June 25, 2015 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1172

Saudi Columnists: Saudi Minors' Involvement In ISIS Requires A Reexamination Of Our Culture

June 25, 2015 | By E. Ezrahi*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1172


A terror cell arrested recently in Saudi Arabia includes two 15-year-olds and a 16-year-old, the Saudi Interior Ministry has revealed. The cell carried out the May 22, 2015 bombing of the Shi'ite mosque in Al-Qudaih in eastern Saab, in which 22 were killed and dozens wounded, and planned several other attacks in the country.[1]

Left to right: 'Abdallah Al-Sa'awi, 16;, 'Abdallah Al-Taleq, 15; Saleh Al-Sa'awi, 15. Source: Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 26, 2015)

The involvement of minors in Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist activity in Saudi Arabia caused a stir in the country's press. Articles on the issue harshly criticized Saudi culture, saying that it was saturated with sectarian hatred and with admiration of violence, and called for fundamental changes in it. They further claimed that Saudi society suffocates the instincts and urges of young Saudis, pushing them to seek an outlet in destructive alternatives such as joining terrorist groups, and that the Saudi regime must reexamine the measures that it has taken thus far to combat terrorism because it clearly remains helpless against the current terrorist activity.

At the same time, a controversy has also arisen in the country on the issue of young children's exposure to firearms and violence; this followed the emergence of the phenomenon of videos on social media showing little girls firing rifles and teen boys brandishing firearms.

The following are excerpts from the articles on the subject:

Saudi Academic: Our Culture, Language And School Curricula Glorify Violence And Destruction

Dr. Saghir Al-'Anzi, an academic at Saudi Arabia's Northern Borders University, wrote that Saudi culture, language, and school curricula glorify killing and violence, and that as long as this fact is ignored, it is pointless to ask families and schools to boost their education and supervision of the children. A substantial reform of Saudi culture is needed, he said, to defeat ISIS:

"Our social culture, which incites to violence and cloaks it in pleasing attire, has managed to keep us from understanding the dangerous results [of violence], for we have grown used to its ideas since childhood and have never discussed or pondered it, and habit blinds one's eyes and seals one's ears. Our language, in its cunning beauty, has imbued us with extremist thinking that maintains its tyrannical [grip] even in [this] civilized age. The home produces extremism, and [our] school curricula inculcate exclusion [of the other] and glorify destruction...

"Our families and our schools exalt and empower the cause of destructive heroism. The reason we are so impressed by 'the hero' - who is our supreme social symbol ­- lies in his ability to create and export violence. Our concept of heroism boils down almost exclusively to the intensity of violence and bloody solutions. The stories that excite us are those in which the hero can be seen beheading [his enemies], and the more he succeeds in sowing destruction, the more he captures [our] hearts. Fathers recount such [tales] to their children and grandmothers recount the praiseworthy deeds of the grandfather, who quenched the soil with blood. School curricula continue to teach grammar by plying pupils with 1,300-year-old linguistic examplesÔǪ For literary texts they give us qasidas[2] of heroism, where we exult in the beauty of murder and destruction and become intoxicated with them, and they reside within us without us even noticingÔǪ Many of the cultural tools we use for education at home and in school involve extremely violent methods that inculcate extremism.

"This raises an important question: when we ask families to reinforce the education of their children and tighten their supervision, [or] when we urge the schools and universities to do the same, are we eliminating extremism or intensifying it? When someone lacks a certain [value], is he [capable of] imparting it? Someone who believes in a negative value without [even] noticing its negativity, is he capable of planting the opposite, positive value in the mind of another?

