Saudi authorities are continuing their efforts to uncover and prosecute extremist groups operating in the kingdom as part of the ongoing war against terrorism.
On Monday (September 19th), the interior ministry announced that three cells linked to the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) had been smashed.
Security forces arrested 17 cell members, including one woman and three foreign nationals, who they said had formed a terror network which had planned to attack military facilities and other targets in the kingdom.
Meanwhile, Saudi courts are deliberating cases involving Saudis who supported, advocated or pledged allegiance to ISIL, and have handed down sentences to proven sympathisers and supporters.
On August 17th, the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced a Saudi man to seven years in prison and banned him from traveling for a similar period following his release, after he was convicted of supporting ISIL.
He was proven to have attempted to join the group and had been in contact with an ISIL element to facilitate his departure from Saudi Arabia to fight in Syria.
Since mid-August, the same court has been deliberating the case of a six-member cell that pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, in which the public prosecutor is seeking the death sentence for its leader.
The cell is accused of plotting to bomb a residential complex in Riyadh, assassinate a prince and kidnap a police detective, and of receiving training on the manufacture of explosives, among other charges.
"The prison sentence for a youth who sympathised with ISIL and hung its emblem in his house was widely discussed in [social] circles in Saudi Arabia, especially by youth groups," said Fadel al-Hindi, a supervisor at the King Abdulaziz University Centre for Social and Humanities Research.
The case also sparked lively debate on social media, he told Al-Mashareq, noting that most people supported the verdict as a serious deterrent to those who are in danger of being taken in by the group’s media machine.
Upon review of the verdict, al-Hindi said, "we find that it is fair and necessary at this delicate stage in the kingdom and the region in general in light of the spread of takfiri and terrorist ideology".
Involvement with extremist groups begins with following their news, he said, and later moves to communicating with the group’s elements, who begin brainwashing the vulnerable in order to recruit them.
After this phase has been completed, recruits are given tasks to carry out for the group, which may include acts of terrorism, he said.
"Hence, placing a deterrent obstacle in the way of those who support ISIL would to some degree stop the youth from being drawn to takfiri ideas," he said.
The sentence handed down to the young ISIL supporter was largely based on the cyber-crime law, he noted, which constitutes a major development in terrorism-related court rulings.
The recent verdicts handed down by Saudi courts to ISIL elements and sympathisers "are necessary at this time, in which the kingdom is at war against terrorism", said retired Saudi army officer and military attaché Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Shehri.
Making these verdicts public will have a deterrent effect that will discourage young people from dealing or communicating with ISIL elements, who proliferate on social media and online forums, he told Al-Mashareq.
The kingdom's war against terrorism is being waged on three fronts, he said.
"The first is the Saudi street, by enhancing security and confronting and dealing with terrorists firmly if they attempt to harm civilians or security personnel," he said.
The second is in the courts, where terrorists and their accomplices are held to account, he added, while the third is "countering and rebuffing terrorist ideas through the dissemination of national, moral and religious awareness".
This will show people that the ideology promoted by violent extremist groups bears no relation to sharia, he said, and merely promotes their own interests and harms the citizens and the country in which they live.
The Saudi courts have deliberated recent cases involving both lone actors and groups, said Col. Jamal al-Nukhaifi of the Saudi police.
Judging by the number of arrests and attacks that have been foiled, he told Al-Mashareq, ISIL apparently has failed in its recruitment operations.
The new recruits lack military or combat experience, he explained, and the group does not appear to have adequately prepared them to carry out its tasks.
"It is clear the Saudi security forces have successfully encircled ISIL elements and cordoned off new recruits, and were actually able to uncover people who kept their loyalty and support for ISIL a secret or within small circles," he said.
The war against terrorism is beginning to bear fruit in the Saudi interior, al-Nukhaifi said, pointing to the recent arrest of a Yemeni ISIL element in Asir.
On August 10th, the ISIL element ran over a security officer, Mehthel al-Sululi, as he left a mosque after dawn prayers, then he stabbed him with a knife.
"Effective and expeditious investigations resulted in the arrest of the terrorist and seizure of the car he used in the run-over attempt and the knife he used," al-Nukhaifi said, adding that such quick action will certainly act as a deterrent to whomever thinks to carry out an attack in the Saudi interior.