I love life just like any moderate Muslim does. At the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, I took my family to a Turkish coffee shop in Jeddah following the evening prayers. It was a usual Ramadan evening. We exchanged conversation, consumed a lot of calories and Turkish tea.
The next day, I received the following tweet: “I saw you yesterday in (...) the restaurant. The state supporters are everywhere. Be careful.” Is this a threat, or advice? Or does the person who tweeted this want to tell me “we’re here?” I checked out the account of Abu Abed al-Mowahad, the man who made this tweet, and realized he’s a committed supporter of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and not just a passerby joking with me. He’s been professionally active at distributing the ISIS publications and news and at calling for supporting it. He does not engage in debates and conversations exchanging threats and insults like most of this extremist movement’s supporters do. This is what led me to believe that he’s not an amateur but a committed working member.
There’s a massive window overlooking the world of the ISIS and extremism. That would be social mediaJamal Kashoggi
I tried to remember whether I saw him at the coffee shop which had nothing to do with ISIS and its ideology - except for the absence of music which is common in all the world’s restaurants but absent in our restaurants whether it’s Ramadan or not. To the left of our table was the families’ section, and I don’t recall anyone who had ISIS characteristics. To the right side, there was the section of single men. There were ordinary youths enthusiastically talking about the World Cup. One of them attracted my attention after he lit a cigarette violating the law which the Jeddah municipality ordered few months ago. When I objected to his act, the waiter said that the restaurant’s owner got a permit from the municipality. I asked who the owner was and the name was “influential” enough.
Of course there wasn’t a masked man wearing black. What’s certain is that Abu Abed al-Mowahad was there. He was one of us. His tweet to me confirms that. It’s a strange feeling to know there’s a young man who believes in the ideas of the angry, takfirist and revolutionary ISIS and who argues for its sake while sitting a few meters away from you and observing you. Was he praying that God guides us? Or was he saying “we’ve come to slaughter you?” You can witness both from such people. You can sense mercy and be prayed for if you agree with them and you’d get slaughtered if you disagree with them.
Is the ISIS situation in Saudi Arabia more dangerous than in other countries? I think we can look at this question from a scientific perspective. We can look at economic standards like the per capita income and the rate of deaths among newborns. These standards indicate the good or bad circumstances in a certain country. What if researchers team up and try to figure out the rate of ISIS supporters to the population. This requires the transparency of the interior ministry which has its justified security calculations. But until then, we’ll remain hostages of numbers provided by Western research centers like the Soufan Group which in a report issued in mid-2014 estimated the number of Saudis in Syria was 3,000. According to the report, the Tunisians are a little more than that. If this is true, it means our ISIS situation is better than Tunisia’s regarding the ratio of ISIS supporters to the wider population. Analysts can also exonerate the Saudi educational curricula and say that although education in Tunisia is more modern and open than Saudi education and although it gives less religious sessions, it produced more ISIS supporters than the Saudi education system did.
These are certainly not scientific statements as numbers are not accurate but I am certain that the Saudi interior ministry has accurate numbers of the number of Saudis suspected to have ended up as ISIS fighters.
What’s more difficult is to estimate the “situation of the sympathizers” with ISIS. This is what can specify the power of sleeper cells - like my friend here Abu Abed al-Mowahad who might be a local leader tasked with recruiting others or who might be a mere young man tasked with delivering information. But this can only be estimated via intelligence information the media doesn’t have. However, there’s a massive window overlooking the world of the ISIS and extremism. That would be social media. The latter reveals that the organization enjoys respectable popularity. A specialized expert can track the IP addresses to draw a map of these sympathizers’ geographic presence. This is what analyst Noam Binshtok from the website Vocativ did. Binshtok noticed that most tweets in support of the ISIS came from the Saudi kingdom and that a popular hashtag in support of ISIS, #One_billion_Muslims_in_support_of_ISIS_, was launched from an IP address in Saudi Arabia. Most of the tweets first came from there but then the hashtag became global.
Meanwhile, Saudis in general reject ISIS and other extremist groups. This was clear following the terrorist operation against the border post south of the kingdom and following the incident at Sharurah which is 60 kilometers away from that border incident. A number of security officers and terrorists were killed. The terrorist operation angered Saudis a lot and reminded them of the threat al-Qaeda and ISIS pose. It cleared the vision of some following ISIS’ recent victories against the Iraqi government. Some Saudis think the Iraqi government is sectarian and close to Iran but this sympathy must not blind us to the fact that the presence of 3,000 or 4,000 Saudi fighters among ISIS’ ranks - according to more than one intelligence report - is very worrisome.
Until then, I am waiting to hear from Abu Abed al-Mowahad on why he sympathizes with ISIS - that is if he reads this article. I followed him on Twitter to have direct contact with him. If he does tell me, I will let readers know what he says.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on July 14, 2014.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.