Syria’s Saudi Jihadist Problem

Saudi Arabia is playing a dangerous double game—turning a blind eye to the jihadists flocking from Riyadh to Syria while assuring the West of its commitment to fighting terror.

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty

Saudi jihadists are flocking in growing numbers to join al-Qaeda affiliates in northern Syria and despite public expressions of disquiet, Saudi Arabian officials are doing little to try to stop them flying out from the Riyadh airport—a further sign, say Western diplomats, of the Kingdom throwing caution to the wind when it comes to the Syrian civil war.

While the Obama administration is fearful of the rise of Sunni extremism in the Syrian rebel ranks, an increase in Saudi Arabia’s gloves-off support of militant Sunni factions is further undercutting the Western-backed and more moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA)—which is near to collapse—benefiting not only radical Islamists but also al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria who have close ties with the Saudi-backed Islamic Front.

In early December, the head of the FSA, the high-level defector General Salim Idriss, fled to Turkey when units of the Islamic Front occupied FSA warehouses on the border with Turkey that contained American-supplied equipment such as trucks, food, medicine and communications equipment including laptops and radios.

The suspension of non-lethal aid to rebels in northern Syria last week by the Obama administration and Britain in response to the raid underscored Western fears of their supplies ending up in the hands of extremist rebel groups.

But while the Obama administration is trying to steer clear of inadvertently assisting jihadists, the Saudis appear to be far less discriminating and have in practical terms broken with the West and adopted an approach to Syria that veers away from Western policy. This is complicating Western efforts to get the warring parties to negotiate a political settlement to the two-and-half year civil war that has left more than 120,000 dead, say U.S. and European diplomats.

The Saudi point man on the Syrian conflict, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has been angry over the Obama administration’s Middle East policies—from the decision to refrain from striking President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for their use of sarin nerve gas in August to pushing a provisional nuclear deal with arch-rival Iran—and he appears prepared to court the risks of backing the Islamic Front, while reassuring Americans officials he is concerned about the growing clout of the al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shams, or ISIS.

The Saudis are in jeopardy of repeating history, says an American intelligence official who declined to be named for the article. “There was blowback for the Saudis from jihadists fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s and that could happen again.”

“The Saudis are playing a double game,” says the official. “They are focused on out-maneuvering Iran in Syria and while they express worry about the challenge of boosting the opposition to the Iran-backed [President Bashar al] Assad without at the same time strengthening the jihadists, I don’t see them making much effort to avoid this happening. They seem to be operating under the principle of my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”

Certainly, Saudis leaving to fight in Syria are having few problems on their departure from the Kingdom. Western officials estimate that nearly a thousand Saudi jihadists have joined al-Qaeda affiliates in northern Syria in recent months and they suspect that number will exponentially grow in the coming months. The Saudis have told American officials they are tracking the flow.

But U.S. intelligence sources say dozens of Saudi jihadists have been allowed to fly out of Riyadh without challenge, several after being released from detention and many of whom were under official travel bans. Those going to fight are not obscure figures: a major in the Saudi border guards was killed in early December in Deir Atieh in Syria; another Saudi jihadist killed fighting in Aleppo was the son of Maj. Gen. Abdullah Motlaq al-Sudairi.Hardline Salfist Saudi clerics have also been heading to Syria without incurring problems from Saudi Arabian authorities.

In September, the British defense consultancy IHS Jane’s estimated that the al-Qaeda affiliates have about 10,000 fighters in northern and eastern Syria—many from overseas, including Libyans, Tunisians and Europeans. Other estimates are as high as 15,000. The IHS Jane’s analysis also estimated that hardline Islamist and jihadist forces accounted for nearly half of the rebel forces battling to oust Assad.

Despite claims to the contrary by the Saudis that the arms and supplies they are sending to the Islamic Front are not falling into jihadist hands, evidence is mounting to the contrary. A top Kurdish military commander in northeast Syria, who has been battling jihadists, claims that weapons are shared between the Saudi-backed Islamists and Al Nusra and ISIS as a matter of course. “When supplies arrive they divide them up in accordance with the power and size of the units,” says Giwan Ibrahim, who adds that he has seen an increase in the number of Saudi jihadists in the country.

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In November, seven major Islamist rebel groups announced they would merge to form the Islamic Front, pledging to build an Islamic state in any post-Assad Syria. That merger followed a September regrouping that saw more than a dozen leading rebel units announce a coalition, rejecting the authority of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. The September grouping included al-Nusra.

The Islamic Front doesn’t officially include either of the al-Qaeda affiliates but is made up of some of the biggest Islamist fighting units, including Aleppo’s Liwa al-Tawhid, the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham, the Idlib-based Soqour al-Sham, the Homs-based al-Haq Brigades, Ansar al-Sham, and the Damascus-based Army of Islam.

Despite The Islamic Front not having formal ties with al-Nusra or ISIS, there is overlap between the groups. A key figure in overseeing the relationship between the al-Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic Front is Aleppo-born Abu Khalid al-Suri, a trusted confidant of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. He is designated also the referee for disputes between the al-Qaeda affiliates ian Syria.

Al-Suri was captured in 2005 by Pakistani authorities and was rendered to Syria by the Americans. He is wanted in Europe for suspected involvement in the 1985 bombing of a restaurant outside Madrid and for the 2004 bombing in Spain’s capital. He is considered a highly articulate al-Qaeda ideologue.