"Before we exhort any party to fulfill his role in oversight and education, we must reexamine our culture, values, customs and sayings, and see which [of them] are truly rooted in religion and are entirely humanistic, and which of them [merely] exploit religion for their own purpose, yet we mistakenly consider them to be supreme values when they are [in fact] the very opposite. We must arm ourselves with transparency and courage when we come to discuss our day-to-day culture If we want reform, we should not call the examination of our cultural and educational faults 'self-flagellation,' and we should not be squeamish about unveiling the defects in these [educational] methods and reforming them. This does not detract from our worth; on the contrary, it makes us a better society. It is not difficult to conduct self-criticism; remove from our midst solutions that advocate force as the sole means of self-realization; seek positive solutions by whose light to educate the youth, as well as cultural sayings that view awareness as a source of dignified existence; and create sayings, parables and language that support coexistence [with others] and which prefer intellect and vision over a 'coercive' solution.

"Many of the values that have gone unexamined, the parables that have been accepted as wise, and the sayings that have become inflexible laws have actively contributed to forming little ISIS activists inside each and every one of us, and therefore also in the minds of the younger generation - creating [a personality type] that exults in murder. If we truly want to eliminate the big ISIS activists, we must first of all eliminate the small ISIS activists inside of us."[3]

"The Nunu children's channel"; at the bottom of the screen: "Breaking news. We apologize for interrupting the cartoon to report the arrest of three children [belonging] to a terror cell" (Al-Jazirah, Saudi Arabia, May 29, 2015)

Saudi Writer: Teens Join Terror Organizations To Escape Repressive Society

In his May 26, 2015 column in the Saudi government daily 'Okaz, senior journalist Khalaf Al-Harbi wrote that the suffocating atmosphere of Saudi society makes young people feel isolated and pushes them to seek an outlet in harmful alternatives such as watching online pornography, abusing drugs or joining terror organizations. He wrote: "The interior ministry noted in its announcements that the ISIS cell recently captured included boys and teens aged 15-19. While the ministry's announcements focused on the role of the family in watching children's behavior, I wish to point to the role of the larger family (society), which puts pressure on boys and young men every day, keeps them from enjoying themselves and constantly blames them - until they have no choice but to escape to the edge of town where they can practice [car] drifting like madmen, or else escape to the internet and its virtual worlds, and later join the terror networks.

"Saudis, look at the data we have from across the world that compares [the various countries]. Even if we do not rank first in the world, we do rank fifth. But in what? In scientific discoveries? No. In technological discoveries? In technological advances? No. Only in deadly road accidents, in number of internet porn movies watched, in number of Kik[4] users, in number of individuals joining the terror organizations... and in the amount of drugs captured per capita!

"All this has only one explanation, namely that the world is changing fast, and oppression and isolation are grinding our young people down. Whenever any one of us criticizes the various expressions of extremism, he is immediately accused of being a secularist, liberal or Zionist, or of wanting to corrupt society. [But] the truth is that, even if the most satanical demons and people [in the world all] worked hard to corrupt the youth, they would not have managed to generate the disastrous levels [of corruption] that our youth has attained. Extremists have come out against book fairs, song concerts, shopping, the pluralistic press and television channels. So what recreation [options] do these youngsters have left? There are [summer] camps where they are isolated from their families and society, to make it easier to recruit them to the terror networks. There are remote roads where young men drift [cars] until they kill themselves. There are secret rooms where they take drugs, far away from watching eyes. [And] there are websites where they watch porn, with nobody supervising. That is the bitter truth, even if you try to escape it...

"If the pressure on the youth continues, your children will devour you and themselves. Don't keep them from living just because you yourselves were denied life, [for] they will lead you to the worst [possible fate]. The ongoing attempts of the security apparatuses to arrest one or two terrorists, or ten or one hundred, may be successful. But the existing climate of oppression, isolation and suspicion may produce thousands of [other] crazy young people who sought life and, not finding it, turned eagerly towards death![5]

