Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz issued a royal decree on Monday that punishes citizens who fight in conflicts outside the Kingdom, with prison sentences ranging from 3 to 20 years in jail.
The statement issued by the Saudi Royal Court also said that any Saudi citizen who joins extremist terrorist groups or supports them materially or through incitement would face an even harsher punishment ranging from 5 to 30 years in jail.
The decree appeared aimed at stemming the flow of Saudi fighters going to Syria. The region’s civil war is believed to have drawn hundreds of young Saudis, worrying some in the Kingdom that fighters could return radicalized and turn their weapons on the monarchy.
The statement said it is the Saudi government’s duty to block actions and language that harm public security and stability by exposing the nation to danger and “damaging the status of the Kingdom” Islamically, internationally and among Arabs. Saudi Arabia is home to two of Islam’s holiest sites.
Many young Saudi men appear to have been encouraged to join the fight in Syria by influential Saudi clerics who follow the Kingdom’s ultraconservative religious Wahhabi doctrine and view the war as a struggle between Syria’s Sunni majority and President Bashar Assad’s Alawite, Shiite-backed minority.
The uprising against Assad has transformed into a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which support opposing sides. Foreign fighters and Islamic extremists have infiltrated the opposition, triggering infighting that has undermined the rebellion.
Saudi officials and key high-level clerics have largely spoken out against young Saudis joining the fight. While the Saudi government backs some rebel opposition groups in Syria with weapons and aid, officials say Riyadh does not fund al-Qaeda-linked groups.
The decree comes after a sweeping new counterterrorism law came into effect in the Kingdom on Sunday.