Time to widen scope of anti-IS operation

Time to widen scope of anti-IS operation

I write this week from New York, where the focus of many meetings this year at the United Nations is on fighting terrorism, in particular how to defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS). One of the main topics is how much IS is being nourished by the support it receives from the citizens of the same countries involved in the coalition to defeat it.
From Australia to Europe and the United States, to other countries in between, leaders and experts are trying to come up with ways to stem the flow of fighters and other forms of support going to this terror organization, which has surpassed Al-Qaeda, where it had its origins, and other terrorist organizations in the scope of operations and control and the violent methods it employs.
Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries have joined the coalition to defeat the IS. For a while now, Saudi Arabia has launched one of the most comprehensive counterterrorism campaigns to diminish the support the IS and other terrorist organizations get from some Saudi citizens and residents, and especially to stem the flow of fighters and ideologues to the organization.
In late August 2014, Saudi Arabia announced the dismantling of a pro-IS cell in Tumair, just 160 kilometers north of Riyadh. Nine people belonging to the cell were apprehended. They were mostly current and former prayer leaders who were recruiting and encouraging young men from this small rural town to join the ranks of the IS. According to some reports, they had managed before their capture to recruit 34 men, mostly aged 20-25 years, who traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the terror organization. One of them, the son of one of Tumair’s detained suspects, was recently shown in pictures smiling while holding the severed head of an IS victim, presumably somewhere in Syria or Iraq.
Last May, Saudi Arabia reported the capture of 62 individuals in other parts of the country, who were suspected of belonging to the IS and Al-Qaeda. It also identified a new list of 44 fugitives belonging to these two organizations.
Last week, a court in Riyadh sentenced two groups of 13 and 14 defendants for up to 10 years on charges including joining extremist groups, fighting abroad, recruiting for them, supporting those groups financially, and using religious study groups to drum up support for them. On Sept. 21, the same court sentenced three terrorists to death and 17 more to lengthy prison terms for terrorism-related charges including organizing armed cells reporting to Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, and conspiring to assassinate political leaders and kill security forces and foreign residents, based on bogus fatwas issued by the same group justifying such killings.
But all these cases may be just the tip of the iceberg. From reports coming from IS areas of control in Syria and Iraq, the Tumair and other cells appear to be parts of a larger network of support that the group has in the Kingdom. That support seems to take the shape of providing the organization with fighters and clerics, as well as supporting the ideological spin it needs to cloak its operations in the name of Islam.
There are believed to be thousands of Saudi citizens who have joined the ranks of the IS and Al-Qaeda. One report estimated that 3,000 young men, some as young as 10 and 11 years of age, have joined the IS in recent years. They account for about 10-15 percent of the total number of IS fighters, which US intelligence now estimates to be between 20,000-30,000 fighters.
The IS heavily uses suicide attacks to terrorize towns and soften their resistance before their forces capture them. They also use them to eliminate their opponents and take the battle deep inside enemy territory. Pro-IS websites have claimed that Saudi young men dominate in those suicide attacks, with 57-65 percent of them being carried out by those men. Those young zealots are described as fearless and committed, probably the result of careful indoctrination, if not brainwashing, by IS propaganda masters, some of who are also Saudis.
While IS leadership appears to be mostly Iraqis, its foot soldiers are a mixed lot. Saudi followers appear to provide key support for the organization. Most importantly, they provide ideological support, to help the organization further its claims of religious authenticity. As they hail from Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the seat of its most sacred shrines, they could give the appearance of religious sanction. Especially useful are those who are trained in the idiom of religious discourse, all the better to give IS’ draconian diktats the veneer of authentic religious support. For those reasons, some of IS’ Saudi operators serve in its propaganda machine, as well as “judges” in its system of kangaroo courts.
Saudi IS fighters appeared to be young and ill-trained, which partly explains why they are used as fodder for suicide attacks. The organization may prefer to sacrifice these poorly trained soldiers while saving experienced fighters for the battles it wages with security forces and other militias. Poor training may also explain why about 40 percent of all IS casualties were Saudis, according to websites sympathetic to the IS. While the anti-IS coalition engages the organization militarily, to reverse its territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, it is equally important to expand the fight against it at home, in every country where it has managed to garner support in any form.
The anti-IS campaign in Saudi Arabia is especially important, to stop the flow of Saudi young men who are being cynically used by the organization as cannon fodder. It is equally important to defeat IS attempts to portray itself as an Islamic organization, based on bogus teachings supported by some Saudi make-believe scholars.

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