Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud (C) is flanked by US President Barack Obama and Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the US-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh, April 21, 2016
Throughout the holy month of Ramadan, the Islamic State (IS) and its worldwide followers were especially deadly. The recent attacks in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Jordan, Malaysia, Turkey and Yemen signal shifts in IS’ strategy toward an accelerated global campaign following the group’s loss of Fallujah last month and the ongoing battle over Sirte.
IS’ campaign to wreak havoc in Saudi Arabia likely reached a new level July 4. IS is suspected of carrying out three separate suicide attacks across the kingdom within 24 hours, including one next to the al-Masjid an-Nabawi (the Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina following the earlier attacks in Qatif and Jeddah. In total, the explosions killed four (excluding the suicide bombers) — a relatively low death toll compared with the 200 dead from IS’ July 3 blast in Baghdad. Nonetheless, the coordinated strikes demonstrated IS’ ability to outsmart Riyadh’s vigilant security apparatus despite the 2,500 alleged IS members arrested in the kingdom since 2014.
Of course, IS has had its eyes set on Saudi Arabia since an early point in the group’s rise to power. In November 2014, IS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared war on the kingdom in a statement released by al-Furqan Media Foundation. The IS leader called for expanding the “caliphate” to Saudi Arabia to topple the Al Saud rulers (whom he called “the serpent’s head”) of the “lands of al-Haramain” (two holy places). For nearly two years, IS has been waging terror across Saudi Arabia via networks of local militants operating a network of terror cells. From November 2014 to June 2016, the group’s affiliates have carried out 26 terrorist attacks in the kingdom, according to the Saudi Interior Ministry.
Yet the July 4 attacks represent unique and especially grave threats to the kingdom for several important reasons. First, the ruling family’s religious legitimacy is based on the Saudi rulers’ service as a responsible and competent “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (every Saudi monarch’s official title since 1986). There is a widely held perception throughout the Muslim world that since the historic Grand Mosque seizure of 1979, the scores of fires, stampedes, demonstrations and one bombing (1989) have proven that the Al Sauds are unfit to uphold their responsibility. The July 4 suicide blast outside the al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina is deeply unsettling for Muslims worldwide who travel by the millions to the holy site each year, and it is damaging to the kingdom’s prestige. Unquestionably, the explosion in Medina, an offense to Sunni and Shiite Muslims, will add to this narrative told by many of Al Saud’s enemies.
It will be important to monitor the Iranian response. Since last year’s tragic hajj stampede, in which 464 Iranian pilgrims died (according to Iranian sources), officials in the Islamic Republic have seized opportunities to challenge the Al Saud rulers’ legitimacy as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, alleging negligence on the part of Saudi authorities. A growing number of Iranian politicians and religious authorities are calling for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to manage the hajj. After news of last year’s stampede reached Iran, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani declared, “Hajj is not only related to Saudi Arabia, but is connected to all countries. The ones now who have been martyred are from all Islamic countries, not only from Saudi Arabia.”
Second, the failure of Saudi security to thwart IS’ July 4 attacks is costly to Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman and his Vision 2030. On the heels of Mohammed’s visits to Washington, California, New York and Paris, in which the young deputy crown prince sought to attract American and French support for his ambitious plans to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil, foreign investors will raise serious questions about security risks of doing business in the kingdom. As Vision 2030 seeks to expand Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector, the kingdom must sell itself as stable to attract a greater number of foreign visitors. The security apparatuses’ failure to prevent IS from continuing its campaign of terror in Saudi Arabia will dim such prospects.
Third, IS’ orchestration of three coordinated attacks across the kingdom within 24 hours is a setback to Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef. Since last year, the “Prince of Counterterrorism” has been busy leading Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism crackdown public relations campaign. Although the Saudi media has highlighted numerous instances in which security forces foiled IS terror plots and made a major production out of the mass execution of dozens of alleged al-Qaeda members in early January, Nayef must address holes in the kingdom’s counterterrorism campaign and pursue new strategies.
The Saudis go to great pains to provide airtight security around the holy sites, having invested billions of dollars in state-of-the-art surveillance. Although the Saudi press heralded the security forces for preventing the suicide bomber from attacking the Prophet’s Tomb, the mere fact that an IS militant with explosives got so close to al-Masjid an-Nabawi, Islam’s second-holiest site, is a wake-up call about inefficiencies in security.
It will be interesting to observe any changes in King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud’s foreign policy priorities. Will Riyadh shift focus from its war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels and loyalists of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to the battle against Sunni Islamist extremists in the Levant and Libya? Although Saudi officials have vowed to deploy ground forces to fight IS in Syria if backed by Washington, would more attacks by the extremist group targeting the kingdom’s holy sites prompt Riyadh to engage in direct military action against IS in Raqqa without US support?
The reaction from the kingdom’s religious establishment will be an important indicator of how Saudi Arabia addresses the IS threat. As most of the group’s previous attacks in the kingdom targeted security in Saudi Arabia’s central region of Najd and Shiite gatherings in the Eastern Province, the first IS strike at a holy site carried much symbolism. The Council of Senior Ulema issued a statement declaring that the culprits behind the explosion outside the second mosque built in the history of Islam “have no respect for any sanctity and they have no religion or conscience.”
Indeed, within the context of Saudi Arabia’s history of jihadi terrorism, which beset the kingdom from 2003 to 2006, the killing of four security guards and no civilians is a relatively low death toll. Nonetheless, it would be difficult to exaggerate the symbolic significance of the July 4 attack in three Saudi cities. IS is trying to damage the Al Saud rulers’ capacity to govern the kingdom and the family’s religious legitimacy throughout the Muslim world.
The violence illustrates a disturbing reality for the Saudi leadership. Despite the efforts of officials in Riyadh to thwart extremist groups from waging acts of terrorism within the kingdom, IS has further demonstrated its capacity to evade the Saudi security apparatus’ radar. Dark memories of al-Qaeda’s campaign of terror in the mid-2000s remain vivid in the minds of many Saudis. A decade later, justifiable concerns about another potential onslaught of jihadi attacks wreaking havoc across Saudi Arabia are growing.
(Source / 06.07.2016)