Fourteen Years Of Combating Terror Have Been In Vain

In another column, Al-Harbi called to recognize that none of the studies, reforms and debates in Saudi Arabia have led to finding an adequate solution to the problem of terrorism, and that new methods were needed to combat it. He wrote: "A friend pointed out to me that, today, the age of those who join terrorist groups is around 15-16... This means that they were one year old when 9/11 happened in the U.S, and three or four years old when Al-Qaeda carried out several terror attacks in Saudi Arabia. Its means they started school when a firm position against terrorism was [already] in place, and everyone understood the magnitude of the threat it poses to the country and the world. [Since then], for 14 years, dialogue forums and studies have tried to trace the roots of terror and propose ways to eliminate it. Ideas and curricula have been overhauled, and controversies regarding this [process] required establishing teams to overhaul the overhaul. There have been television programs and real time television debates. But none of this kept young people from joining terror organizations, and none of this was any use...

"The [ideas] that have been put up the blackboard these past 14 years have not been bad at all, but if you want the truth, it would be better to look for it rewrite the [entire] lesson plan! This, because the state of terrorism is much more complicated today, now that online social media networks are providing fertile ground for recruiting suicide bombers, and now that terror organizations are infiltrating the corridors of cyberspace. Moreover, the targets of the terror organizations have changed, and are no longer as hard [to hit] as they were. We are no longer talking about a military base of American soldiers, but of the first group of innocent civilians that [the terrorists happen to find,] walking by on the street, praying at a mosque or shopping at the market!... Fourteen years of [combating] terror have missed the mark!... Will we correct [the mistakes of] the past?" [6]  

'Al-Riyadh': Exposing Young Children To Firearms Produces A Violent Generation

Along with criticism of the Saudi teens' involvement in the ISIS cell, Saudi media also criticized the culture of exposing young children to firearms and violence. This issue came up in early April 2015, after videos were posted on social media showing little girls firing a rifle as family members urged them on. The videos evoked furious comments, and were condemned on social networks and by various experts.[7]

The government Saudi daily Al-Riyadh addressed the matter in an article titled "Firearms In The Hands Of Children - We Do Not Want An Aggressive Generation." It stated: "Perhaps the girl who appeared on social networks carrying a firearm and firing several shots, under the supervision and with the encouragement of her father, who reiterates his pride and support, is not a common sight. [However,] this is a negative and dangerous phenomenon, which threatens these children's proper development. It could sow negative ideas in their hearts and influence their behavior and social life, and the formation of their personalities... as well as prevent them from leading their lives in their society. A child who has grown used to acting violently and aggressively can constitute a danger to society, and can cause the spread and growth of this plague. Any family that educates its son in racist extremism, and gets him accustomed to bearing arms, may be preparing him to carry out violent actions in the future..."

The newspaper interviewed education experts who condemned the phenomenon, saying that it has a negative impact on children, harms their development and the formation of their personalities, and could help foster extremist, violent, and racist tendencies. The experts interviewed say that on the societal level, these influences on the child's development could loosen bonds between groups in Saudi society and harm national unity.[8]

Girls firing rifles in videos posted to YouTube

Another Al-Riyadh article, titled "Firearms In Our Home - Our Children In Danger," highlighted the destructive consequences of carrying firearms and of keeping them in the home, a practice common in Saudi society. It quoted Saudis who warned about the danger inherent in doing so, particularly when firearms are carried by teens who cannot understand the danger they pose, especially when they get involved in fights with other teens.

The article notes that the Saudi Education Ministry has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of firearms among teens and among their parents and teachers. It also notes that it is illegal to sell firearms in Saudi Arabia, and that the Interior Ministry is tracking attempts to do so online and via social media and arrests violators.[9]

Education Ministry campaign: "No Guns"



*E. Ezrahi is a research fellow at MEMRI.





[1] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London),, May 24, 2015.

[2] An ancient form of Arabic poetry. typically written in praise of a king or a nobleman.

[3] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) May 26, 2015.

[4] Kik is an instant messaging application for mobile devices that allows users to maintain privacy.

[5] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), May 26, 2015.

[6] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 14, 2015.

[8] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 20, 2015.

[9] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), March 6, 2015.

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