The agreement ending the rift with Qatar seems to have helped mitigate some regional tensions, but will the spirit of cooperation continue?
The appalling massacre on Bastille Day in Nice, France – in which at least 84 people were killed by a French-Tunisian man driving a 19-ton refrigerated truck and armed with an automatic pistol – capped off several weeks of virtually unprecedented terrorist carnage around the world. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) appeared to be the primary link between atrocities ranging from Nice to Baghdad, Dhaka to Istanbul, and perhaps most shockingly, especially to Muslims around the world, the holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia. As the group appears to be modifying its strategy to cope with new pressures, the anti-ISIL coalition and NATO are due to meet at the defense ministerial level at a military base in Maryland on July 20. The recent attacks and a number of other developments reflect the growing centrality of Saudi Arabia’s role in the battle against ISIL.
In some cases, such as the attacks in Turkey, ISIL’s direct hand appeared to be at work as seasoned operatives were linked to the crimes. In other cases, the connection appears more tenuous, with ISIL having apparently inspired the violence, or, as in the case of Nice, merely claiming a connection to the attacks, which some still question. Regardless, ISIL appears to be adapting its strategy to cope with a new, and in many ways more challenging, environment. The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIL recently claimed that the militant group has lost 45 percent of territory it had held in Iraq, and 20 percent of the area it once held in Syria. Moreover, the trend is running entirely against ISIL, and the group has not seized any new territory in well over a year.
Both ISIL and its opponents can see the writing on the wall: The territory in Syria and Iraq that ISIL has occupied since 2013, and in which it declared its “caliphate” in 2014, is rapidly being lost, and the group is preparing for the end of its quasi-statehood status. One of the primary reasons for ISIL’s break with al-Qaeda in 2014 was its adoption of the caliphate and statehood model, which al-Qaeda since its founding by Osama bin Laden in the 1990s has regarded as a long-term and distant goal. Al-Qaeda was founded on the grounds that “jihadists” need to target the Western presence (the “far enemy”) in the Muslim and, especially, Arab worlds, in preparation for overthrowing all the government in those areas (the “near enemy”). This is best accomplished, they have maintained, through a campaign of transnational terrorism that will sap the will and ability of Western powers, particularly the United States, to bolster the existing Arab and Muslim governments and state system. With the Western presence out of the way, they have argued, the Arab and Muslim worlds can then be reshaped in the “Salafist-jihadist” image. Emerging from the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq that rose to prominence during the U.S. occupation beginning in 2003, ISIL rejected this stratagem in favor of trying to secure a de facto state in war-torn areas. It sought to postpone any direct confrontation with Western powers, and even more secure regional governments, until the jihadist movement was greatly strengthened.
Since the U.S.-led attacks against ISIL began in August 2014, however, the organization has been increasingly forced out of its shell and compelled to lash out against many of the targets, both Western and local, that it would have been more comfortable attacking at a later stage of its development. And, two years later, as it prepares for the probable collapse of its founding model, ISIL appears to be morphing into a group that is adopting much of al-Qaeda’s transnational terrorism approach. The recent surge of terrorist attacks – directly organized, deliberately encouraged, or indirectly inspired – by ISIL is almost certainly a direct response to this crisis, as is chatter about the establishment of a “virtual caliphate” online, given that the brick-and-mortar, retail caliphate in the areas surrounding Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq may not survive much longer. Much of the debate has focused on whether this strategic adaptation is a sign of ISIL’s weakness, because its preferred stratagem appears to be failing, or its long-term strength, because of its continued viability and adaptability. It is both: ISIL is adapting partly because it can, which is an element of strength, but also because it must, which is a reflection of a degree of weakness. Even as it loses its territory and much of its income and power-base, ISIL remains a profound menace in much of the world, particularly the Middle East.
ISIL is thus altering its strategy to one much closer to that long promoted by al-Qaeda. This was reflected in its brazen attacks not merely inside Saudi Arabia, but in the Muslim holy city of Medina. The July 4 attacks included a suicide bombing in the parking lot outside the Prophet’s Mosque, one of the holiest sites in the world, sacred to all Muslims. The attacks also came during the holy month of Ramadan. ISIL knew that attacks in Medina, especially at the Prophet’s Mosque, would be particularly offensive to millions of Muslims around the globe. But there is ample evidence that these attacks were centrally coordinated and authorized, rather than loosely inspired. For ISIL, there was a calculated trade off, with the group concluding that whatever damage was caused to its reputation among Muslims by attacking such a holy site was a price worth paying in order to try to humiliate and undermine the Saudi government. The message is: “You, supposedly the ‘custodians’ of the holy places, cannot actually protect them.” The corollary is not just that ISIL can strike inside the kingdom when and where it chooses, but also that Saudi security and intelligence are seriously threatened by the terrorists.
This focus on Saudi Arabia – along with other key targets such as Turkey and France – brings ISIL closer to al-Qaeda’s long-standing approach, particularly as developed during the bin Laden era. Under bin Laden’s leadership, al-Qaeda never disguised that one of its main aims was to target and overthrow the Saudi state because of its central role as the guardian of key holy places of Islam, and as a crucial ally of Western powers, particularly the United States. As ISIL has grown into a potent global brand among Muslim extremists, it, too, has found itself increasingly at direct odds with Riyadh. The battle is essentially over legitimacy in the interpretation of Islam as a social text and the implementation of Islamic governance. The Saudi and ISIL models do share some starting principles, though their a priori assumptions differ at least as much as they coincide. But, much more importantly, their conclusions about how these ideas, insofar as they are shared, should be applied to society, governance, and international relations are almost entirely contradictory and fundamentally incompatible. Saudi Arabia and ISIL cannot coexist or accommodate each other. Therefore, the overthrow of the Saudi state is becoming a priority for the internationalizing ISIL, as it has long been for al-Qaeda. And the destruction of ISIL has thus emerged as a key national security imperative for Saudi Arabia.
Among the many ironies of the present situation is that as ISIL finds itself compelled to adopt an al-Qaeda-like approach emphasizing transnational terrorism, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra may be moving to establish an on-the-ground quasi-state “emirate” in northern Syria. So the two extremist groups may be exchanging strategic emphases as their situations and contingencies shift. This raises the alarming prospect that, at some future date and particularly if leaders who have come to prominence during periods of antagonism are killed or unseated, the two groups might find themselves suddenly sharing a vision and strategy for global “jihad,” and unify. As things stand, the rivalries appear far too great to allow for that. But since ISIL is increasingly behaving like al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria is contemplating adopting key aspects of ISIL’s approach, the prospect cannot be discounted.
Whether that happens or not, ISIL’s shifting strategic approach is likely to increasingly emphasize attacks against Saudi Arabia, while the Saudi government has no choice but to intensify its own battle against such extremism, in the kingdom and in the Middle East at large. Saudi Arabia cannot, and apparently does not, have any illusions about the crucial role it plays in the ambitions of jihadist extremism of all varieties, whether its adherents are pursuing a traditional al-Qaeda strategy or ISIL’s more recent, and apparently now failing, caliphate innovation. Riyadh’s repeated offers to contribute Saudi ground forces for combat operations against ISIL inside Syria have been consistently rejected. No doubt this is partly because of the ongoing disagreement between Washington and Riyadh about broader goals and strategies in Syria. But the United States and its Western allies have crucial, and increasingly committed, partners in the battle against the self-described Salafist-jihadists – whether of the al-Qaeda or ISIL variety – in the Saudi government and society that find themselves a consistent target of extremists purporting to act in the name of Islam.
Given the complementarity of long-term economic interests between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and the ties already taking root, relations will likely continue to growth.
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