On Monday, a new law came into force in Saudi Arabia, aimed at combatting what has become a scourge of the modern Middle East: cross-border terrorism. In particular, the Saudi law criminalises those who go abroad to fight and then return to their home countries, something Saudi Arabia, with reports that its nationals have made their way to the battlefields in Syria, is especially concerned about.
The kingdom is not alone. European governments are also concerned that their citizens might go to Syria to fight and then return to cause trouble at home. This concern is legitimate, though it is often hyped-up in western media; fighters in the Syrian conflict are overwhelmingly Syrian.
Going abroad to fight is hardly a recent phenomenon: not in the Islamic world nor further afield. Syria today is merely the latest war that has created lawless space for foreign jihadis. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was partly justified on the basis of needing to remove the possibility that terrorists would receive weapons from Saddam Hussein’s regime, ended up providing a battleground where thousands, perhaps more, of foreign men without combat experience became battle-hardened. Before that, there was Afghanistan, where the 1979 Soviet invasion set off a long caravan of Arab men to fight “the infidels”, among them a young Saudi called Osama bin Laden. In Europe, too, this phenomenon was seen in the long Balkan wars on the 1990s and before that the Spanish civil war, which drew in idealistic young men from across Europe.
In all those cases, most of those who went ended up either dead, injured or disheartened. The reality of war stands in stark contrast to the imaginations of young men, and living in filthy, uncertain, frightening conditions, facing death daily, has turned many fighters against the idea of war.
And yet there is no room for complacency, given the nature of modern jihad. No longer do large numbers of men return home and foment revolution. Now they are as likely to return to Europe or the Arab world and blow up buses or attack people in the streets.
The nature of modern terrorism is individual and messianic. That makes it more essential that both the root and the branch of the scourge are tackled. Saudi Arabia is sometimes accused of not taking the threat seriously enough, but this legislation shows the kingdom understands terrorism is first and foremost a problem for the region.