RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia identified the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group along with al Qaeda and others Friday, warning those who join them or support them they could face five to 30 years in prison.
A Saudi Interior Ministry statement said King Abdullah approved the findings of a committee entrusted with identifying extremist groups referred to in a royal decree earlier last month. The decree punishes those who fight in conflicts outside the kingdom or join extremist groups or support them.
The king's decree followed the kingdom enacting a sweeping new counterterrorism law that targets virtually any criticism of the government.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been targeted by many Gulf nations since the July 3 military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, himself a Brotherhood member. Saudi Arabia has banned Brotherhood books from the ongoing Riyadh book fair and withdrew its ambassador from Qatar, a Brotherhood supporter, along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Friday's statement, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, identified the other terrorist groups named as al Qaeda's branches in Yemen and Iraq, the Syrian al-Nusra Front, Saudi Hezbollah and Yemen's Shiite Hawthis. It said the law would apply to all the groups and organizations identified by the United Nations Security Council or international bodies as terrorists or violent groups. It said the law also would be applied to any Saudi citizen or a foreigner residing in the kingdom for propagating atheism or pledging allegiance to anyone other than the kingdom's leaders.
The counterterrorism law bans meetings of the groups inside or outside of the kingdom and covers comments made online or to media outlets.
The unprecedented and harsh prison terms seem aimed at stemming the flow of Saudi fighters going to Syria, Yemen or Iraq. The Syrian 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.
Influential Saudi clerics who follow the kingdom's ultraconservative religious Wahhabi doctrine encouraged youths to fight in the war and view it as a struggle between Syria's Sunni majority and President Bashar Assad's Alawite, Shiite-backed minority.
Saudi officials and some clerics have spoken out against young Saudis joining the war. However, the Saudi government backs some rebel opposition groups in Syria with weapons and aid.
The new law is also believed to reflect pressure from the U.S., which wants to see Assad's overthrow but is alarmed by the rising influence of hard-line foreign jihadists -- many of them linked to al Qaeda -- among the rebels. U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to fly to Saudi Arabia and meet King Abdullah this month.
Meanwhile in Qatar, outspoken Egyptian cleric Youssef el-Qaradawi did not deliver his usual sermon on Friday. The reasons for his absence were not made immediately public. His past sermons, in which he publicly criticized the UAE and other Gulf countries for their support of Egypt's new government in its crackdown on the Brotherhood, led to outrage among Qatar's neighbors who saw the comments as an attack on their sovereignty.