Osama bin Laden may be dead but if the July 4 bombings in Saudi Arabia demonstrate anything to a global audience forcibly becoming, if not numbed, then wearily resigned to the horrors of jihadist violence, it’s that his playbook is still in full effect -- albeit with some major alterations.
On July 4, in what were clearly coordinated strikes, three suicide attacks targeted the Saudi cities of Jeddah, Qatif and, most stunningly of all, Islam’s second holiest city, Medina, the burial place of the Prophet Mohammed.
In Jeddah, a Pakistani expatriate targeted the U.S. consulate, injuring two security officers in the process. A Shi’a mosque was targeted in Qatif. In Medina, it was a security office near the Prophet’s Mosque. Four guards were killed.
Both the timing of the attacks and choice of targets are vital to understanding their nature. So far, no group has claimed responsibility for them but indicators suggest that they are almost certainly the work of the terrorist group which calls itself Islamic State (IS).
The attacks took place during the end of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, which, according to Nicholas Heras, a Middle East researcher and the Bacevich fellow at the Center for a New American Security, “fit into the timetable of the would-be Caliphate's ongoing Ramadan campaign.” Islamic State, he told RFE/RL over e-mail, “has declared the month of Ramadan as a time of bleeding [for] what it views to be infidels and enemies -- Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”
Yet more instructive is the choice of targets -- and it is here that bin Laden’s legacy can most clearly be seen. Bin Laden, a Saudi national himself, always denied the legitimacy of the House of Saud, which rules the kingdom, as the rightful custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites for the entire global Muslim community, or Ummah -- Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed, and Medina. IS’s overriding goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate as far across the world as possible; central to this goal -- in fact, almost an absolute necessity -- would be to take control of Islam’s holiest territory.
In the words of Heras: “ISIS [Islamic State] would be sending a blunt message to the Saudi state, delivering a shot across the bow directed at the Al-Saud monarchy: we are coming for you.”
The Pillars That Prop Up Saudi Arabia
Two primary pillars hold up the Saudi monarchy: The first is the legitimacy it derives from being the custodian of Islam’s two holiest places. But it is a contested legitimacy. The Al-Saud tribe took what became Saudi Arabia by force in 1932. It has no real religious credentials and has only survived since by allowing its clerics to promote a severe brand of Wahhabi Islam across the kingdom in return for which the royal family receives much-needed religious backing. The combination of this backing and the custodianship of Mecca and Medina enhances the kingdom’s influence across the Muslim world accordingly. Not for nothing is the House of Saud called "The Sunni Lion.”
And here is where the attack in Medina comes in. It’s a risky move for IS to say the least. An attack on Mohammed’s resting place was always likely to enrage the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia's highest religious body has condemned the attacks unequivocally. Meanwhile, the hashtag #PrayForMedina has been retweeted across the Muslim world.
But the perpetrators were careful. They didn’t attack the Medina mosque itself, just a security office near it; an attack which can be read as being designed to call into question the Saudi’s monarchy’s claim to be competent “protectors” of the two holy sites. The attack, then, targeted the Saudi state’s security apparatus, not the Prophet.
The second pillar of the House of Saud is U.S. support (irretrievably entangled with the oil riches that financially prop up the kingdom). An IS attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah (which is also Saudi Arabia’s most cosmopolitan city) is a clear strike against its ultimate ideological Western foe, and coming as it did on July 4, U.S. Independence Day, has an inescapable and morbid symbolism that is plain for all to see.
But it is the attack on the Shi’a mosque in Qatif that has perhaps the most dangerous regional consequences. The Middle East is already in the throes of a battle between Sunni and Shi’a, approaching almost genocidal proportions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. For the Sunni Islamic State terrorist group, the apostate Shi’a are almost worse than the infidel West.
This attack is designed to do two things. First, as Heras told RFE/RL, IS clearly intended “to send a signal to the Shi’a of Saudi Arabia that they are infidels that should go out from the holiest lands of Islam.” The second is to create more divisions between Saudi Arabia’s persecuted Shi’a minority and the government, yet one more way of destabilizing the country. The fact that Qatif -- and the majority of the country’s Shia population -- is located in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, where the center of the Saudi state-controlled oil industry resides, only further serves to compound the problem for Riyadh.
Beyond Saudi Arabia, Shi’a militias that are now battling IS in Iraq and Syria -- many of which are backed by Iran -- are unlikely to take the attack on the mosque well, to say the least. Brutal reprisals against local Sunni populations in both those countries -- always a distinct possibility if not often a near certainty -- are now likely to increase. In Fallujah, there is already evidence that this retaliation is under way. As history has shown, many Sunnis on the receiving end of such brutality have, with no one else to protect them, joined the ranks of Islamic State.
The planning, the execution (although imperfect), and, most critically, the apparent intended effects of these attacks indicate Islamic State is to blame. The bombings were as cunning as they were designed to be brutal, and their goal, like bin Laden’s, was to send a message to the Middle East’s premier Sunni state. This time, however, the stakes are higher. Islamic State seeks not just to overthrow the Saudi royal family but to conquer the state itself.
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