Chris Zambelis writes: 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. [Continue reading…]