By Chris Zambelis
The meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has since styled itself the Islamic State in an affirmation of its broader aspirations of dominion over a self-declared caliphate beyond the territories where it exercises control, has aggravated the Middle East’s already treacherous geopolitical landscape. Having emerged out of conflict and instability in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has arguably matched or otherwise exceeded the capabilities of fellow extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, its regional affiliates and other violent Islamist organizations. Despite its recent setbacks—notably in Syria’s Kurdish-majority town of Kobane (a.k.a. Ayn al-Arab), located in the northern Aleppo province—the Islamic State has demonstrated an impressive ability to capture, control and consolidate its hold on territory and sustain its insurgent and support cadres. It also operates a sophisticated information and propaganda wing that exploits social media as a force multiplier alongside its scorched earth campaign. It has also drawn support from independent sympathizers and ideological allies throughout the broader Middle East and around globe—including among locally focused extremist factions in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Pakistan and Yemen. These attributes are reminiscent of al-Qaeda’s at the pinnacle of its influence. However, they also reflect the simmering competition between the Islamic State and its al-Qaeda precursor as well as the latter’s regional affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra (Terrorism Monitor, February 20). The Islamic State’s increasingly strident discourse and threats also illustrate its rising ambitions; in addition to confronting the incumbent regimes in Iraq and Syria and rival militants and insurgents, the Islamic State has an ambitious set of goals that include challenging Saudi Arabia.
The Islamic State today represents the latest and potentially most complex set of challenges to Saudi Arabia, which had previously drawn the ire of al-Qaeda and its regional affiliate al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Due to the recent death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and the succession of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the Islamic State’s rise also comes amid a period of heightened domestic and regional uncertainty. This article will examine the Islamic State’s escalating threats toward Saudi Arabia, which suggest, alongside other recent trends, that the Islamic State is employing a steadily more aggressive threat posture toward Saudi Arabia that is likely to foreshadow future attacks and intensifying pressures.
Mapping the Threat
The Islamic State’s leader (and self-styled caliph) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi singled out Saudi Arabia in an audio statement titled “Even if the Disbelievers Despise Such,” released by the group’s al-Furqan Media Foundation on November 13, 2014. In his statement, al-Baghdadi extolled what he describes as the purported expansion of the Islamic State to the “lands of al-Haramein” (two holy places) in addition to Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Algeria, through its acceptance of oaths of allegiance sworn by local militants to the self-styled caliphate. Al-Baghdadi’s mention of al-Haramein is notable in that it reflects the radical Islamist proclivity for avoiding any reference to Saudi Arabia by name and, by implication, any indirect recognition of the legitimacy of the Saudi royal family, instead highlighting Islam’s two holiest sites at Mecca and Medina. Al-Baghdadi also proclaimed the appointment of regional governors to represent the Islamic State and called on followers in Saudi Arabia and beyond to recognize and follow their leadership. Al-Baghdadi issued a categorical call to arms: He referred to the Saudi royal family as “the serpent’s head” and the “stronghold of the disease,” and implored his Saudi subjects to attack the “al-Saloul” and “their soldiers.” The reference to al-Saloul represents a derogatory distortion of the al-Saud family name; in Islamic tradition, the al-Saloul family guarded the then-pagan holy site of the Kaaba at Mecca during the pre-Islamic period. He also implored his followers to attack polytheists and rafidah (rejectionists), an inflammatory label often assigned to Shi’a Muslims by extreme Salafists and other hardline Sunni Islamists, in an apparent reference to the Kingdom’s substantial Shi’a minority population. Al-Baghdadi then issued an appeal for “patience” and reassured his followers in the Kingdom that the “vanguards of the Islamic State are on their way” (al-Furqan Media Foundation, November 13, 2014).
