AFRICANGLOBE – Sophisticated attacks by an Islamic State branch in Saudi Arabia show the jihadist group is better established there than previously suspected, and that fuelled by anger over Arab civil wars, Riyadh’s militancy problem is not going away.
A sustained militant campaign could undermine stability in the world’s top oil exporter and birthplace of Islam, one of the few major Arab states that has so far mostly avoided the political tumult and civil war shaking the region.
“Any country that experiences two consecutive large bombings has a problem. It’s not supposed to happen, so there clearly is a new network that the intelligence services are not completely in control of,” said Thomas Hegghammer, author of Jihad in Saudi Arabia.
The attacks have targeted members of the Shi’ite Muslim minority, policemen and Western expatriates, and represent the most serious militant threat inside the kingdom since it ended an al Qaeda campaign that lasted from 2003 to 2006.
Unlike that era, when militants headed by veterans of jihad in Afghanistan were mainly motivated by anger against the West, today’s jihadists are more focused on Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, the Shi’ite militias of Iraq, and their supporter Iran.
Among Saudi Arabians, it is common to hear bitter denunciations of Iran’s perceived role in orchestrating what they see as Shi’ite oppression of their fellow Sunnis in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, accompanied by Western indifference.
Even comparative liberals among the kingdom’s Sunni Islamists, such as Mohsen al-Awaji, an activist who was jailed repeatedly in the 1990s for agitating for a constitutional monarchy, say they understand the attraction of Islamic State.
“If Iran is demolishing houses, killing people, burning the people alive, and the international community is silent, if Bashar Assad is dropping these barrel bombs on the houses of the civilians, killing randomly, and the international dirty community is silent, of course the people will wait for Islamic State,” he said, jabbing the air with his finger.
Although Saudi Arabia’s militancy problem is far from unique — young Muslims from countries around the world have joined the radical cause – it is watched more closely than other places because it is a centre of ultra conservative Islamic thought.
Saudis played a leading role in the emergence of modern jihadist movements, providing clerics, fighters and funding for Islamist groups around the world until the government recognised it was a problem after domestic attacks by al Qaeda in 2003.
After those attacks, the kingdom detained over 11 000 suspected militants, sacked clerics and teachers found to have encouraged jihadist thinking and outlawed travel abroad to fight.