Shielding youth from the ISIS mind trap
The Saudi security services have a youth problem. Saudi youth constitute a worryingly large number of those imprisoned in the kingdom on terrorism-related offences. More than half of those detained in Saudi jails are 35 years old or younger.
Precisely why so many young Saudis fall foul of the kingdom’s legal system is certainly a subject worthy of study but there can be little doubt that extremist narratives dressed up in glossy media play a central, enabling role.
Terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda invest heavily in their media operations, producing high-quality videos and magazines that effectively promote their perverted brand of Islam. The investment is worthwhile, with skilful use of social media and slick productions undoubtedly having an influence with a young audience.
Saudi authorities are aware of the problem. The education ministry has warned of the role social media plays in spreading extremist ideas. What is missing, however, is a joined-up, concerted effort on the part of civil and governmental institutions to present Saudi youth with a convincing counter-narrative that discredits the extremists.
Extremist thought can only be combated by discrediting it with a moderate alternative. The bankrupt ideology of the extremists needs to be dismantled and exposed for what it is: a cynical attempt at brain-washing for political ends.
Until the ideology of religious extremism is met head-on, Saudi youth will continue to be cynically exploited by extremists.
The problem is wider than the media of the terrorist organisations themselves. Certain legal, established media also promote a discourse of incitement and hatred. Extreme discourse primes disaffected youth to receive yet more extreme ideas. The creative energies of the young, instead of being harnessed by moderate thought and channeled into productive activity, have been squandered in killing and terrorising the citizens of other countries.
Once a youngster has been primed to be receptive to the ideas of extremists, the glossy magazines and videos of terrorist organisations find a ready audience. Brainwashed youth abandon any hope of a constructive future and instead travel abroad to join what they perceive to be a “jihad” and a “race to paradise” in a foreign land.
The reality once they arrive, however, is somewhat different. A Saudi preacher, who joined the Islamic State only to flee to Turkey a few months later, makes this clear.
Far from being empowered to fight “jihad” and live the life of dignity and freedom promised by ISIS propaganda, Sheikh Mani’ al- Mani’ had his passport confiscated immediately upon his arrival to the so-called Islamic State.
Being somewhat more knowledgeable about his religion than most, al-Mani’ immediately found theological problems with his new fellow travellers. Rather quickly, however, he realised these problems were not open for debate. Dissenters are killed.
Instead of being warriors on the front lines of some holy war, al-Mani’ reveals that Saudis who make the journey to join ISIS typically end up well away from the fighting. Their passports confiscated, these youngsters are subjected to further brainwashing, unable to question their indoctrinators for fear of death. ISIS views Saudi youngsters as little more than potential human bombs that can be returned to blow up their countrymen once they have been suitably “re-educated” about Islam.
Further condemnation and hand-wringing about ISIS and its atrocities from the likes of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation will not help in combatting the recruitment of youth into its ranks.
Nor will the repetition of platitudes about terrorism having no religion. The daily litany of death and destruction wreaked by those who believe themselves to be on the fast track to paradise tells us that the ideology of the likes of ISIS is one that exploits religion for political purposes.
The solution lies in discrediting and dismantling the extremist discourse and ideology, in challenging it directly with robust and convincing moderate alternatives. The extremists need to be exposed for the cynical manipulators they really are.
There is nothing glamorous about being trapped in an indoctrination centre, unable to leave, before being made to turn your body into a bomb in order to murder others. It is certainly not the way to paradise. The seductive narrative of extremists needs to be combated before it is too late.