IS wants to ferment chaos in Saudi Arabia

IS wants to ferment chaos in Saudi Arabia
Comment: Islamic State group aims to instigate civil strife in Saudi Arabia, but the state can hit back by addressing the issues the group seeks to exploit, says Badr al-Ibrahim
5 min read
11 Aug, 2015
Conflicts in Yemen and Iraq along Saudi's borders have made spillover inevitable (AFP)
The bombing of the Special Emergency Forces mosque in the Asir region earlier this week was the largest attack of its kind to be perpetrated by the Islamic State group against Saudi security forces. 

It was preceded by multiple attacks against security patrols and checkpoints, shedding light on the nature of the targets chosen by IS as part of its Saudi strategy.

The leader of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has clearly stated his intention to target Shia Muslims and the Saudi kingdom. And indeed, IS has targeted a number of Shia mosques and security forces buildings and positions, as part of the group's campaign in the kingdom designed to boost its capacity to expand to new areas.

Engineering systematic chaos

If we examine the jihadists' theories, one conclusion we could draw is that the IS modus operandi in Saudi Arabia is to engineer systematic chaos across the kingdom to create gaps through which the radical group can slip in and gain a foothold. IS thus has set out to carry out attacks that drain both the state and society in Saudi Arabia.

Abu Bakr Naji, one of the ideologues of the extremist movement, says in his book, The Management of Savagery, that there are three stages that jihadists must complete before establishing an Islamic state.

The first is attrition of the enemy by targeting it with sustained and gradually escalating attacks with a long-term impact. Part of Abu Bakr Naji's attrition strategy also seeks to recruit new young jihadists to carry out formidable attacks from time to time that would capture the limelight.

     The leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has clearly stated his intention to target Shia Muslims and the Saudi kingdom.

In a next stage, these jihadists, through training and experience, would become prepared to wrest control of chosen areas from the hands of ruling regimes. "Managing savagery" is the name given to the second post-attrition stage, where a quasi-Islamic emirate is established to manage the mayhem, retaining some functions of a state.

In the third and final stage dubbed tamkin or "consolidation", the full Islamic state is finally established.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the godfather of IS, pursued a similar strategy based on engineered chaos and sectarian strife to achieve his political goals in Iraq.

The call for war

A letter Zarqawi sent to al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri - reported by London-based Al-Hayat in February 2004 - explained his plan to instigate sectarian civil war in Iraq by targeting Shia Muslims. Zarqawi hoped the inevitable blowback from the Shias in Iraq would "awaken... Sunnis, when they feel the deadly danger" of the Shias, as Zarqawi said.

Zarqawi's letter and strategy in Iraq, which IS would eventually adopt and develop further, demonstrate the jihadist group is determined to create civil strife that would produce a fertile climate for jihadists to grow and expand.

All this is consistent with the methods pursued by IS in Saudi Arabia, where the radical group is clearly attempting to weaken the state and society by means of sectarian attacks or by directly targeting the security services. However, one problem that IS faces in Saudi Arabia is the lack of a major popular base that supports the group, contrary to what many believe.

The attacks perpetrated by IS have put off the majority of Saudis, who tend to prefer stability, existing economic privileges and a strong state that can keep them safe.

In addition, attacking servicemen weakens the potential for the group to gain further popularity, and pits it against the families of the slain officers and the broad segment that yearns for stability.

     Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the godfather of IS, pursued a similar strategy in Iraq.

In truth, this is exactly what happened with al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, popular hostility to which was one of the factors that drove it to relocate to Yemen as the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. For one thing, the climate in Yemen is perfect for the radical group, with the weak state and chronic unrest and conflict there.

This is not to say that jihadist ideology has not been adopted by many Saudi youths over the past three decades, in various forms, for various causes and under different circumstances. Many analysts suggest Saudis were drawn to IS primarily because of the nature of events in Iraq and Syria.

Indeed, the collapse of the state and the civil war there have created an ideal climate for jihadist groups to proliferate.

Arguably, IS is also the product of sectarian tension in Iraq. Its recruits are fixated on the sectarian question, which means targeting Shia Muslims is key to instigating the chaos the radical group so desires.

Consequently, the link between the expansion of IS, and chaos, civil war, social fragmentation and weak states makes it urgent to rearrange the conditions of Arab societies and states, with particular focus on ending the civil war and concluding political settlements, especially in Syria and Iraq.

This should be the top priority in the context of efforts to combat IS, which feeds on chaos and sectarianism.

In Saudi Arabia, confronting sectarian rhetoric, safeguarding national unity and reassessing the religious discourse of the state's institutions are all urgently needed measures to confront the IS phenomenon.

However, defeating IS requires first and foremost removing the conditions that led to its metastasising across the Arab region, by ending civil wars and their root causes.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.