Commentary Magazine

Did ISIS Recruit Saudis in America?

AP Photo/Hadi Mizban

The Institute for Gulf Affairs, a Washington-based think tank focusing on Saudi Arabia, usually from a critical perspective, has an interesting new report out alleging that the Islamic State recruited hundreds of Saudis and Kuwaitis—both dual citizens and visiting students—inside the United States. According to the report, “From American College Campuses to ISIS Camps” by Ali al-Ahmed and Mohamed Dhamen:

According to our investigation, approximately 400 Saudi and Kuwaiti nationals living in the United States mostly on government scholarships have joined terrorist groups, mainly ISIS. Some of these recruits hold dual citizenship. They are among the nearly 80,000 Saudi students and family members who are currently in the United States.

The two authors allege that four Saudi officials—one at the Saudi embassy in Washington, one at the Kingdom’s cultural center, and two senior officials in Riyadh—knew about the ISIS and Nusra Front recruiting. Yet the Saudi government failed to provide relevant information to the U.S. and did little to prevent Saudis, who had studied or even who held dual citizenship in the United States, from going to Syria and Iraq to fight with the Islamic State.

Two students they identify, one who had studied at Virginia Commonwealth University and the other at Old Dominion University respectively, died fighting (one executed for refusing to wear a suicide bomb belt). Others had studied in Georgia, Massachusetts, California, Illinois, and Texas.

The report itself only lists a fraction of the several hundred students to which they refer in their executive summary. Regardless, the authors do raise valid concerns about whether the close relationship Saudi diplomats maintain with senior U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials allow the Saudi kingdom to evade due scrutiny. If so, the same sort of diplomatic patterns are emerging that contributed to the security blind spots in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks.

Ahmed and Dhamens’ conclusions, if valid, also suggest that not only has the monitoring of Saudis in the United States on student visas once again become lax but also that improper monitoring of dual citizens, some of whom may have lived nearly the entirety of their lives outside the United States, could represent a security weakness. Even if Saudi diplomats and critics say the Institute for Gulf Affairs report is overblown, it is certainly worth double-checking its claims.

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