ISIL’s two suicide bomb attacks against Shiite mosques in eastern Saudi Arabia in the past week are, perhaps, even more disturbing than its recent territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. These attacks are intended to put Saudi Arabia in a no-win situation, and a position in which its responses will inevitably play into the hands of the terrorists.
Obviously the attacks are designed to communicate that ISIL is able to operate effectively on Saudi soil. The terrorist group openly boasts that it has demonstrated this capability in spite of the heightened security at Shiite mosques across the country following the first attack, last Friday, in Al Qudeeh that killed 21 people.
So the challenge to Saudi government authority and sovereignty reflected in the attacks is unambiguous. It is also an attempt to take advantage of, or rather to sabotage, Saudi foreign policy. The sectarian nature of the atrocities arises in the context of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen against the Zaydi Shiite Houthi militia, and a concomitant rise in both implicit and explicit anti-Shiite rhetoric in some parts of Saudi discourse.
Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen was a significant political blow to ISIL, since the extremist group always tries to position itself as the Sunni vanguard against all expressions of Shiite power. Although this was not Riyadh’s motivation, its intervention against the Houthis undermined ISIL’s claims to be that unchallenged spearhead. So, ISIL now seeks to stoke sectarian tensions inside Saudi Arabia in an effort to regain control of a narrative in which it is always leading the battle against “the atheist rafida” (as ISIL’s derogatory anti-Shiite terminology puts it).
ISIL’s strategy is the height of cynicism. If the Saudi government cracks down on the terrorist group inside the country and moves strongly and effectively to protect its Shiite citizens, ISIL will denounce the Kingdom for supporting “impure infidels” (another favourite ISIL insult for Shiites). ISIL will also present itself as leading the battle to “purify the land of the two shrines” from this “impure” presence. If, on the other hand, the Saudi government is either too restrained or unsuccessful in its efforts to crush the terrorists, ISIL may succeed in fomenting dangerous new levels of sectarian tension in Saudi Arabia, and particularly in its strategic and oil-rich Eastern Province governorate.
Since its earlier incarnation as Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIL’s stock in trade has been the fomenting and exploitation of Sunni-Shiite tensions and its concomitant efforts to present itself as the most powerful, effective and uncompromising enemy of Shiites and defender of Sunnis. ISIL’s success in the Syrian conflict was a direct and immediate consequence of the fact that the Assad dictatorship sought to use precisely the same strategy, but in reverse, to hold on to power.
Even in the early days of the uprising, when it was facing little more than unarmed and nonsectarian demonstrators, the Syrian regime sought to present itself as the defenders of Alawites, Christians and all non-Sunnis against an alleged, and at the time fictional, jihadist onslaught. The dynamic the regime carefully crafted played perfectly into the hands of ISIL, which, in turn, was exactly the kind of extremist enemy the dictatorship wanted to dominate the rebellion.
Both the dictatorship and ISIL became perceived in large parts of Syrian society as precisely the kind of monstrous sectarian enemy that allowed each to present themselves as saviours, no matter how otherwise distasteful, to their existentially-threatened constituencies.
The dynamic in Iraq has been similar, particularly insofar as the power of sectarian Shiite militias and political organisations has alienated, and even terrified, large portions of the Iraqi Sunni Arab population. As in Syria, this has allowed ISIL in Iraq to outrageously, but effectively, pose as that community’s last line of defence.
Al Qaeda in Iraq pursued a long-standing policy of ruthless massacres and atrocities against Shiite targets in a conscious and deliberate effort to radicalise Shiite fighters and foment bitter sectarian divisions. It was characterised precisely by spectacular suicide bomb attacks against Shiite mosques, such as that targeting the Golden Mosque in Samarra in 2006. The attack itself did not cause any deaths, but it led to the killing of at least 1,000 people in brutal sectarian reprisals in the subsequent days.
ISIL’s strategy has always been to seek to provoke sectarian conflict, and sectarian atrocities, to allow it to rationalise its extremism, justify its abuses and pose as defenders of the Sunnis. The effectiveness of this strategy in both Iraq and Syria, wittingly or unwittingly abetted by sectarian extremists on the other side in both countries, continues to this day.
Saudi Arabia is, therefore, on full notice of the exact nature of the severe threat posed by ISIL’s attacks against Shiite mosques. To avoid this trap it must find a delicate and precise balance that allows it to successfully protect and reassure its own Shiite population while minimising the ability of ISIL operatives to carry out further sectarian atrocities. King Salman has said the authorities will pursue the perpetrators and efforts to combat extremism will not stop. To be successful, Saudi policies are going to have to ensure that Saudi Shiites do not feel abandoned or unprotected, and that Saudi Sunnis understand that they are the real targets of ISIL’s terrorism.
This article originally appeared in The National.