Saudi Arabia in the Cross-hairs of the Islamic State by Roger S. Farhat
IndraStra Global

Saudi Arabia in the Cross-hairs of the Islamic State by Roger S. Farhat

By Roger S. Farhat

Since the international campaign got underway against the Islamic State (also known by the acronyms ISIS, IS) in Iraq and Syria, the group's ambitious supporters have been empowered by the dazzling ISIS media department on social media and its relentless calls for threatening campaigns against member states of the coalition, their officials and people. Notably, anti-Saudi rhetoric, as well as Twitter campaigns has increased markedly since January.

This anti-Saudi sentiment was first witnessed when Saudi Arabia featured among the first batch of five countries mentioned by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his November 13, 2014 speech, in which he acknowledged pledges of obedience and loyalty to him and his group by local jihadi factions in the relevant countries, crowning them as provincial divisions of his Islamic State.

On January 30, the Anbar provincial division of the Islamic State in Iraq distributed a brief message on pro-ISIS Twitter accounts claiming credit for an attack on a Saudi outpost on the Iraqi-Saudi border that took place three days earlier. The message reads: "Storming a border post on the artificial border with the Arabian Peninsula, which led to the elimination of all who were in it, and taking what was inside as spoils, then blowing it up."

Subsequently, reports surfaced on social media claiming that ISIS elements had managed to infiltrate the borders and hide among locals in the town of Rafha.  While no official confirmation of the infiltration has been released by Saudi Arabia or the Islamic State, a famous Saudi blogger and tweeter named Mujtahid who is known for his credible if sometimes controversial leaks from within the narrow circles of the royal family and who boosts some 1.2 million followers, wrote on his Twitter account:

Details: attack on the border-guards by a cell coming from Iraq, supported by a domestic cell, leading to the flee of guards and assimilation of the two groups in the suburbs of Rafha.

Four Islamic State militants carried out an attack earlier, on January 5, near the town of Arar, killing a Saudi general and two border guards. Security forces later stated that the four attackers had initially been fighting in Syria but went to Iraq shortly before the attack.

Only a couple of days earlier, a video released by the ar-Raqqah provincial division of the Islamic State featured Saudi fighters threatening that the group would invade Saudi Arabia, and inciting Muslims in the Kingdom to carry out attacks against "disbelieving sects." 

The video, entitled, "Message from Lion of the Peninsula," which was distributed on Twitter and jihadi forums, comes as part of a series of Islamic State videos to celebrate the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. It begins with excerpts from a January 26 audio speech "Say, Die in Your Rage" by Islamic State spokesman al-‘Adnani, where he briefly mentions[1] Saudi Arabia and rejoices over the death of the Saudi King. One of the fighters in the video said that he and his countrymen had joined the Islamic State with the intention of returning home as "conquerors." Another fighter addressed the Saudi people, promising al-Zarqawi-style attacks in the Kingdom stating: "We will booby-trap the cars. We will make explosive belts. We will test the silenced weapons."

Another video, titled “A Meeting on the Occasion of the Death of the Tyrant Abd Obama bin Abdul Ingleez (Slave of Obama the Son of the Slave of the English)” was posted on YouTube on January 25, in which alleged fighters from the Islamic State’s “Yemen Province” celebrated the death of the Saudi King and threatened to launch attacks inside Saudi Arabia. Filmed at a desert setting, four armed and masked men delivered gloating speeches and recited poetry. One of them vowed to the Saudi government that the Islamic State "Mujahideen are preparing the gear for you" adding that "By Allah the Magnificent, we will not be satisfied until we raise this banner over the Kaabah," where Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will lead prayer, according to the fighter.

An older video was posted online on January 12, featuring around a dozen Saudi Islamic State fighters based in Syria's northeastern province of al-Hasaka, one of which delivered the message lauding the attack on Shi'ites in the Saudi governorate of al-Ahsa on November 4, 2014. The video, which was distributed on Twitter and jihadi forums, was the second episode in a series titled "To You, My People, a Message," the first and later ones directed at France.

Commenting on reactions to the killing of seven Shiite worshippers by homegrown Sunni assailants, the fighter denounced the Saudi clergymen who condemned the attack, and advised Saudis to disavow any relatives working for or supporting the Saudi government: "If you have a soldier, a member in the military field, in the Interior Ministry, first disavow him, then kill him."

Pro- and Anti-Islamic State Saudis Face-Off on Twitter:

The anti-Saudi monarchy predilection and campaigns orchestrated by jihadists from around the Islamist spectrum are neither new nor uncommon, as they surface at intervals, depending on regional and international developments and events.

