Middle East

Saudi Internet monitors turn focus on Syria-fueled radicalism

The ISD monitors online activity and reports threats to the security services. (REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser)

RIYADH: Syria’s civil war has led to a new, greater threat of Islamist radicalism in Saudi Arabia that requires a more aggressive “war of ideology” on the Internet, says the man responsible for online monitoring in the kingdom. Remarks by the head of the Ideological Security Directorate suggest that the unit, known for keeping tabs on liberal activists and women drivers as well as Islamist extremists, is turning its focus increasingly toward those using the Internet to recruit fighters for jihad abroad.

This month, King Abdullah decreed that any Saudi who goes overseas to fight faces jail terms of 3-20 years. Authorities believe 1,000-2,000 of the kingdom’s citizens have gone to Syria to join the war there.

The decree also punishes Saudis who join, glorify or give moral or material support to groups described as terrorist or extremist, a list that has not yet been published.

From an office near a firing range in a police academy in Riyadh, the ISD keeps tabs on “anything that might influence the stability of Saudi Arabia,” its director, Abdel-Rahman al-Hadlaq, said. That broad mandate includes peaceful political or human rights activists, he said. Several have been jailed over the past year on charges that included comments made online.

“Our job is to counter radicalization – either conservatives or liberals,” he told Reuters in an interview.

The directorate monitors online activity, reports threats to the security services and participates on social media to rebut arguments of Islamist militants speaking in favor of jihad.

Hadlaq justified the policy by saying most governments, including those in the West, monitor citizens online. The Saudi monitors are careful to distinguish between people who simply voice opinions and those who incite others to action, he said.

Saudi Arabia has increasingly been worried about a blowback at home as Al-Qaeda-linked fighters gain influence in Syria, much as Saudi Arabia faced a threat from returning fighters from Afghanistan and Iraq who killed hundreds in a bombing campaign before being crushed last decade.

It is imperative that Saudi Arabia fight a “war of ideology” online, Hadlaq said. “If we don’t do this, terrorists will come back and the terrorism issue will come back.”

“Before the problems in Syria started, the role of Al-Qaeda and the radicals were declining,” Hadlaq said. “When the issue of Syria came and the guys started watching the brutality of the system there and the regime in Syria, we started noticing that radicalization might come back.”

Saudi Arabia’s few liberal activists worry that they are targeted by the same body that deals with terrorism.

Comments counter to government policy are quickly attacked by what users have come to refer to as “Saudi eggs” – suspected government officials represented by the egg that Twitter uses as the default image for users without profile photos.

Hadlaq said most of the people who argued on the government’s behalf online were “volunteers” and many were doing so without the help, guidance or even knowledge of the authorities.

Those who argue against militant Islamists “are really doing a good job, posting and replying to those extremists,” he said.

Government monitors use a guidebook and database of arguments to counter militant rhetoric online, he said.

“We have a huge guide that is really a reference for us. ... We have a database and we use it to refute. For example if someone says, ‘I can go [on jihad] without taking permission from my mother,’ we have an answer for this,” he said.

Riyadh has shared this database with Western governments, he added.

Over the past three years, the government has stepped up its campaign against all groups that challenge the authorities, including human rights and pro-democracy advocates who have been detained and imprisoned.

In addition to monitoring the Internet, the ISD is also responsible for running the kingdom’s rehabilitation program for militants, oversees an anti-militancy publicity campaign and works to counter radicalization among sheikhs and teachers.

When it is concerned about somebody online, it passes the information to an investigative security branch.

“Sometimes you will report an issue on someone that from monitoring him you think he is dangerous. Then in a few days or weeks, you will be seeing him taken to court,” said Hadlaq.

Hadlaq added he thought there were “tens” of Saudis now under investigation or in a legal process because of comments written on social media. Most people being watched in the kingdom are “sympathizers” rather than actively involved with radical groups, he said.

The new decree imposing prison terms for those who go abroad to fight or are aligned with groups the government sees as extremist will make the ISD’s job easier, he added.

“Now you have a special law that really prosecutes, or helps you prosecute, people in a very clear way. I think this is important. We already noticed [online extremism] declining.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 17, 2014, on page 8.




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