December 5, 2013 | Policy Brief

Saudi Clerics Endorse Jihadists in Syria

December 5, 2013 | Policy Brief

Saudi Clerics Endorse Jihadists in Syria

A group of 72 preachers and religious scholars from Saudi Arabia published a petition yesterday endorsing the Islamic Front in Syria.  The Islamic Front was formed on November 22 as a merger between seven major jihadist groups in Syria, signaling a continued shift among the rebels away from the pro-Western Free Syrian Army toward hardline Islamism.

The Saudi petition itself describes the Islamic Front as “mujahideen.” Members of this “Salafi super-militiacollaborate extensively with al Qaeda, advocate ethnic cleansing, and reject democracy.  Furthermore, Human Rights Watch raised concerns that one of its constituent groups may have executed civilians this August in Western Syria — acts that would amount to war crimes.

Saudi Arabia provided extensive support for several founding members of the Front. In particular, Saudi Arabia had a major hand in the creation of the Army of Islam, whose leader has close ties to the Kingdom, and whose father preaches there.  Also joining the Front is Suqour al-Sham, a rebel group that until recently headed another Islamist coalition backed by the Saudis according to the Washington Post.

The most prominent cleric to sign the petition was Naser al-Omar, known for his vicious sectarian rhetoric and close ties with the Palestinian terror group Hamas. The petition is brief and to the point, encouraging all factions in Syria who want to implement Shari'a law to join the Front, and refrain from fighting each other. Moreover, it calls on them to work together against two “projects” confronting the Muslim nation (Ummah): “the Zionist-American project, and the Safavid-Rejectionist [Shiite] project supported by Russia and China.”

This is not the first time that Saudi clerics have publicly advocated for jihad in Syria. In June 2012, a number of influential clerics organized a donation drive for the Free Syrian Army via Twitter and Facebook, urging their audience to help the rebels slaughter Bashar al-Assad and his Shiite allies. One of the financial conduits they listed was the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society of Kuwait, which was designated a terrorist entity by the United Nations (2002) and the United States (2008) due to its support of al Qaeda.

The Islamic Front’s ascendancy comes at an awkward time for Washington.  Despite the brutality of some of the groups, new reports reveal that American officials met with them last month in Turkey.  Meanwhile, rumors suggest that Washington has threatened to designate its members as terrorists if they refuse to attend the Syrian peace conference in Geneva this January. 

The Saudis, furious over U.S. overtures to Iran and Syria, don’t seem terribly concerned about Geneva. Increasingly, they seem to be throwing their lot in with extreme jihadist forces in Syria.

Steven Miller is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the co-author of Facebook Fatwa: Saudi Clerics, Wahhabi Islam and Social MediaDavid Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at FDD.


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