Saudi Arabia braces for ISIS
Jeff Moore investigates the growing influence of ISIS in Saudi Arabia, the rise of incidents, the different cells and what the future holds for the Kingdom
While Saudi Arabian forces battle it out with Houthi rebels in Yemen in their most intense conventional fighting since Operation Desert Storm, a domestic irregular threat looms over the kingdom: ISIS. ISIS has launched several small but effective attacks against Saudi Arabia in the past, and authorities have shut down several cells. None of this is surprising since the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, called on Muslims in November 2014 to attack the Saudi government and kill Shia Muslims. These threat variables spell trouble for both Saudi Arabia and the entire Peninsula.
In March and April this year, Saudi authorities arrested 93 members of an ISIS cell that aimed to attack the US embassy in Riyadh with a car bomb. This cell also plotted to attack Saudi security forces, residential compounds and prisons, presumably to free their jailed cohorts. Authorities said that the group further meant to enflame Sunni-Shia relations.
On 22 May, during Friday prayers, a suicide bomber attacked the Shia Ali b. Abi Talib Mosque in Al Qudaih, near Qatif, Najd Province. The explosion killed 21 and wounded 102. The Najd Province of ISIS (central Saudi Arabia) claimed responsibility, and it was apparently ISIS’ first attack in thecountry, though officials believe it might have staged an attack in Eastern Saudi in 2014.
The next week on 29 May – again during Friday prayers – a suicide bomber dressed in women’s clothing attacked the Shia Imam Hussein mosque in Dammam. As the bomber was parking his car, a security team hailed him and he detonated his device, killing four. The Najd Province of ISIS claimed responsibility.
On 3 July, a group of Saudi security officials were in Taidf serving an arrest warrant on an ISIS suspect, Yousif Abdulatif Shabab al-Ghamdi, when they came under fire. One official was killed, and al-Ghamdi got away. Three suspects were arrested and had in their possession laptops, ISIS flags, and silencers.
The Ministry of Interior (MoI) said on 18 July that it had arrested 431 people belonging to four ISIS cells over the past few weeks, many of which were linked to the Shia mosque attacks. These cells were planning attacks on a variety of targets and were also making suicide bombs.
On 6 August, an ISIS suicide bomber detonated his explosives in the mosque of an elite Saudi security force based in Abha, Asir province. The blast, which occurred during noon prayers, killed 15 and wounded 22.
ISIS’ target was the Special Emergency Force (SEF), a counter terrorism unit under the Public Security Directorate, which falls under the MoI. SEF has 13 base camps throughout Saudi Arabia to react to various terrorist scenarios.
ISIS said its operative from Hijaz province of ISIS carried out the SEF bombing against a monument of the apostate. Hijaz refers to the South-Western area of Saudi Arabia, which is close to Yemen, and this appears to be the first time this particular branch of ISIS has been mentioned in open sources.
Later that month, on 23 August, gunmen – possibly belonging to ISIS, say investigators – shot at a police patrol in Jeddah in a drive-by shooting that wounded one.
On 16 September, police conducted raids against ISIS safe houses in Riyadh and Dammam. They arrested three and killed two. The militants had in their possession firearms, scores of ready-made IEDs, and cellphones.
On 30 September, police arrested a Syrian man and Philippine woman in Al-Fayah district, Riyadh, for running a makeshift suicide bomb factory. Aside from defusing two bombs on site, they also found bomb-making equipment, two suicide vests, a machine gun and ammunition.
On 1 October, masked gunmen killed four in two attacks in Al-Shamli, Hail province. The first attack was on a police post where a policeman and two civilians were shot. The second was on a policeman at a traffic station. One of the attackers shouted ISIS slogans during the attack.
On 3 October, police raided two terror hideouts in Dhahran, arresting seven after an exchange of gunfire.
A analysis of these incidents reveals six takeaways. First, those carried out by the Najd group indicate that ISIS is expanding operations in the Arabian Peninsula, and that it’s specifically targeting Saudi Arabia. Since the spring, Saudi authorities have arrested or detained 540 people associated with ISIS cells on Saudi soil. Statistically speaking, since and including March, that’s approximately 77 people arrested each month up to early October. This demonstrates a significant ISIS presence in the Kingdom.
Second, the weapons and target sets demonstrated in these incidents are telling. In each case, light infantry weapons and IEDs were the norm. They are all sustainable for terror and insurgency operations (bombings, raids, ambushes, assassinations, etc.)
ISIS targeting so far has been aimed at the Saudi police/MoI (patrols, stations, and mosques), Shia mosques, a prison, the US embassy, and residential compounds, presumably foreign. These are typical for a movement that’s aiming to destabilise society, embarrass a government, drive out foreigners and inspire silent supporters as demonstrated in scores of other insurgency zones such as Iraq, Southern Thailand, Colombia and Northern Ireland.
