The threat of Islamist militancy to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been nearly continuous, in various manifestations, since the mid-1990s, with Islamic State (IS) only the latest iteration of this threat. The group’s Saudi Arabian affiliates are formed by regional and domestic networks made up of former members of al-Qaeda and since bolstered by new recruits.
Their goals, however, have shifted away from those of their predecessor, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). They arguably present a greater threat to the country’s rulers and may hope to appeal to a Saudi citizenry growing increasingly dissatisfied with their economic condition.
‘Wilayat Haramayn’ Established
The presence of IS in Saudi Arabia was formally acknowledged by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on November 13, 2014, in his response to an audio message, released three days earlier, by a group calling themselves “the Mujahidin of the Arabian Peninsula” (Arabi21, November 10, 2014).
This led to the formation of delineated operational areas, or wilayat (provinces), for groups wishing to ally themselves with IS: Najd, Hijaz and Bahrain, with the latter including Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province in addition to the eponymous archipelago across from the city of al-Khubar. Taken as a whole, these constitute the “Wilayat Haramayn,” or the provinces of the two Holy Sanctuaries.
Al-Baghdadi’s acknowledgement followed an announcement by Saudi authorities in May 2014 of the arrest of 62 members of a cell operating inside the country with links to what was then al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (Arab News, 6 May 2014). These arrests appear to be the first public acknowledgement by the Saudi interior ministry that the group was operating inside Saudi Arabia, and the first admission of the potential threat the group posed beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria.
It was also an attempt at encouraging concern from Western countries who at that point underestimated both the group’s geographic spread and its capabilities. Once al-Baghdadi’s announcement came, the question was why it took so long for groups to make clear their IS-affiliation in a country that is no stranger to extremist violence. By this time, Saudi Arabia, along with several other Arab states, had committed to the Western-led anti-IS coalition conducting a campaign of airstrikes against the group.
IS appears to have activated existing networks of former al-Qaeda supporters inside
Saudi Arabia that had been relatively dormant since 2006. Over time, these cells gathered new recruits, largely as a result of the propaganda around the group’s successes in Syria and seizure of territory in Iraq. Its attacks carried out in Europe further bolstered IS’ position. A 2014 estimate suggested 2,500 Saudis have travelled to Syria to fight with IS (Soufan Group, June 2, 2014).
The style and scale of attacks, however, suggests that Saudi IS members, believed to be operating in small cells around the country, have been relatively under-resourced and under-funded. Al-Baghdadi only offered his support to groups operating inside Saudi Arabia in the name of IS when prompted to do so. The unsophisticated nature of attacks — up until an attack outside the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina on July 4, 2016 — suggests that al-Baghdadi’s recognition of groups operating in Saudi Arabia was not an indicator that affiliates would receive any greater assistance.
IS has targeted Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia community, arguably an easy target given claims by some in the community that the government was not doing enough to protect them. The targeting of the Shia community and security services, often at security checkpoints in remote locations, underlines the difference between IS and its predecessor — al-Qaeda favored targeting foreign assets and individuals. That has become less common, reinforced by improved security for foreign nationals provided since 2006. The change also reflects the narrative of al-Baghdadi’s audio messages that IS is concerned with toppling the government and removing the ruling al-Saud family.
Fears in Eastern Province
Between 2014 and mid-2016, the IS affiliate in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, often referred to as Wilayah Bahrain, was the most active of the three provincial groups.
The first IS attacks targeted the country’s minority Shia community, fulfilling their overwhelmingly negative rhetoric against those they call rawafidh (rejectionists). The first two attacks — on May 22, 2015 in the Imam Ali mosque in the village of al-Qudayh in Qatif, and on May 29, 2015, in the al-Anud mosque in Dammam — sparked concerns that a campaign of targeting the Shia community had begun. Criticism of government protection afforded to the community became more vocal, with community groups setting up their own checkpoints near local mosques and hussainiyah (Shia community halls used as places of prayer and for commemorating holy occasions). These proactive, defensive security measures have contributed to lower fatality rates. In the May 29, 2015 attack, just three people were killed in addition to the suicide bomber, as opposed to the more than 20 killed and scores injured in an attack just a week before (Asharq al-Awsat, May 29, 2015).
Government security measures were reportedly stepped up in the wake of these attacks, though local defense groups remained active out of concern that government security forces might at times intentionally turn a blind eye to threats. Tensions between the security establishment and elements of the minority community were high at the time, with a member of the police killed in a raid targeting reported armed Shia separatists in an incident in Awamiya in April 2015.
However, this joint security effort has undoubtedly been effective, with lower fatality rates in all of the subsequent attacks against Shia targets in the Eastern Province since the first attack on May 22, 2015. The effectiveness of these increased security measures was demonstrated in the October 16, 2015 attack on a hussainiyah in Saihat. Local volunteers manning a checkpoint helped to slow the progress of a gunman before the police arrived, although ultimately five people were killed.
Similarly, in an attack on the al-Umran mosque in al-Qatif on July 4, 2016, security measures at the mosque, including several sets of barriers combined with security guards, were so effective that only the two suicide bombers were killed in the car park (al-Jazeera, July 5, 2016). It should be noted that by the time of the attack most worshippers had already left the premises. This suggests poor local intelligence and research capabilities on the part of local cells.
Attacks in Hijaz
Attacks in the center and west of the country, around the capital Riyadh and stretching westward toward the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, have primarily focused on the security forces. Those instances involved gunmen and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) deployed against relatively remote checkpoints, including in one instance on July 16, 2015, at a checkpoint at the entrance to al-Hair high-security prison, which houses a significant portion of Saudi Arabia’s convicted terrorists.
