Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—It is commonly known that social networking sites, and particularly Twitter, are being used to entice misguided youth to leave their homes and take up arms alongside terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq. Still, terrorist organizations use a variety of recruitment tactics, and in Saudi Arabia they must adapt not only to the specific region and the technologies available, but also to the efforts put in place by the Saudi Ministry of the Interior to combat terrorism.
M, whose name has been withheld to protect his identity and who recently returned from Syria, told Asharq Al-Awsat that certain members of terrorist organizations are tasked with monitoring social networking sites, especially Facebook and Twitter. Their mission is to attract anyone following the events in Syria by posting pictures and video clips aimed at provoking sympathies.
M described how content uploaded by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to social networking sites helped entice youth to go and fight, and how—once the decision to fight had been made—such organizations offered help in the countries the young fighter must pass through on their way to the front lines.
Speaking of his communications with one of these terrorist groups’ members on Twitter, M said the member had asked him to make contact immediately upon arriving in the Turkish–Syrian border cities that are often used by jihadists as a staging ground to enter Syria. The militant took M’s cell phone number and informed him that there was another person who would be in contact to facilitate his entry into Syria in preparation to join the terrorist organization. M stressed that he never met the intermediary who enticed him from his home in Riyadh.
One relative of Yazid Al-Shaqueran, the 19-year-old pictured above who in May last year left his hometown of Al-Quway’iyah, 109 miles (175 kilometers) southwest of Riyadh, said that Yazid was not known to have had any extremist tendencies, but that he was interested in social networking websites and was on them often. But he also said that Yazid did have a connection to his cousins, named Abdelilah and Maaz, who were both killed in Syria.
According to the relative, Yazid graduated last year from the Scientific Institute, a high school equivalency program. He said that despite the fact that seven members of their family had joined terrorist organizations Yazid’s parents were opposed to the idea. The relative said three of those seven had been killed and that they did not know the fate of the remainder.
Speaking about Abdel Rahman Al-Shaqueran, who is related to Yazid, another member of the Al-Shaqueran family said they had not known he was an extremist until they heard news that he had joined an armed group in Syria that claimed to be fighting against the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad.
“There is a network that lures my relatives into combat zones,” Abdel Rahman’s relative said.
The Al-Shaqeran family has received two phone calls from unidentified individuals, most recently two weeks ago, informing them of the deaths of Yazid and Abdel Rahman. They said neither of the callers told them whether the deaths had happened in Syria or Iraq.
Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, the security spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, spoke of social media penetration in the Kingdom, saying 16 million Saudis use social networking sites, including 5 million Twitter users and 8 million on Facebook. He also noted the way such sites were being used to spread terrorist ideologies, corrupting youth and sometimes luring them into foreign combat zones.
Saudi security authorities confirmed last month that relevant government bodies are closing monitoring social media sites for extremist activity. In this way, the authorities were able to track the activities of terrorist organizations in Yemen and Syria and how they were coordinating with rogue cells in parts of the Kingdom.
But while Twitter, Facebook and similar sites may be the medium for recruitment, use of those websites in themselves cannot explain why some youth are led so far astray that they go to fight.
Dr. Hamid Al-Shayji, a social consultant at the Mohammed Bin Naif Counseling and Care Center, a rehabilitation center which works as part of the Saudi state-sponsored Munasaha program to combat terrorist ideologies, told Asharq Al-Awsat that events that take place in conflict areas in the Muslim world are feasts for terrorist groups.
Each terrorist group hopes to attract a large number of youth with unbridled religious passion, he said, and they have designated teams to work on media, producing pictures and video clips aimed at enticing young people to join their ranks.
“Recruiters for terrorist organizations exploit the passion of the youth by presenting opinions consistent with what is happening in Syria, and then communicate with the youth via private messages [on the social networking sites]. They outline the path from his home to the organization. Many young people held at the Mohammad Bin Naif Counseling and Care Center were lured in the same way,” he said.
Shayji added that Saudi nationals’ trip to the front lines to fight with terrorist organizations begins when young people almost “recruit themselves” by viewing content posted by these organizations on social networking sites.
According to Shayji, some youth are vulnerable to recruitment because, despite their faith, they do not fully understand Shari’a law and feel despair about their sins and transgressions. This makes them easier to exploit, he said, but added that family and friends going to fight is likely a greater influence on these young men than fatwas encouraging jihad.
“Luring young people by exploiting their emotions about the fighting in Syria and Iraq happens quickly. The youth can travel to conflict areas via two or three airports. After this, he can be smuggled into the interior [the combat zone] through intermediaries. The terrorist organizations work with great caution, and more than one person may be with him [the youth] on the journey, although they do not speak or sit with each other on the plane.”
But a royal decree on combatting terrorism issued in February may be deterring some men from joining the fight. That decree provided for the imprisonment for three to 20 years of anyone involved in hostilities outside Saudi Arabia in any form, as well as anyone belonging to extremist intellectual or religious groups classed as terrorist organizations. The punishment is extended to anyone who supports these groups or adopts their ideology or approach in any way, expresses sympathy by any means, offers any kind of material or moral support to those groups, or incites, encourages or promotes them verbally or in writing.
One month after the decree was passed, Saudi Arabia included Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Houthis in Yemen, Al-Qaeda and its Syrian franchise the Al-Nusra Front, ISIS, and Jund Ansar Allah, which operates in Gaza, on its list of terrorist groups.
“After the recent royal decree that provided for penalization of every individual who participates in combat zones outside of the country, things have become different for some militants. In the past, the picture for them wasn’t clear, and the numbers who came out to fight following the decree were much lower. The security agencies have lists of the names of those being monitored,” Shayji said, but he also noted that addressing the legality of these actions was only half the battle.
“Public figures and Shari’a scholars must engage with political events because any jolts that occur in a Muslim area will fuel religious hardliners to join in on the events in the name of religion,” he said.
“Taking advantage of some of the events taking place in combat zones, like what happened between ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front [which on occasion fight one another], is the best way to warn against joining. It is the best way to clarify that this issue is not one of jihad and that the Saudi youth being deceived are only fuel for this war. This is better than a thousand Friday sermons warning against traveling to Syria to fight.”