July 5, 2016 | Policy Brief

Attacks Highlight Terrorists’ Goals in Saudi Arabia, but Also Limits

July 5, 2016 | Policy Brief

Attacks Highlight Terrorists’ Goals in Saudi Arabia, but Also Limits

Suicide bombers struck three Saudi cities on Monday, detonating themselves near the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, a U.S. diplomatic facility in Jeddah, and a Shiite mosque in the eastern city of Qatif. Although no group has claimed credit, security sources cited by Saudi-owned media said the attacks were likely directed by Islamic State central command in Syria and Iraq. The apparent coordination of the strikes, and the symbolism of targeting the second-holiest site in Islam, represents an escalation in terror plots against the kingdom. However, Monday’s attacks also underscore Saudi security officials’ increasing effectiveness in limiting civilian casualties.

Early Monday morning, security officers near the U.S. consulate in Jeddah stopped a Pakistani expatriate in the parking lot across the street, whereupon he detonated an explosive belt, injuring two guards (officers reportedly destroyed six other explosives at the scene as well).

Then, Monday evening, four security officers were killed and five wounded when a bomber detonated another explosive belt outside the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. According to the Interior Ministry, the perpetrator was intercepted while heading to the mosque. However, the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya network reported that the assailant had specifically targeted the officers by pretending he wanted to join them in breaking the Ramadan fast.

Millions of pilgrims visit the mosque every year, and the attack evokes memories of a two-week takeover in 1979 in which insurgents seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, leaving over more than 100 people dead.

At almost the same time, at least two bombs exploded near a Shiite mosque in Qatif. No injuries were reported, but the government indicated three bodies were being identified at the site, raising the possibility of either additional casualties or multiple perpetrators.

IS has targeted Saudi Shiite mosques several times in the last two years, killing dozens of worshippers. After the first such attack in 2014, Riyadh’s then-information minister ordered the closure of a television channel that had a record of incitement against Shiites, but the minister was fired by then-king Abdullah before he could do so.

Monday’s bombings follow a slew of IS-linked attacks in Muslim-majority countries this holy month of Ramadan, including in Malaysia, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Iraq – with the last of these killing over two hundred people. Also this weekend, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Kuwait announced the arrest of an IS operative who allegedly was plotting to attack the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry and a Shiite mosque

In 2004, the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah was the site of an al-Qaeda hostage-taking that left four security guards and five consular staff dead. This time, although Saudi security officials lacked the intelligence to prevent these attacks entirely, they were nonetheless able to prevent significant civilian casualties. In this sense, Monday could even be considered a partial success for Saudi security policy, and for Washington’s decade-long effort to train the country’s forces at facility protection.

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidAWeinberg.


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