The targeting of Shia mosques is designed to enflame existing Sunni-Shia tensions and drive a wedge between the two groups, triggering chaos and bloodshed. ISIS is trying to win Sunni hearts and minds by destroying Shias. It’s an effective destabilisation method that has shown results in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen.
Third, these attacks demonstrate good terrorist and insurgent skillsets. The SEF bombing in particular proves that ISIS has the prowess to target, infiltrate, and successfully strike one of Saudi Arabia’s most elite counter terror units, so these operatives are to be taken seriously.
Fourth, calling the Saudi government “apostates” reveals that ISIS is directly challenging it as the traditional purveyor of Islam. The term “apostate” or munafik, is one of the worst insults in Islam. In layman’s terms, it means, “you are not a ‘real Muslim,’ and you should be eliminated for this terrible sin.” This ‘takfir ideology’ is common to al Qaeda (AQ), ISIS and political Islamist groups. To purely spiritual conservative and moderate Muslims, it’s a haram (forbidden) concept.
The reference to the Hijaz province of ISIS is significant, too. Hijaz is home to Mecca and Medina, the geographic center of gravity of Islam. With this phrase, not only is ISIS making a direct administrative challenge to Saudi’s governorship over these essential sites, it also indicates that ISIS has some kind of operational entity there.
Combined, the Hijaz and apostate factors tell Saudi Arabia, “We, ISIS, are imbedded in your heartland, you are false Muslims, and we are the solution.” This is a powerful challenge because ISIS’ political warfare resonates with millions, especially the more politically inclined Islamists.
Fifth, based on the geographic spread of ISIS-related attacks and arrests, it’s apparent that it has a demonstrated presence throughout Saudi Arabia. ISIS is in the Kingdom’s East, West-Southwest, North central and the capital – and these are just the known points of ISIS activity.
Sixth, the fact that ISIS has given geographic names to its groups suggests that it has an organised structure inside Saudi – cells, at the very least – that focuses on carrying out attacks in specific regions. If the cells are mature and networked, a worst case scenario would be a Peninsula or Saudi-wide insurgency with roots deep inside Islamist sects of Sunni Islam prolific to the area.
Simply put, a terror campaign or insurgent movement is obviously afoot in Saudi. Such a scenario isn’t so far fetched. It has happened before.
Saudi Arabia fought a war against AQ from 2003-07 where the latter’s operatives had infiltrated the military and police, making it easier to attack scores of Saudi citizens, foreigners, and government personnel with bombings, assassinations, and ambushes.
Next door in UAE, a group called al-Islah with alleged links to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood sought to overthrow that government by trying to launch attacks against it in 2012. Authorities stopped these from happening and arrested 94 suspects. They convicted 68 for sedition in July 2013. A number of these had also set up a shadow government parallel to UAE’s real government from the local level all the way up to the national level. This is a classic insurgent political maneuver.
More recently, on 2 August, the UAE announced that it had arrested 41 people trying to overthrow the government and establish a caliphate. Whether it was ISIS or not remains an open question, but it sounds like it. What other group in the Middle East is currently establishing a caliphate? Not AQ, not its franchises, and not the Brotherhood.
What happens next? Additional attacks, most likely. ISIS said so in a statement released shortly after the SEF bombing. Furthermore, AQ carried out more than 40 attacks during its 2003-07 campaign in Saudi Arabia, and ISIS has proven more aggressive and bloodier than its rival. To suppose it won’t increase its operational tempo in Saudi Arabia and/or the rest of the region ignores recent history and mounting indicators and warnings.
This is not to say, however, that Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are weak and ripe for the picking. They have, in recent years, increased their counter terror and counter insurgency prowess, and they’ve decisively stopped past terrorist campaigns and shut down insurgent movements. But there’s no guarantee of success.
ISIS has made solid progress in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. It knows it needs to continue this momentum to keep attracting recruits. A dramatic and/or a high casualty attack operation in the Arabian Peninsula would do just that.
For these reasons, a strike on a major population centre, a critical military installation, key infrastructure, or even an assault matching the Grand Mosque seisure in 1979 cannot be ruled out. The latter would be in line with ISIS’ accusatory “apostate” rhetoric.
Regardless of the target, however, dangerous times are returning to the Kingdom and the Peninsula, and they’re here to stay until Riyadh demonstrably ramps up its counter politico-religious warfare activities. ISIS excels in political warfare, propaganda, and recruiting. Its brand of Islamist jihad and call to revolution is dramatically appealing, particularly in the Middle East. For Saudi Arabia to be effective, it has to directly confront the Islamist jihadi ideology and correct it, in part by rallying the global ummah, the world population of Muslims. So far, Saudi Arabia has done none of this.
Jeff Moore, Ph.D., is the chief executive officer of Muir Analytics, which assesses threats from insurgent and terror groups against corporations. He is a renowned terrorism and insurgency subject matter expert, and he is also the purveyor of SecureHotel.US, which analyses terror risks against hotels, worldwide.