On July 18 the Saudi Ministry of the Interior held a press conference in Riyadh in which it announced the arrest over the past few weeks of 431 suspects allegedly affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the self-styled “Islamic State.” While some critics of the Saudi government will likely characterize the arrest of such a large number of militants in a short period of time as a “failure” of its decade-long counterterrorism campaign, Saudi authorities portrayed this extensive operation as a triumph for their security services. A more nuanced reading of these arrests and recent terrorist attacks should take into account the Saudi government’s long and largely successful track record in countering militant Islamists. Nevertheless, vanquishing ISIL could prove a more daunting challenge than taking on al-Qaeda a decade ago.
The Saudi government’s counterterrorism campaign is arguably the oldest and most extensive in the world. Perhaps its most notable success was in 2007 as it dismantled al-Qaeda’s presence inside the kingdom forcing its remnants to flee to Yemen. However, the recent spate of terrorist attacks targeting security personnel in Riyadh and Shia mosques in the Eastern Province have once again reminded the world – and perhaps Saudis themselves – that the turmoil in Yemen and Iranian “meddling” in the Arab world are not the only serious threats to Saudi Arabia’s security.
Saudi counterterrorism officials have adopted a holistic approach to countering al-Qaeda in the past, and that same approach is currently being deployed against ISIL. The approach has been two-pronged. First came an ongoing security operation that led to the arrest of thousands of militants, along with a systematic attempt at the rehabilitation of hundreds of others. This has been augmented by a public awareness campaign that attempts to discredit ISIL’s narrative on religious grounds. Political and religious leaders, as well as the Saudi media, have condemned ISIL and accused it of deviating from the peaceful teachings of Islam and of targeting mostly Muslims in its attacks.
The Saudi Interior Ministry has been relatively frank in acknowledging terrorist operations, whether successful or foiled. It has also announced new arrests and prosecutions, and has issued statistics outlining the number of militants who have fought abroad in places like Syria and Iraq and who therefore pose another potential domestic security threat.
On July 18, ministry spokespeople detailed what they described as a cluster of ISIL cells that are divided into three main groups. The first, composed of 97 people, carried out the attack against a Shia religious center in the Governorate of al-Ahsa in the Eastern Province in November 2014. The same cell targeted a security patrol in Riyadh late in 2014. The second, with some 190 members, conducted a suicide bombing at a mosque in the Shia-majority oasis of Qatif and another, this time failed, suicide mission at a mosque in Damam in May. The third group, composed of 144 people, which was described as the “infrastructure” of the organization, was in charge of recruitment and propagating ISIL’s message. Saudi authorities also revealed that ISIL had been in the process of establishing a training camp in the desert of Sharoura.
The organizational sophistication and functional specialization of this network suggest a more extensive ISIL presence in Saudi Arabia than had been previously assumed. The arrests also suggest that ISIL’s “jihadist” narrative may have resonated more widely with Saudis than al-Qaeda’s did a decade ago.
Saudi authorities have correctly maintained that the carnage in Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has launched a brutal military campaign against the Sunni majority population, has furnished ISIL with a jihadist narrative that has seduced thousands of misguided Muslim youths from around the world to travel to Syria to join the so-called jihad. The publicly acknowledged presence of the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah – whose cadres fight alongside the Syrian regime’s army – has contributed to the conflict’s strongly sectarian character. This in turn has enabled ISIL to frame an eschatological narrative that informs and rationalizes the brutal violence that has become its hallmark. While some 2,500 Saudis have joined the fighting in Syria, where they have reportedly been responsible for a large number of suicide missions, many of them have now set their eyes on the ultimate prize: “The Land of the Two Holy Sanctuaries,” as Saudi Arabia is known in jihadist rhetoric.
Despite its general revulsion at Western civilization and modern social innovations, ISIL has used high technology, and especially social media, to prey on alienated youth in desperate search for a sense of purpose and belonging. There is ample evidence suggesting that ISIL targets those who are not well versed in Islam for recruitment. It has also attracted a large number of misfits with long criminal records, the majority of whom have not been religiously observant.
Saudis are among the most active users of social media, especially Twitter, in the world. While many countries are trying to find ways to shield youth from falling victim to ISIL’s online recruitment strategies, the Saudis have a particularly difficult challenge given the pervasiveness of social media in the kingdom. Nevertheless, the recent arrests netted a number of online ISIL sympathizers, including a man who had issued a death threat against a popular Saudi actor whose television show mocked ISIL on more than one occasion.
The danger from ISIL, however, lies not only in its broad reach, but also in the totality of its indoctrination. This was demonstrated in dramatic fashion on July 14, as one ISIL member killed his father during a shootout with Saudi police in the southwestern city of Khamis Mushait. Another killed his uncle, who worked for the Interior Ministry, before trying to carry out a failed suicide attack in Riyadh. While senior al-Qaeda leaders warn that extreme acts of violence could tarnish their brand and hamper their recruitment efforts, ISIL deliberately uses extreme violence to strike fear in the heart of its opponents and to project an image of invincibility to potential recruits.
Saudi security officials have the experience and capability to foil ISIL attacks and to disrupt their networks and cells. In the long term, ISIL will likely not succeed in its effort to upend the political order in Saudi Arabia. However, as U.S. officials have readily admitted, the threat from ISIL will remain a potent danger to the United States for some time to come. That is also very much the case for Saudi Arabia. While each will have to wage the struggle against ISIL in its own way, there are not only ample grounds, but also a pressing need, for as much cooperation as possible.