However, these sentiments were amplified and gained new magnitude when the self-appointed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi vowed in his November 13, 2014 speech "to the dislike of the disbelievers," to spread his tentacles to the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and threatened its rulers, saying “They will not know rest from now on."

Back then, al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of a provincial division in Saudi Arabia, among other theaters, and dedicated a section of his speech to incite his supporters in the Kingdom to attack local Shiites: "Draw your swords! Deal with the rafidah [Shiites] first, wherever you find them."

The next targets are the royal family, Westerners and American bases, according to al-Baghdadi, who assured the Saudi people that the "vanguards of the Islamic State will soon reach you."  

Shortly thereafter, Twitter became the battlefield for both Islamic State supporters and those loyal to the Saudi regime, particularly via the hash-tag #Islamic_States_soon_in_Arabian_Peninsula (translated from Arabic), launched by IS to propagate their threats.

Since then, digital campaigns on social media have intensified, both in the form of individual efforts and Islamic State-sponsored systematic campaigns. The death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz presented an additional opportunity for a blitz of terror threats and anti-monarchy propaganda in a bid to provoke fear and uncertainty inside the kingdom, particularly among the ruling elite, its beneficiaries and supporters.

One Twitter user posted a series of messages on February 25, pointing to the Saudi province of Taif, where, he claims, the important military radar systems, bunkers and H.Q.s are located. He followed the tweet with a suggestion to change the province's name to "the Peninsula's Fallujah, given, he claims "that it will witness the most significant and fierce battles." 

A series of images depicting Islamic State fighters parading in Mecca and the streets of major Saudi cities, such as Riyadh, flooded Twitter in January. Another set of digital images featured iconic Saudi centers stamped with the Islamic State seal, conveying an apparent message that these destinations are now on the groups' crosshairs. 

While some seemed an authentic part of the campaigns, other images appeared to be fabricated by a third party, judging from the broken or poor Arabic language used in the messages printed on the images or accompanying tweets. One IS-supporter claimed that the account behind some of the images, like the above three, is in fact run by Iran, basing her claim on the translation caption on Twitter, which stated "Translation from Farsi."

Caricatures also featured as tactics deployed in the campaign and they were used to portray the Arab rulers as lackeys of the Jews and Christians, which appeals to many frustrated Muslims across the Arab countries.

Later in February, the anti-Saudi crusade took a new form as it shifted from sowing fear and confusion among Saudis to focusing on discrediting the royal family by pointing to their policies that contradict the religion of Islam. This strategy is one of the many easy ways for Islamic State recruiters and propagandists to sway ultra-conservative audiences in their favor.

Influential figures that voice unequivocal stances against the Islamic State and condemn its atrocities and declared intentions are routinely smeared and marked by the group's support base, putting many of them on a target list. Moreover, on February 23, several pro-Islamic State Twitter entities announced the disclosure of the person behind the controversial @Wikibaghdady (also known as Baghdadi Leaks) responsible for exposing classified details about the Islamic State's inner circle of decision-making, al-Baghdadi's top aides and the Shura Council, in addition to shedding light on the real reasons for the severe rift between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN).

The account that was established on December 5, 2013 and generated shock-waves within the jihadi world, remains active. Throughout last year, Wikibaghdady published full names of individuals inside Saudi Arabia, secret meetings where attendees allegedly plotted attacks on behalf of the Islamic State, together with details about purported sleeper-cells lying dormant in a number of localities inside the Kingdom. A wide-scale crackdown by the authorities resulted in the apprehension of dozens of people whose names were mentioned on the Twitter account. The operator was finally identified as Ahmad al-Qayedi, according to Islamic State activists, who requested that his photo be disseminated for the purpose of retribution. 

It should be noted that the Islamic State militants, supporters and sympathizers who took part in the campaign against the house of al-Saud and incited against their regime are almost entirely Saudi nationals. Likewise, those who engaged in counter campaigns were mostly Saudis, some of which acted individually as opposed to simultaneous apparent state-sponsored campaigns.  

Yet, not all those who oppose the declared Islamic State schemes for Saudi Arabia share the same motive. One critic, clearly identified by his full name, quoted a Quranic verse by the Prophet Muhammad that reads: "They kill the Muslims and spare the pagans." He follows the quote with a comment of his own, wondering "Where are they [ISIS] with regards to Israel and Iran," as if implying that the Islamic State is after the Sunnis, while sparing the Shiites and the Jews, who are apparently those that should be targeted instead. This sentiment is part of a broader trend shared and voiced by numerous "mainstream" Sunni Muslims across the world.

