Saudi study: Millennial extremist fighters educated, not outcasts

In this April 26, 2015 file photo, former militant, 30-year-old Badr Al-Enezi, stands in a courtyard at the Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Advice, Counseling and Care, as the rehab center is formally known, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (File/AP)
Updated 08 February 2019
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Saudi study: Millennial extremist fighters educated, not outcasts

  • Fighters were neither loners nor social outcasts but appear to have been motivated by the heightened sectarianism that began to color the 2011 Syrian revolution
  • An AP analysis of some 3,000 leaked Daesh documents had found that most of the recruits came with only the most basic knowledge of Islam

DUBAI: A study by a Saudi research center is challenging the notion that extremist fighters are necessarily disenfranchised and lacking opportunity, with its lead researcher saying that a new generation of Saudi militants are relatively well-educated, not driven purely by religious ideology and show little interested in suicide missions.

The 40-page study, published by the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in conjunction with the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College in London, looked at 759 Saudi recruits who joined the Daesh group mostly between 2013 and 2014. That’s roughly a third of the overall number of Saudis who fought in Syria. The data was drawn from leaked Daesh group entry documents.

The Saudi Interior Ministry previously said that 2,500 Saudis had gone to Syria in the years before the kingdom criminalized fighting abroad in early 2014. Only Tunisia sent more foreign fighters. Subsequently, the kingdom was the target of numerous Daesh group attacks that killed dozens of people, as well as in Kuwait.

Researcher Abdullah bin Khaled Al-Saud said the fighters were neither loners nor social outcasts but appear to have been motivated by the heightened sectarianism that began to color the 2011 Syrian revolution as it slid into armed conflict.

A turning point came when the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah group decisively committed to join the conflict in May 2013 to defend the Syrian government against the mostly Sunni Muslim resistance.

“That actually was the point when the first wave of Saudis travelling to Syria started to happen,” Al-Saud told The Associated Press. “So, I think instability, war and violence certainly plays a major role when it comes to the specific Saudi context.”

In contrast, issues of disenfranchisement, poverty and criminal pasts factored heavily in Daesh fighters hailing from European countries like France, Belgium and the UK, to name a few.

An AP analysis of some 3,000 leaked Daesh documents had found that most of the recruits hailing from a range of nationalities, or around 70 percent, came with only the most basic knowledge of Islam — the lowest possible choice on the forms. This created fertile ground for the indoctrination of recruits in line with the group’s extremist interpretation of Islam.

The Saudi study released this week, however, found that among Saudi recruits a little more than half said they had basic knowledge of Islam. Much of the rest claimed to have intermediate and advanced religious knowledge.

This was somewhat expected given that all Saudi students are given religious education in schools, according to the study.

“Still, the Saudi contingent’s religious fluency should not be exaggerated: 58 percent of Saudi (fighters) acknowledged that they had only basic knowledge of the religion of Islam, and only eight percent claimed to be ‘knowledge seekers,’” the report stated.

Unlike fighters from Europe, where many were high school dropouts or unemployed, the Saudi recruits were relatively well educated. Close to 340 had a high school-level education, around 60 had a diploma of some kind, close to 120 had university degrees and five held postgraduate degrees.

“This data demonstrates that the Saudi contingent does not consist of educational underachievers, which can lead to the argument that they were not lacking in socio-economic opportunities,” the study said.

The report notes, though, that “education does not necessarily equate with job opportunities, and a sense of relative deprivation may still be relevant” with 15 percent of the Saudi contingent in this study stating they were unemployed.

Also noteworthy, of those who held jobs, 50 had been in the Saudi military or police and 36 were either members of the religious police, imams at mosques or considered themselves to be religious preachers.

Half of the Saudi recruits in this sampling were 20-24 years old, and 22 percent were 25-29 years old. Just 13 percent were over age 30, and 15 percent were under 19 years old, with the youngest just 9 years old.

The overwhelming majority, at 73 percent, were single. Just 18 percent were listed as married, with the rest unknown.

Additionally, the overwhelming majority of these recruits, or 625, volunteered to be fighters. Just nine percent, or 71, signed up to be suicide bombers.

Al-Saud said this suggests the recruits wanted to contribute to this “exciting project of a Caliphate” that had promised a life more rewarding than death.

Unlike in previous decades of Saudi extremist recruitment, this latest wave saw the highest ratio of Saudi fighters per the region’s population from the landlocked, ultraconservative province of Qassim, north of Riyadh.

Still, in raw numbers, the largest numbers of Saudi recruits — more than a third — came from Riyadh, where 262 fighters of the total 759 originated. The next were Qassim and Mecca province, at 134 fighters each.


Two Saudis among 31 foreigners killed in Easter Day attacks in Sri Lanka

Updated 23 April 2019
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Two Saudis among 31 foreigners killed in Easter Day attacks in Sri Lanka

  • Mohamed Jafar and Hany Osman, cabin crew with Saudi Arabian Airlines, were in transit and staying at one of the three hotels targeted
  • Saudi Ambassador Abdulnasser Al-Harthi says officials are awaiting the results of DNA tests

COLOMBO: Two Saudis were among 31 foreigners killed in a string of Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said on Monday, a day after the devastating attacks on hotels and churches killed at least 290 people and wounded nearly 500.

The extent of the carnage began to emerge as information from government officials, relatives and media reports offered the first details of those who had died. Citizens from at least eight countries, including the United States, were killed, officials said.

Among them were Saudis Mohammed Jafar and Hany Osman. They worked as cabin crew on Saudi Arabian Airlines, and were in transit and staying at one of the three hotels that were hit.

Saudi Ambassador Abdulnasser Al-Harthi said that officials are awaiting the results of DNA tests on the two Saudi victims, and only after these are received will their names be confirmed.

Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said the Sri Lankan government believes the vast scale of the attacks, which clearly targeted the minority Christian community and outsiders, suggested the involvement of an international terrorism network.

“We don’t think a small organization can do all that,” he said. “We are now investigating international support for them and their other links — how they produced the suicide bombers and bombs like this.”

The attacks mostly took place during church services or when hotel guests were sitting down to breakfast. In addition to the two Saudis, officials said the foreign victims included one person from Bangladesh, two from China, eight from India, one from France, one from Japan, one from The Netherlands, one from Portugal, one from Spain, two from Turkey, six from the UK, two people with US and UK dual nationalities, and two with Australian and Sri Lankan dual nationalities.

Three of Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen’s four children were among the foreigners who were killed, a spokesman for the family confirmed. Povlsen is the wealthiest man in Denmark, the largest landowner in Scotland and owns the largest share of British online fashion and cosmetics retailer Asos.

Two Turkish engineers working on a project in Sri Lanka also died in the attacks, the English-language Daily Sabah newspaper reported. Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu gave their names as Serhan Selcuk Narici and Yigit Ali Cavus.

Fourteen foreign nationals remain unaccounted for, the Sri Lankan foreign ministry said, adding that they might be among unidentified victims at the Colombo Judicial Medical Officer’s morgue.

Seventeen foreigners injured in the attacks were still being treated at the Colombo National Hospital and a private hospital in the city, while others had been discharged after treatment.