Gulf States Bolster Security Initiatives to Confront Islamic State Threat

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 15

Saudi security forces (Source:

Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made clear in an audio recording two years ago that the group intended to include the Gulf States among its targets, in particular Saudi Arabia. Despite al-Baghdadi’s claims, however, up until October 2015 incidents involving IS in the Kingdom, which has a complicated history with extremist networks and more than a decade of experience battling domestic terrorist movements, remained relatively few-and-far between. Likewise, Saudi Arabia’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors – Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – have experienced fewer incidents than might have been expected, given their strong partnership with Saudi Arabia and position as U.S. allies.

While the GCC States each have their own distinct domestic policies that have helped alleviate the terror threat, there have also been unprecedented efforts to counter the threat of IS on a regional level, efforts that might have been considered unlikely several years ago.

Saudi Arabia

Of all the Gulf States over the last three decades, Saudi Arabia has battled most prominently and most frequently, with radical Islamists. The early 2000s saw the Kingdom, its institutions, security personnel, and foreigners, targeted by a local branch of al-Qaeda. A fledgling counter-terrorism initiative that featured an extensive rehabilitation program was launched. Although the attempted assassination of Muhammad bin Nayif, now the crown prince, during Ramadan in 2009 by a supposedly reformed member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) cast some doubts on its effectiveness.

The presence of IS in Saudi Arabia dates back to November 2014. The attack on a Hussainiyah, a Shia prayer hall in the village of ad-Dawlah, in the Eastern Province sparked a fear among the local Saudi Shia population that they would be the target of a new wave of terrorist attacks. That fear was justified days later when al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of IS “provinces” in Saudi Arabia – Wilayat Najd, Wilayat Hijaz, and Wilayat Bahrain (Terrorism Monitor, March 6, 2015).

By focusing the majority of its energies in the Eastern Province, the group has taken advantage of an unfortunate nexus, exacerbating already difficult social relations while simultaneously scoring points with supporters. By targeting the Shia, a maligned sectarian minority in Saudi Arabia, the group hopes to play on sectarian divisions already present in Saudi society.

In May 2014, the interior ministry announced the discovery of a 62-member, well-armed cell with links to AQAP, IS, and other unnamed groups (Arab News, 6 May 2014). Suggestions have been made that the group is building on dormant AQAP and Salafist donor networks within the Kingdom to construct a more secure presence, similar to its establishment in Iraq and Syria. Given the amount of time such efforts would involve, this may account for its apparent operational limitations to date.

Certain violent incidents have been used to suggest the group’s influence may be growing. However, whether a burst of enthusiasm from local supporters will develop into viable planning and execution of an attack is unclear (Arab News, 24 June).

The key targets in incidents so far are security personnel and members of the Shia community, most often around prayer times. There has been little evidence so far of the highly armed and well-coordinated attacks carried out by al-Qaeda between 2002 and 2004. The extent of the group’s command-and-control capabilities either within the Kingdom, or communicating from a neighboring country with a proven presence such as Yemen, remains unclear, but is likely poor at the moment.


Despite its well-documented domestic security troubles, Bahrain has yet to experience an IS attack. An incident targeting the Shia community in Bahrain, however, could produce an enormous victory for the group. The social tension and likely unrest could see a repeat of the violence in 2011 and 2012, and would further undermine the ruling Al Khalifah family.

The fact IS has classified Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province as within its Wilayat Bahrain operational area indicates the extent to which the group views the two Shia communities as one. Although linked through a shared religious sect, regional history, and aspects of culture, such an assumption demonstrates a lack of understanding of the subtle differences that define each of those local communities. It could account in small part for the lack of interest in Bahrain to date.

The pervasive nature of the security forces may also help explain why IS has not yet carried out an attack on the country that is home to a sectarian majority that it regular targets elsewhere. The government, with its Gulf allies and Jordan, has been able to efficiently isolate IS most attractive target, undermining the group’s potential to further damage social cohesion.

The Shia neighborhoods and villages that ring Manama, and which have seen the most consistent civil unrest since 2011, are effectively cut-off from the rest of the country (Revolution Bahrain, 17 July). Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) block entrances, restrict exit and entry for local residents, and prevent movement entirely during periods of heightened tension (Revolution Bahrain, 17 July). While to keep local Shia residents in, this may also be keeping more threatening entities out.

IS also has more limited room for maneuver socially within Bahrain. With a total population of 1.3 million people, the country’s Sunni minority has largely been co-opted – whether willingly or not – by the state. The state’s extensively developed intelligence agencies, which are largely focused on uncovering suspected Iranian subterfuge, provide some default defense against IS infiltration. None of these things fully mitigates the risk of an attack, but they do help explain why there have as yet been no reported incidents.


