegiances allowed it to proliferate, and inflammatory rhetoric has added fuel to the the fire. It is impossible to resolve this safely until everyone realizes that this raging fire becomes indiscriminate in whoever it consumes, and that anyone who stokes it will eventually become a casualty.

Until now, Saudi Arabia has borne this burden alone. The Kingdom is struggling to secure its borders with Iraq and Yemen in the absence of proper governance in either state, and these countries do not necessarily oppose pushing terrorist cells across the border into Saudi Arabia. Either way, the circumstances facing these two neighboring countries make securing the borders a difficult task.

The only remaining hope is to ensure that anyone who leaves for Syria, Yemen or Iraq never comes back. Incitement must be stifled and recruitment pools dried up. If the situation remains unchanged, the terrorist wave will return, or will at least make a vigorous attempt to return—and some will succeed. Perhaps the most dangerous conduit from which terror will return to the Kingdom is not Yemen or Iraq—which are both closely monitored—but Kuwait, which has largely been ignored.

The counterpoint to this article can be found here.