ISIS’s Saudi chess match

Aaron Y. Zelin writes: Over the past two weeks, the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) has claimed two attacks on Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-majority Eastern Province, one in Dammam and the other in Qatif. While the incidents might not have an immediate impact on the kingdom’s overall security, they are relevant to long-term IS strategy of weakening the Saudi government by exposing its alleged hypocrisy. They also illustrate how IS has choreographed its actions in phases for its Arabian Peninsula theater. For example, when IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced new wilayat (provinces) for the so-called caliphate in Saudi Arabia and Yemen last November, he told supporters that Shiites should be targeted first. And in remarks made last month, he zeroed in on the Saudi state and what he described as its failed Yemen war. The latest attacks are therefore harbingers of a wider IS threat to Saudi Islamic legitimacy.

By attacking the Eastern Province, IS seeks to place Riyadh in the position of defending or appeasing Shiites, at the expense of a Saudi Wahhabist state ideology that does not tread too far from that of IS (e.g., Saudi schools teach students that Shiites are unbelievers and not Muslims). In that sense, the group likely considers Riyadh’s actions following the first attack a victory.

In response to the May 22 suicide bombing in Qatif, Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki stated that the goal of IS was to spread sectarianism, while Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef visited the town and gave condolences to the victims and their family members. Moreover, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz ibn Abdullah al-Sheikh condemned the “criminal plot.” From the Islamic State’s perspective, such actions highlight Riyadh’s rank hypocrisy, showing “true” believers in the “land of the two holy places” how the Saudi state is contravening both God and its own founding standards. By casting themselves as the true bearers of Islam, IS leaders hope to draw more recruits and supporters.

Beyond the potential for gaining new supporters, IS knows that Saudi Arabia has been a hotbed for foreign fighter and jihadist activism since the 1980s. In all of the major foreign fighter mobilizations over the past three decades (Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, and Syria), Saudis have been the leading nationality to join up. Most important, Saudis composed the largest bulk of foreign IS members last decade when the group was calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq, and once again in Syria and Iraq over the past couple years. [Continue reading…]

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