Ever since ISIS captured land across Iraq and Syria last year, and announced a “new caliphate” across the two nations, other countries in the region have been concerned about an increase in terror attacks. That worry is particularly acute amongst the five Arab partners in the US-led coalition fighting ISIS. Those countries — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — have been singled out as potential targets for attacks by the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
In July, after ISIS captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, Saudi Arabia boosted security on its 500-mile border with Iraq, deploying thousands of troops to back up border guards. Anxiety about jihadist attacks in the kingdom increased after a sectarian attack in November, when five people were killed at Al-Ahsa, in the east of the country, during the Shia festival of Ashura. Now, concern about terror attacks has ramped up again, after a general and two other soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber along the Saudi-Iraq border. This was the first attack to take place since Saudi Arabia joined the US-led military campaign against ISIS. According to a statement from Riyadh’s interior ministry, a border patrol near the city of Arar was fired on. Guards returned fire, killing two of the four attackers. One of the other two detonated a suicide belt, killing himself and three border guards, including the commander of the northern border force. The statement reiterated that Saudi security forces would fight “plots to undermine the security and stability of the homeland.”
Saudi anxiety about extremism within its borders is nothing new. After initially supporting Al-Qaeda, and turning a blind eye to the activities of various affiliated people and charities within Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government established a harsh crackdown on the group’s activities within its borders post-9/11. This resulted in Al-Qaeda being all but defeated within Saudi Arabia by 2004. Now, there is concern that this could be undone with the impact of fighters returning from Syria and Iraq. This week’s border attack comes after several months of an internal security crackdown. In September last year, Saudi police arrested 88 alleged militants and jailed an imam for glorifying Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Even before it officially joined the operation against ISIS, the kingdom was concerned and embarrassed that Saudi men were estimated to make up the second biggest contingent of foreign fighters in the ranks of the militant group; about 2,500, with the largest group being 3,000 from Tunisia. Fighting abroad has now been criminalised.
Of course, this eagerness to avoid terror attacks at home, which is shared around the region and by Saudi Arabia’s western allies, is only part of the picture. Perhaps contradictorily, the country is blamed widely for the rise of ISIS. Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the government in Riyadh has been funding Islamist groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad. It was these groups that gave birth to ISIS.
Saudi Arabia has a long and complicated relationship with Sunni terrorist groups. On the one hand, the kingdom, which denies outright that it funds terrorism, is engaged in a regional cold war with Iran, a Shia state, and as such seeks to strengthen opposition to Shia leaders in the Middle East. As Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6 has said, Saudi Arabia is “deeply attracted to any militancy which can effectively challenge Shiadom.” The country practices and is run according to Wahabbism, an extreme interpretation of Islam that many Sunni militant groups also follow. On the other hand, Riyadh’s rulers feel personally threatened by the ascendancy of groups such as Al-Qaeda in the early 2000s, or ISIS today. This is because they fear that these groups might seek to replace the Saud family with even more extreme Wahabbi leaders. Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s two holiest sites in Makkah and Madinah and as such is always a potential target for fundamentalist groups, which might seek to take over the cities. ISIS propaganda, for instance, vows “to liberate the ‘Land of the Two Holy Mosques’.”
As a strictly controlled police state with a wealthy state apparatus and an all-powerful monarchy, Saudi Arabia is far better equipped to tackle the internal terrorist threat than most of its neighbours are. However, the root problem will not disappear until Riyadh stops funding, encouraging and nurturing militant groups overseas whenever it suits Saudi interests to do so.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.