Suleiman al Sabi’ee, a 25-year-old Saudi, grabbed the attention of Saudi society after describing his experience fighting alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on a well-known television program earlier this month. In his confessional interview, al Sabi’ee explained how he went to Syria and “found himself fighting in the ranks of ISIS.” He said that a smuggler had helped him enter Syria by way of Turkey, a route commonly taken by foreign fighters seeking to join the Syrian jihad. Interestingly, he mentioned that upon arrival in Turkey, he contacted jihadi fighters in Syria via Twitter who put him in touch with the smuggler.
Al Sabi’ee had decided to head to Syria after his brother was killed while fighting alongside the Syrian rebels. In the Saudi TV interview, al Sabi’ee revealed that during his time fighting with ISIS, he found that the group’s leadership was comprised mainly of Iraqis and Syrians, and that its foot soldiers were mostly Libyan and Tunisian. He also said that the Saudi recruits, who had come to Syria to fight against the Assad regime forces, grew concerned and uneasy when clashes erupted between ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
While in Syria, al Sabi’ee, who has a strong social media presence and large following on sites such as Twitter and Keek, quickly discovered that ISIS was interested in using his social media accounts as a platform for spreading the group’s message. Al Sabi’ee alleged that ISIS members took over his accounts and exploited his large following to call others to participate in jihad. He also claimed that ISIS members used his accounts to attack the Saudi royal family and incite followers against the Saudi government. According to al Sabi’ee, ISIS members threatened his life after he asked them to cease using his social media accounts.
Al Sabi’ee managed to return to Saudi Arabia in late January following efforts by his father to reach out to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey. Although it is unclear whether al Sabi’ee’s televised “confessions” on a government-owned channel are all true, his statements speak to ISIS’ concern with its public image and the exploitation of its recruits in service of its interests. And ISIS’ concern over its image has undoubtedly grown since al Qaeda’s disavowal of the group in February.