The subsequent release of the fifth edition of Dabiq, the Islamic State’s official magazine, in November 2014 by its affiliated al-Hayat Media Center, followed up al-Baghdadi’s earlier de facto declaration of war against the House of Saud. The cover of the magazine is emblazoned with a photograph of the Kaaba at Mecca, while the foreword proclaims that the Islamic State’s flag will “fly over Mecca and Medina.” It is also emphasized that Saudi militants should take up arms at home and avoid traveling to battlefields abroad. A section devoted to Saudi Arabia exalts the efforts of earlier generations of militants who resisted and attacked the monarchy, including al-Qaeda and its regional affiliate AQAP, while at the same time lamenting their failure to achieve their objectives. Equally important, the Islamic State declares its opposition to Saudi’s fellow Persian Gulf monarchies in an apparent declaration of war against Saudi Arabia’s allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). A section of the magazine dedicated to the group’s activities in Yemen emphasizes the proximity between Saudi- and Yemen-based Islamic State loyalists and their potential to cooperate in launching attacks in the Arabian Peninsula (Dabiq, November 2014).
An incursion by militants who had infiltrated Saudi Arabia’s northeastern town of Arar, located in the Northern Borders province that sits adjacent to Iraq’s southern border, on January 5 underlines the potential threat the Islamic State poses to the Kingdom (al-Jazeera, January 5). While details surrounding the incident remain murky, a band of Iraq-based insurgents reportedly associated with the Islamic State is said to have penetrated Saudi territory and engaged a Saudi border police post. The attackers are reported to have employed small unit ambush tactics and a suicide bomber, who detonated his explosives-laden vest while offering to surrender to a senior Saudi security officer, killing himself and the officer. The ensuing incident left three border officers and four militants dead (Saudi Press Agency, January 5). The Northern Borders province is located alongside Iraq’s Anbar province, a key locus of support for the Islamic State that is hotly contested between the Islamic State and Iraqi security forces (Reuters, February 12). The Saudi authorities have also linked the November 2014 murder of a Danish national in the capital Riyadh following the release of a video purportedly recorded by the perpetrators who claimed responsibility for the attack (The National [Abu Dhabi], December 2, 2014). An attack that targeted Shi’a worshippers, who had gathered to commemorate Ashura, in al-Hasa in the Kingdom’s Eastern province has also been attributed to the Islamic State (al-Jazeera, November 25, 2014). Saudi authorities are also reported to have disrupted numerous militant cells linked to the Islamic State (al-Arabiya [Dubai], August 28, 2014).
Geopolitics of the Palace
A consideration of Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical significance is critical to appreciate the nature of the threats the Islamic State poses to the Kingdom. In many respects, the factors that have compelled the Islamic State to confront Saudi Arabia echo those that had originally induced al-Qaeda to take on the monarchy. Much like other entrenched authoritarian regimes in the Middle East that have drawn al-Qaeda’s fury over the years, Saudi Arabia is despised by the Islamic State for what it sees as its pervasive corruption, strategic relationship with the United States and illegitimate position as the custodian of Mecca and Medina. In this regard, the Islamic State, much like al-Qaeda, views the Saudi royal family as an agent of U.S. imperialism that is bent on the domination and subjugation of the Arab and Islamic world. Its status as the world’s largest exporter of oil, and second-largest oil producer, adds another layer of complexity that is surely not lost on the Islamic State. In this regard, al-Qaeda’s earlier targeting of strategic energy infrastructure, including its February 2006 operation against the Abqaiq oil refinery—one of the world’s largest—may provide valuable insights into the Islamic State’s tactical calculus with respect to prospective targets inside the Kingdom (al-Jazeera, February 27, 2006). The circumstances surrounding the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by militants, led by Juhayman al-Otaibi, who were violently opposed to the Saudi monarchy, may also offer a glimpse into the Islamic State’s plans for the Kingdom (al-Majalla [London], November 2009).