By mid-2015, state authorities had arrested 431 suspected IS sympathizers who were reportedly planning to carry out simultaneous attacks against Shia affiliated locations in the Eastern Province and targeted assassinations of security forces personnel. However, the period over which these arrests were carried out is unclear (al-Arabiya, July 18, 2015).
Despite the significant volume of arrests, the August, 6 2015 attack on the mosque in the Special Emergency Forces compound in Abha, located in the southern province of Jizan, was a potent reminder of the risk the group still posed to the security services, even in locations that some of the most elite security units considered safe.
The Abha attack was also a reminder of the “Yemen angle” in what many might consider to be a domestic terror threat. IS is aware of the apparent contradiction of Saudi forces fighting a Shia enemy abroad, while defending its minority Shia community at home against suspected IS attacks. This is in addition to the ongoing counter-terrorism efforts against AQAP and IS in Yemen, even as the war continues.
Although this attack was shocking for the security forces — it produced the highest number of casualties of any attack on security forces in the country so far — its means and location remain unusual with regard to IS activities in the Saudi Arabia. Given the importance of Yemen, both as a theater of war and a field of counter-terrorism operations for Riyadh, it is surprising that IS has not sought to highlight it to a greater extent.
The July 4, 2016 attack on the al-Umran mosque in al-Qatif coincided with two attacks in Hijaz — an early-morning attempted attack against the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, and a second in Medina that evening in which a suicide bomber killed four security personnel breaking their fast in the car park of the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad. Although IS affiliates in the country did not claim these attacks, the modus operandi are similar to previous operations, and reveal a gradual westward shift in the location of selected targets.
These attacks marked the first significant attacks in that part of the country, a step up from earlier small-scale attacks by gunmen on security forces personnel. The nationality of the perpetrator of the U.S. consulate attack — a Pakistani national — is also notable. This appears to be the first IS-related incident in the country carried out by a non-Saudi national, and it reflects increasing reports of non-Saudis involved and implicated in IS-related activity in the country increasingly since mid-2016 (Arab News, July 4, 2016).
There are suggestions that former members of al-Qaeda have joined the new group, and that membership extends into organized crime networks in the country, which is unsurprising. The inclusion of foreign nationals is an attempt to bolster membership amid a dearth of willing Saudi recruits, and may offer a greater challenge to state surveillance. However, the ability of cells to disguise themselves “in plain sight” in some of the most highly securitized areas of the country is not, unfortunately, new.
Although media reporting of police raids can give a skewed impression of where IS cells are concentrated — for example, those in the Eastern Province — the greater focus over time on areas historically considered more religiously conservative, gives a clearer picture of the cells’ real targets: Riyadh and a sweep westwards toward the holy cities.
Ultimately, the targeting patterns of IS cells in Saudi have mirrored the priorities laid out in al-Baghdadi’s November 2014 announcement. Fighters were to target members of the Shia community first, then security personnel and other representatives of the state, then the al-Saud family and, finally, foreigners. So far, only one foreigner has ostensibly been targeted by the group — a Danish citizen killed in Riyadh in November 2014 (The National, December 11, 2014).
Effective Security Response
The response of the security forces in the wake of IS attacks in the country has been multi-pronged. Based on local media reports, raids by the police and other elements of the security services have become more frequent and more deadly, while the arrest rate appears to have remained relatively consistent. It is unclear, however, whether this is indicative of increased activity by the security forces, or merely increased reporting of such incidents.
Nonetheless, the security sector’s response has complemented existing counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization structures in the country, manifested through multiple online platforms and established centers. Questions remain, however, over the messaging of the religious establishment and the extent to which it can support effective counter-radicalization efforts when it is unable to reign in its own more conservative elements.
The targeting of the country’s Shia community is an attempt to recruit social conservatives inclined toward sectarianism from anti-Shia elements of Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment. The public response in the wake of several attacks in the Eastern Province suggests this has been largely ineffective, as many Saudi’s self-interestedly realize that IS has no intention of limiting its attacks based on confessional lines.
In the longer term, there are questions over how the government’s counter-terrorism efforts will need to change to accommodate the risks presented by IS as it morphs from the territory-hungry transnational organization at its height in 2015 to the splintered, largely insurgent movement it is likely to become toward the latter half of this year.
In comparison to its ideological forbearer, there are fewer “triggers” of anti-regime sentiment available to IS in Saudi Arabia today. In the mid-1990s, Saudi Arabia was still reeling from the boom-and-bust cycle of the late 80s that had so badly impacted the standard of living of many ordinary Saudis. These considerations, and the questions they raise, are also important in light of recent changes in the Saudi economy and the citizenry’s continued reliance —even as the government pursues extensive economic reforms — on the state.
The changes now underway in the country’s economy, which are as important for the future of IS in Saudi Arabia as they are for Saudi society itself, includes the planned privatization of key state-owned enterprises — from a small percentage of state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, to the country’s potable water supplier, the Saline Water Conversion Corporation.
Other planned reforms include an overhaul of the provision of state welfare, with the introduction of a direct cash disbursement system, the decision to introduce a social safety net and the compulsory unemployment insurance and work-place pension schemes introduced in 2014. These are intended to offset other planned reforms, such as the planned removal of all household water and electricity subsidies by 2019. New policies such as these may contribute to a greater sense of discontent among the Saudi middle class who have taken the brunt of government cuts since 2015.
The lack of any IS-claimed attacks in the country over the last eight months is a notable success for Saudi Arabia’s security services. How that will change as IS is squeezed in Syria and Iraq remains unclear for now, but Saudi Arabia is likely to continue to face a threat from the group in some form for years to come. Even if the security risks lessen over time, the battle for the hearts and minds of the citizens of Saudi Arabia, the home of the hajj, is far from over.