Since President Obama decided not to support the rebels fighting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a handful of Saudi religious figures have taken matters into their own hands.
After the Syrian regime recently massacred over 100 civilians in Houla, a group of well-known Saudi clerics, launched an online campaign to raise funds for the Free Syrian Army. Saad al-Bureik, Salman al-Odah, and Muhammad al-Arefe—who have a combined 3 million followers on Twitter—called for Assad’s death, and are now urging their followers to donate to the cause.
None of this would be particularly bad (especially considering Washington continues to sit on the fence), except that one of the conduits for the Saudi donations is the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society of Kuwait, which was designated by the United States (2008) and the United Nations (2002) as a terrorist entity for arming and financing al Qaeda. The group’s involvement is particularly alarming in light of reports that al Qaeda’s presence among the Syrian rebels is growing fast.
The campaign to support the FSA extends well beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia. The clerics, via social media, are encouraging international deposits to bank accounts in Kuwait, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Qatar, Bahrain, and Jordan. The accounts even extend outside of the Middle East, including in Switzerland, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
The campaign represents a u-turn of sorts for some clerics. In March 2011, just over a month after Egyptians deposed long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, Bureik, called for “smashing the skulls” of any Saudis who might get ideas from the Egyptian example and demonstrate against the throne in Riyadh.
Now, Bureik exhorts his followers to take action against Assad. To inspire them, he began trumpeting the stream of donations coming in to the campaign on his Facebook page. On May 30, he announced that he and his family were donating around $25,000 to the FSA, and that one of his sons was traveling to Kuwait (where the RIHS is based, incidentally) to deliver the money in person. He even relayed the touching story of a cancer-stricken woman who selflessly donated more than $1,000 to the Syrian rebels.
It is not clear whether the Saudi state is aware of the campaign’s terrorist connections, but Riyadh has nonetheless officially come out against the campaign. Saudi Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh disavowed the clerics’ efforts to collect funds without official oversight, and the government warned them against accepting “indiscriminate donations.”
While bringing down the Assad regime is in the national interest of both Saudi Arabia and the United States, the role of the Saudis should be cause for concern. As was the case during the Saudi’s 2000-2005 campaign in support of the Palestinian intifada that funneled funds to the families of suicide bombers, this campaign could also spawn terrorism.
The fact that the clerics are channeling money to a group so closely associated with al Qaeda is an obvious red flag. Additionally, the mere influence of Saudi cash—and the Wahhabi doctrine attached to it—heightens the risk that the conflict in Syria will become more sectarian in nature.
The campaign reaffirms what we’ve long known: The longer the United States sits on the sidelines of the civil war in Syria, the more others (in this case, the Saudis) will feel compelled to step in. And the more the Saudis influence this conflict, the harder it will be to undo the damage that’s now underway.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Steven Miller is a research associate at FDD. They recently authored the monograph Facebook Fatwa: Saudi Clerics, Wahhabi Islam & Social Media (FDD Press 2012).