12:08 p.m. September 10, 2013

The Saudi Dirty Dozen and Jihadi as Risk Disposal

While the U.S. ditzes around on Syria, the Saudis have been a little more creative, in their own inimitable way.

Until now, the Saudis’ public involvement in Syria consisted of throwing great flipping wodges of cash to the nastiest jihadi groups trying to carve out an Emirate in NE Syria, like ISIS, and paying the airfares of every unemployable Chechen of military age to make the heavily-armed Hajj to eastern Syria. But that hasn’t really done the job. Like I said long ago, the lines in Syria have been remarkably static, because the locals mostly want to secure their own neighborhood and don’t have much heart to push into anyone else’s.

Well, it seems some Saudi bureaucrats looked at the stalemate in Syria and came up with a way to think outside the box—and by "box" I mean "death row cell." According to a story filed by A.I.N.A., an Iraqi Assyrian PR agency, the Saudi Ministry of Interior came up with a brand-new plague to inflict on Syria in 2012: "Let’s fly a bunch of death-row inmates over there and give them automatic weapons!" Seriously. Here’s the memo:

…we are in dialogue with the accused criminals who have been convicted with smuggling drugs, murder, rape, from the following nationalities: 110 Yemenis, 21 Palestinians, 212 Saudis, 96 Sudanese, 254 Syrians, 82 Jordanians, 68 Somalis, 32 Afghanis, 94 Egyptians, 203 Pakistanis, 23 Iraqis, and 44 Kuwaitis.

We have reached an agreement with them that they will be exempted from the death sentence and given a monthly salary to their families and loved ones, who will be prevented from traveling outside Saudi Arabia in return for rehabilitation of the accused and their training in order to send them to Jihad in Syria.

Please accept my greetings.

[Signed]

Director of follow up in Ministry of Interior

Abdullah bin Ali al-Rmezan

You might be inclined to doubt the story, if only because every story on Syria comes from some sleazy angle or other. And this one, coming from the Iraqi Christian minority, who live in terror of jihadi pogroms, is clearly intended to make the Saudis look bad.

But unlike most stories on Syria, this one comes with names and dates and a copy of the memo laying out the whole Dirty Dozen scheme. And the truth is, you don’t need to make stuff up to make Saudi Arabia look bad. They’ve been losing it on Syria, running into enemies they can’t bribe or get their American mercenaries to kill for them. (Although that may change any day now, as Obama crusades to make the world safer for Wahhabi Bedouins with more Maseratis than brains.)

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time the Saudis have tinkered with prison sentences for ideological reasons. It’s routine for prisoners to be set free in return for memorizing the Quran, so if you’re planning to commit a felony in Saudi, sign up for the brain-games that annoying Luminosity company runs in front of every YouTube video—keep those memory skills sharp and you could be out in no time. It’s even more common for brown women who object to being raped or tortured by their Saudi masters to be thrown into prison for theft or any other charge that comes to mind. If there are too many black faces in the streets, a few will be swept up and tossed in an overcrowded cell, even if they’re little kids.

Those are the Sauds’ goals, really: Keeping their world pious, making sure all sexuality is at the whim of Saudi male masters, and ensuring that the streets aren’t overcrowded with black faces. The racism might surprise you—it surprised, and infuriated, all the brown and black Muslims I worked with in Najran—but it’s something they learned to take for granted after a while, saving their bitterness for when they got safely home with the money. Here’s a quote from the Dean of my school as he looked over the resumes for next year’s Advanced English courses: "What is this? English Pakistani with a Northern accent…another English Pakistani…A Somali Canadian…I want American or London whites teaching English!"

Even the architecture of Saudi prisons is tailored to the way the ruling Riyadh/Qassim elite see the locale. In Mecca, which the Sauds see as heartland territory, prisons are hidden on the outskirts. But in Najran, a Shia city (that is, "heretics who deserve death" in Wahhabi terms), the prison…well, let’s just say those Frenchmen, like Foucault an’ them, would have a field day with the architecture of downtown Najran. See, the Shia of Najran, provoked beyond endurance, rose up about ten years ago, as I’ve written about elsewhere, and were crushed, naturally, by the Sauds’ secret police and army. But digging hundreds of Joe-Pesci style holes in the desert wasn’t enough for the Sauds. They redesigned the whole downtown to make sure all these restless natives were reminded of their real masters.

The two biggest buildings in the center of Najran stand opposite each other. One is the HQ of the Mutaween, the religious police—a huge glass ziggurat lit up at night with white strings of giant Xmas-tree bulbs, a huge jolly reminder to all the little local heretics that if they ever got too far out of line—or worse yet, if their sons tried to talk to a girl at Hyperpanda—the might of Orthodoxy would come down on them like a SCUD festooned with holiday lighting.

Opposite the Mutaweens’ castle was a more direct reminder: The Central Prison. It was planted right in the middle of town, a square of blank 20-foot walls topped with wire and sharpshooters’ towers. You couldn’t get anywhere without driving past or around those endless walls. And according to a police captain I knew, the place was full to overflowing—a square kilometer of prisoners rotting in there, waiting to be charged or tried or executed.

