The terrorist group known as the Islamic State (ISIS) has its eyes set on Saudi Arabia. Months of threatening to conquer “The Land of the Two Holy Mosques” culminated in an audio message in mid-May delivered by the leader of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in which he referred to Saudi Arabia’s government as “apostate leaders.” Since then ISIS has begun carrying out terrorist attacks inside the Kingdom. Two weeks in a row, individuals affiliated with ISIS have conducted suicide attacks against mosques in the Eastern Province, where the majority of Saudi Shi'a live. Just as importantly, since the beginning of the year, ISIS-linked militants have targeted several police security patrols in Saudi Arabia’s heartland, including in Riyadh.
Although these attacks against soft targets might prove difficult to prevent in the short term, and could exacerbate sectarian tensions already inflamed by several bloody conflicts across the region, ISIS will not succeed in Saudi Arabia as it has in Syria or Iraq or in the way some al-Qa‘ida affiliates have in Yemen, Somalia, northern Mali, or Nigeria.
These terrorist organizations have flourished when at least one of two conditions has existed: a political and security vacuum caused by internecine ethnic or sectarian fighting in a failed state, or a credible narrative in which the country’s Sunni inhabitants—majority or minority—are portrayed as being under attack by another sect. The latter condition compels other Sunnis, both inside and outside the country, to join the “jihad” to protect their Sunni brethren, as has happened in Iraq and Syria. Neither of these conditions exists in Saudi Arabia, and therefore ISIS will fail in its bid to upend the political order there.
Long before the world had heard of ISIS or even al-Qa‘ida, Islamist militants tried to lay claim to the Kingdom as the birthplace of Islam. In 1979, a few dozen, mostly Saudi, radicals laid siege to Islam’s most hallowed ground, the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Not only did these forerunners of al-Qa‘ida and ISIS try to bring an end to the Saudi regime for its close ties to the West, but they also shed innocent, Muslim blood to achieve their objectives. Although the attack shocked Saudis of all stripes, the government eventually overpowered the “rebels” and executed their leader. In 2003, al-Qa‘ida tried to destabilize the Kingdom by attacking compounds housing expatriate workers.
After some initial reluctance to realize the gravity of the threat, the Saudi Interior Ministry, under the leadership of Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, the current crown prince, launched a counterterrorism effort that was part security operation, part public awareness campaign. The initiative put thousands of militant sympathizers in prison. Saudi authorities recently announced that they prosecuted 492 people who were charged with terrorism-related crimes in the past six months alone.
The government has also put a few thousand others through a celebrated terrorism rehabilitation program that combines religious guidance and psychological counseling. Although Saudi authorities continued to make arrests and to foil plots, no major terrorist attack had taken place in Saudi Arabia since 2006, until now.
Many have noted that ISIS is unlike any Sunni militant organization the world has ever seen. Its successful recruitment of thousands to join the fighting in Syria and Iraq and its ability to hold its own militarily against the Iraqi and Syrian governments has led some to think of ISIS as a more advanced form of the species. However, ISIS and al-Qa‘ida before it thrived in those two countries when they faced extreme political instability and violence. In Iraq, ISIS has its roots in the situation that followed the U.S. invasion—in which the decades-old political order was upended and the Sunni minority was stripped of its political power. However, it is in Syria that it turned into the monster that we now know. Assad’s brutality against the Sunni majority allowed ISIS to construct a jihadi narrative that has made Syria a more compelling destination for Sunni militants worldwide than Afghanistan was in the 1980s. Incidentally, it is a scenario that some of us warned about as early as January 2012.
Of course it is not only ISIS that has succeeded in establishing a presence on the ground and in contesting the authority of the state. Al-Qa‘ida affiliates have done just that in Somalia, northern Mali, Yemen, and even Nigeria. However, all of these countries have a history of ethnic and sectarian strife and a relatively weak state that either recently fractured or that has never been able to fully consolidate its rule and build strong enough political, security, and economic institutions.
Again, these preconditions do not exist in Saudi Arabia. Sunnis are not only the overwhelming majority, but they are also in firm control of the political, military, and economic institutions of the country. Likewise, Saudi Arabia does not have a history of tribal, sectarian, or ethnic violence as is the case in Yemen, Nigeria, and Somalia. Although the country is still considered to be a “developing” nation, it is not on the verge of becoming a failed state like Libya.
Indeed, the Saudi state is not generally considered to be “weak.” If anything, Saudi policy makers are implementing a new, more assertive foreign policy whose aims are transformative, as opposed to the reactive policies of the past. This new approach is seen in dramatic fashion in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
ISIS’s double-pronged approach in Saudi Arabia—large-scale attacks against Shi‘i places of worship and smaller attacks against vulnerable security patrols—could create instability in the short term and even aggravate strained relations between Sunnis and Shi‘a. Following the attack in Qatif two weeks ago, some Shi‘i clerics called on their followers to form popular committees to protect their communities, with some implying that the state may not have the capacity—or the will—to do so. However, a large segment of Saudis has strongly condemned the attacks, including the most senior political and religious leaders. Other Saudis have also inveighed against sectarianism and have publicly expressed solidarity with their Shi‘i “brothers.” A poll in Saudi Arabia that was commissioned by a Washington think tank last year found that only 5 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of ISIS.
The Saudi security and intelligence apparatus has learned from its experience with al-Qa‘ida and will make the necessary adjustments to tackle ISIS’s tactics sooner rather than later. The militants who stormed the Grand Mosque in 1979 failed and so did al-Qa‘ida. ISIS will also fail.
Read an Arabic translation of this article.