Brewing Threat:

Saudi Arabia is one of the countries participating in the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State, and a main ally of the U.S. and the U.K., which makes it a legitimate target for reprisal attacks, as al-Baghdadi said last November. Until the takeover of Mosul on June 10, 2014, violent Sunni insurgency in Iraq - in which al-Baghdadi's group played a major role - allegedly enjoyed steady support from Saudi Arabia against the rule of former Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki, who accused Riyadh on more than one occasion of fomenting sectarian violence in his country. Since then, things have taken a different turn between the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia as the Kingdom sponsored several of the prominent Islamist factions in Syria, some of which entered in bloody conflict with ISIS throughout 2014.

Shortly after King Salman succeeded his late half-brother King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz to the throne, he made a generous giveaway, totaling over $32 billion in the form of a pay hike for state employees, following in the footsteps of his predecessor, who made a handout of $37 billion, mainly for the unemployed, in February 2011, soon after the outbreak of the Arab upheavals. This generosity was meant to safeguard the situation from acts of unrest and prevent potential disturbances.

Maintaining domestic stability remains a major concern for Saudi Arabia, given that the Kingdom is surrounded by conflicts, amid growing grievances at home, whether Shiite dissatisfaction and oppression, or widespread poverty. With the Islamic State moving ever closer to the borders from the north as well as the south, pressure on the al-Saud regime is significantly mounting especially with the regime and the Islamic State competing on implementing strict Islamic ideals, practices and penal codes based on Sharia law. However, between the regime and the Islamic State, the latter is the one perceived as truly Islamic and representative of pure Islam among Muslim hardliners, who consider family monarchies un-Islamic. 

Saudi Arabia embraces the intolerant extremist Wahhabi Islamic doctrine, whose teachings are the catalyst behind most radical takfiri groups and practices around the world, and from which salafi-jihadi entities derive religious legitimacy to justify their violence. Saudi Arabia is also a hotbed for a large percentage of homegrown fundamentalists manifested in the overwhelming numbers of Saudi nationals fighting on jihadi battlefields worldwide, particularly in Iraq and Syria. With the family monarchy widely perceived as a corrupt Western lackey, coupled with a large Shiite minority, and thousands of Saudi Islamic State fighters and sympathizers, the scene is set for the group to spread unrest and bloodshed.

Given past incidents and an increasingly hostile diatribe, fueled by Saudi participation in the war efforts against the Islamic State, albeit on a very limited scale, the likelihood of an ISIS terror attack inside the country is becoming more realistic.

Expectedly, the developments in Yemen and the Saudi-led air campaign against the Shiite Houthi rebels will [in]directly play into the hands of AQAP and the Islamic State provincial division as the country disintegrates and degenerates into total chaos. This might only temporarily delay IS schemes against the Kingdom of al-Saud, given that a common rejectionist (pejorative reference for Shiites) enemy is under intensive "Sunni" attack. To further cement a Sunni consensus for its kinetic operation against the Shiite Houthis, the regime is trying to resonate through the multitude of Saudi-financed and controlled media outlets that it is countering an existential Iranian threat creeping closer to its backyard in Yemen. It is doubtful that the flexing of Saudi muscles and the display of power and military prowess will intimidate the Islamic State or leave an impression on its many sympathizers and supporters in and around the Kingdom. Their threat will lie dormant till they decide the convenient timing to implement their schemes. After all, who would have imagined that the very first attack to be orchestrated by the recently established IS Yemeni division would be the deadliest in the country's history!

If it sticks to its modus operandi, the Islamic State will seek to stage random hit-and-run raids on border posts and patrols, SVBIEDs against security installations, and intensify its targeting of Shiite populations and places of worship, before it becomes entrenched enough to embark on high-profile daring attacks, such as attempts to assassinate officials, royals and military personnel. Additionally, the Islamic State is likely to execute sophisticated plots to disrupt oil exports given that the sector is the Kingdom's major source of revenue. Moreover, the Islamic State might well resort to systematic targeting of Western expats and residential compounds in a bid to drive Westerners out of "Muhammad's land."

The views expressed are the writer’s own.


[1] Regarding Saudi Arabia and the death of the king, al-‘Adnani said: "We ask Allah to cast him into hell - and wretched is the destination - to the severest of punishments, with Pharaoh and Hāmān. […] We ask Allah the exalted to destroy al-Salul (a derogatory term for the house of al-Saud), the dogs of the Jews and Crusaders along with their helpers and supporters from amongst the evil scholars and the callers to deviance and to hasten the liberation of the lands of al-Haramayn and the Peninsula of Muhammad."