All around these shiny, giant buildings were dusty one- or two-story concrete slums. You were meant to see the contrast between the power of the regime and the weakness of the locals.

Across the street from the prison on the Northern edge of town was the barracks of the border troops—under the command of the same Ministry of Interior that sent that memo about enlisting death-row inmates. It’s always the Ministry of Interior you have to fear in most countries. Not in the US, where the Dept of Interior’s only job is selling off public land to oil companies, cheap—but almost everywhere else. The Interior Ministry’s barracks were the only thing in Najran bigger than the prison, stretching for more than a mile out into the dry scrub, a huge architectural warning to every one of us heretics that if the prison guards and the Mutaween couldn’t handle us, there were even bigger guns waiting just across the street.

Saudi may seem hard to believe, and harder to accept, but really, it’s just what happens when you take the Beverly Hillbillies scenario to its unfunny reality-TV conclusion. That’s really the best way to understand the Saudis: What if Jed Clampitt was for real? Backwoods Baptist norms, religion, culture imposed on the world by any means necessary. We have a weak version of that—it’s called "Texas." But the most surprising thing I learned in Saudi is that even our Baptists are weak in their belief. Only in Saudi did I see real religious belief, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.

The results of hardcore belief like that are in front of you now, if you’re a Syrian unlucky enough to live in the jihadi-run areas where the Saudis dropped off their 1,200 death-row prisoners. Like maybe Aleppo. Remember that horrible story out of Aleppo—a boy shot in front of his family for joking about not giving coffee on credit even if the Prophet came back?

Aleppo is full of jihadis from the Saudi-backed SILF (Syrian Islamic Liberation Front). It may well be one of the killers the Saudis sent over to Syria on their Dirty Dozen flights who decided to kill that kid. It’s not likely to improve the neighborhood, importing 1,200 death-row alumni, no matter how many Quran verses they’ve memorized. In fact, I’ll take a cursing, blasphemous killer over the Scripture-quoting kind any day.

Nobody knows how many Dirty Dozens the Saudis have brought into Syria by now. You can expect routine denials, but they mean zero. This program is a natural for a Saudi bureaucrat: It gets rid of surplus young males, mostly foreign, many brown or black, expelling them into an ecosystem the Saudis are interested in destroying. It’s like realizing you can dump your toxic waste on your hated neighbor’s back yard; there’s just no downside.

That’s not to say that these death-row grads will necessarily be good soldiers. I doubt they will, based on other experiments with using convicts in warfare. The Soviets got good mileage out of their penal battalions in WW II, but most of them were only guilty of saying the wrong thing in a letter home. Most armies that have tried to use serious convicts found they’re too macho and individualist to be any use in combat. Good combat soldiers are usually group-oriented, orderly people, not brawlers.

It probably doesn’t matter much to the Saudi bureaucrats who are chartering these Convict Air flights to Syria whether the prisoners they send have any impact on the fight there. Their only worry would be whether the convicts could come back to cause trouble in Saudi, and to make sure that doesn’t happen, you’ll notice, they’re keeping the convicts’ families as hostages. Of course, with their menfolk away on jihad (or in prison), life becomes impossible for the women and children of the family. But that’s not a downside from the view of the Saudi bureaucracy. Regimes like that prefer to have you scrambling, outside the law – it means you’re always in their power, always doing something wrong in case they want you.

The main purpose of the transfer is to jettison some surplus young males. In fact, when you look coldly at the whole jihadi phenomenon, you see an opportunity for regimes right across the Muslim world to get rid of troublesome surplus young males. There have been lots of attempts to profile the typical jihadi, as like most profiling attempts (as Mark Ames showed in "Going Postal"), they don’t work very well—or rather they show that jihad draws different kinds of guys in different countries. Pakistani jihadis are often middle- or upper-middle class young men, but a study from Australia showed jihadis recruited there were poorer and less-educated than the norm, with a very interesting graph showing the huge differences in background between jihadis from different countries.

The one constant is that jihadis are almost all men, and mostly young men. Of course that’s true for most armed groups, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Young males in large numbers are dangerous anywhere, at any time, but particularly in countries with a high birthrate and no jobs. (And remember, oil economies don’t produce any local jobs, just a lot of money that collects in the accounts of a few middlemen.)

If you were running a country like that, you’d be happy to have a dumping ground for all those surplus young men, especially if it operated to weed out the most daring, aggressive and dangerous among them in advance, before they had a chance to put those traits to work at home. And the beauty of jihad, from the perspective of everybody except the poor Syrian civilians, is that that’s exactly how it works—it’s like the predictive policing in Minority Report. The young men who might be a danger to your regime identify themselves in advance by going to Syria (and you can bet that every intel organization in the world has an up-to-date roster of these guys) so you can monitor or imprison them when they come home. Better yet, a huge percentage of these brave, untrained amateurs will die; problem solved. And that’s why regimes from Chechnya to Morocco are beckoning all the local ADHD problem kids into the black-flag groups in Syria, all the while tsk-tsking about the regional problem of jihad.