For al-Qaeda, the prospect of toppling or otherwise destabilizing the throne represented the apex of achievement in its broader struggle. The often-overlooked fact that a number of al-Qaeda notables, including its late founder and leader Osama bin Laden, arose out of the domestic political opposition in Saudi Arabia, serves as a testament to the hatred the Saudi royal family has incurred within extreme Islamist circles. It is reasonable to assume that Saudi Arabia also figures prominently in the Islamic State’s vision for the wider region even as it is preoccupied with its multiple front insurgent campaign in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State’s ongoing rivalry with al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates has also likely elevated the Kingdom’s importance as the Islamic State may sense an opportunity to succeed where its al-Qaeda predecessor previously failed. Saudi Arabia’s declared opposition to the Islamic State, its support for rival Syrian insurgent factions such as the Islamic Front and others and its participation in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State have likewise elevated its stature as a target (al-Akhbar [Beirut], February 4, 2014; al-Safir [Beirut], January 7, 2014; AP, February 18).
Saudi Arabia has taken numerous steps to mitigate the threat posed by the Islamic State. In the realm of ideas, it has attempted to rein in members of its religious establishment, including over the solicitation of funds for aid and relief in Syria and prohibiting outright any attempts by Saudis to join the conflict in Syria or engage in other un-sanctioned activities abroad (al-Akhbar, June 7, 2012). In doing so, the Kingdom leveraged the Council of Senior Scholars, the country’s highest religious body. While these efforts predate the rise of the Islamic State, they demonstrate mounting concerns in the palace over events in Syria and their impact on the Saudi population.
These efforts have yielded mixed results, as some prominent clergy have deviated from the official line on how to approach the situation in Syria. More importantly, Saudi volunteers also continue to stream into Syria and other battlefields in large numbers to take up arms alongside various insurgent factions (al-Safir, December 8, 2013; al-Safir, January 20, 2012). There is a great deal of sympathy among Saudis for the plight of Syrians and a deep antipathy toward a secular Baathist regime that is viewed by many as heretical and apostate. An additional challenge is that the ultraconservative forms of Wahhabist and Salafist ideologies propagated by Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment— in many respects, Saudi Arabia is the wellspring of these ideas—are hard to distinguish from the worldviews being espoused by the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s dramatic expansion has nevertheless provoked the Kingdom to engage with its population in the ideological arena. Most recently, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Shaykh Abd al-Aziz al-Ashaykh, has spearheaded a campaign that aims to enlist media and educational institutions in combating the Islamic State’s appeal (Arab News, February 22).
Meanwhile, in the realm of physical security, the Kingdom has embarked on an ambitious project to construct an approximately 600-mile-long security wall on sections of its northern border with Iraq. The wall is designed to prevent militants from infiltrating Saudi territory (al-Jazeera, September 6, 2014). The Kingdom has resorted to a similar strategy in an attempt to insulate itself from the expanding violence and instability that has overtaken its southern neighbor Yemen, building an approximately 1,000-mile-long wall along its border with Yemen (Reuters, January 22; al-Arabiya, April 10, 2013). Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s security forces have also continued to make mass arrests of suspected militants in an apparent effort to disrupt suspected domestic extremist activities associated with the Islamic State and potentially other violent Islamist organizations (The National, December 7, 2014).
In contrast to the chaos of Iraq and Syria and other conflict-ridden zones in the broader Middle East where the Islamic State has gained a foothold, Saudi Arabia, upon first glance, represents an impermissible environment for staging and launching militant activities. The Islamic State’s particular brand of brutality has also galvanized opposition to its expansion and influence, including among rival militants wary of its tactics and other actions in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. This is best illustrated by the losses it has incurred in recent months and the growing divide between its community of supporters and those of rival organizations (Daily Star [Beirut], March 3; al-Safir, March 31, 2014). At the same time, there are no indications to suggest that these setbacks will impact its ambitions to follow in the footsteps of its al-Qaeda precursor and lead a campaign to topple the Saudi monarchy.
Chris Zambelis is a Senior Analyst specializing in Middle East affairs for Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, D.C. area. He is also the director of World Trends Watch, Helios Global’s geopolitical practice area.
The statements, views, and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of EMerging Equity.