The most notable recent attack in Kuwait, and the most notable in the region outside of Saudi Arabia, was the bombing in June 2015 on the Imam Jafar al-Sadiq mosque (al-Watan, 26 June, 2015). The attack, claimed by IS later the same day, came as a shock to Kuwaiti society (Reuters Arabic, June 26, 2015).

Kuwait’s political system is considered the most open in the region. Its supposed liberalism, however, belies a well-organized network of conservative charities and Salafist clerics working, often unofficially, to finance causes to which some of its allies are averse (State Department, 2015). The government has made considerable efforts to tackle this fund-raising, however it will undoubtedly continue.

Despite the risks associated with domestic fundraising and cash transfers to armed radical groups, Kuwait has so far avoided the problems experienced by Saudi Arabia. Kuwait’s intelligence services also reportedly continue to uncover IS plans for attacks in the country: one was discovered immediately in the wake of the Imam Jafar Sadiq mosque attack, and others were announced as recently as two weeks ago (BBC Arabic, 30 June 2015; BBC Arabic, July 4). Beyond continued intelligence sharing with its neighbors, there seems little to reduce the risk to Kuwait in the months and years ahead.

United Arab Emirates

The most prominent Gulf country by reputation, largely due to the ubiquity of its second city Dubai, the UAE has not yet experienced an IS attack. The best known incident to date was carried out by an Emirati national of Yemeni-origin, Alaa Badr al-Hashimi, who stabbed a Hungarian-American school teacher to death in a bathroom of the Boutik Mall on Reem Island in Abu Dhabi. An hour later, a small homemade IED exploded at the front door of an American-Egyptian doctor (The National, June 29, 2015).

During her trial, al-Hashimi explained that she carried out the attacks after her husband was taken in for question by the security services for suspected links to unspecified terrorist groups. Although the UAE is considered at high risk of an IS attack, the country has built up an increasingly overt security infrastructure (The National, July 13). Built on human intelligence and extensive data mining, it is likely to continue to prove an effective bulwark against attacks.


Qatar, like Kuwait, juggles a relationship with conservative Islamists and economic wealth, a combination that could leave it open to attack. However, despite maintaining a regime-led adherence to what some consider to be the traditionally quietest form of Wahhabism, Qatar has experienced none of the turmoil seen in Saudi Arabia and has seen only a single terrorist attack in the last decade and a half.


Oman’s quietly effective security services and military have long used a creative border management policy to limit the potential for the movement of extremists from Yemen into Oman. By local Yemeni tribesman training, equipment, and financial backing, Oman has effectively enabled the tribesmen to police their own border as efficiently as Oman would like, making the country possibly the least likely of the Gulf States to experience an IS attack.

Omani society, although maintaining a strong affiliation with local identities, perceives itself as homogenous in a manner that is arguably distinct within the region (Terrorism Monitor, May 27) An IS attack in Oman would bring little benefit to the group. The key conflict risk Oman faces is how to navigate whatever vacuum develops in the event of the death of its ruler Sultan Qaboos. At present, however, it seems unlikely IS would be in a position to take advantage of that.

Regional Security

The threat from IS has refocused GCC officials on regional security as never before. GCC ministers’ meetings, so often dominated by rows over the possible location for a central bank for a joint currency that is unlikely to ever be established, have become fundamental to intelligence sharing efforts. These meetings led to the establishment of a region-wide equivalent of Interpol, GCC-POL, in November 2015 (Gulf News, April 27).

The cooperation agreements now in place would have been considered almost impossible a few years ago, as the GCC neighbors jealously guard their domestic security. Yet in certain areas security remains a challenge. The GCC’s visa waiver system for Gulf nationals, for example, may have contributed in part to the June 2015 bombing in Kuwait. The perpetrator, a Saudi national, transited from Riyadh through Bahrain to Kuwait without arousing any suspicion, even though records showed the journey was the first he had ever made by plane (al-Jazeera English, June 28, 2015).

The Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia, faces security threats from multiple groups, and the presence of both IS and AQAP in Yemen will undermine Gulf security for years to come (Jamestown, August 7, 2015). As IS comes under pressure in Iraq and Syria, it has threatened to resort to guerrilla-style tactics, and if it does so the GCC states could present a greater target.

Although attacks in the Gulf so far indicate IS has a less sophisticated regional network than its rival al-Qaeda, these are early days for a group that has had its plans for a region-wide state under sharia halted in part by an alliance that includes the GCC states.