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Tracking Islamic State

The aftermath of the bomb attack on the Prophet's Mosque in Medina.

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.

Welcome to Jihad 2.0.

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. He is working on a book on social media and war.
The gravest threat would come if IS were able to get its hands on nuclear materials. The greatest danger comes from the most unstable countries with the largest amounts of documented radical activity: Pakistan, Russia, and India -- with Pakistan at the top of the list.

From Fallujah to Mosul, Paris to Brussels, the terrorist organization that calls itself Islamic State (IS) murders, maims, and enslaves with wanton abandon, if not exactly impunity. By now the world has woken up to the serious threat that the group poses, not just in the Middle East but also in Europe and the United States.

Islamic State's crimes are horrific enough with its present capabilities, but a question increasingly asked among politicians and military officials is: What if IS were to acquire the unthinkable -- a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)?

Earlier this month I attended the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe in Amsterdam, an NGO set up to tackle exactly this type of problem. And what emerged is that the danger of IS acquiring its most fearsome weapon yet is now a significant one.

According to an expert who participated in the forum, the danger is twofold. The gravest threat would come if IS were able to get its hands on nuclear materials. These would mean, for example, the type of enriched uranium Iran uses in its nuclear program -- from which IS could theoretically make a small nuclear bomb with further enrichment -- or existing weapons-grade plutonium, from which it could do the same.

But the probability of IS being able to do this is slim. The requisite materials are located in only 24 countries and are in highly guarded facilities. Set against this fact, however, have been several lapses in security. In 2012 an 82-year-old nun and peace activist, Megan Rice, broke into the Oakridge nuclear reservation in Tennessee. Rice never got near any nuclear material but a lot of systems had to fail for her to get as close as she did. Likewise, according to a British Ministry of Defense report, guards at one of the U.K.'s nuclear facilities were caught sleeping on the job. And then there is the problem of poor levels of security at a host of nuclear research centers in the former Soviet Union.

The probability of IS taking advantage of these lapses in security is low, but not insignificant. The greatest danger comes from the most unstable countries with the largest amounts of documented radical activity: Pakistan, Russia, and India -- with Pakistan at the top of the list.

Moreover, as retired Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, a chief researcher at the Center for International Security at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations, told me: "there is a lot of illegal activity, trafficking in illegal natural material...so [IS] could either pull off a purchase for a significant amount of money or intercept illegal trafficking. Plus, they seem to have enough money to recruit scientists to build a rudimentary nuclear device. Not a nuclear warhead, but an explosive nuclear device; it may, in fact, only weigh a few tons but it's still something you could assemble close to an urban area, or on a vessel that could then be brought to U.S. or European shores."

Many Ways To Dirty Bomb

Another problem would be a conventional weapons attack on a nuclear facility, which could conceivably cause a Chernobyl-like disaster or worse. It remains nearly impossible to attack a nuclear power plant, as they have substantial protection, but attacking nuclear-research facilities that have reactors filled with nuclear materials is far easier, and a lot of cities have these. According to Dvorkin even bombing a nuclear-storage facility with a relatively small bomb would mean the destruction of buildings within a 3-4-kilometer radius and fallout covering a much larger area and creating a lasting effect.

The second and far more immediate threat is that of attack with a radiological device. The materials for this are located in over a 100 countries and, critically found not just in specialized facilitates but in hospitals and research centers used, for example, in treating cancer -- places that, unlike major nuclear facilities, don't have gates, guards, and guns. The expert who attended the forum warned me that IS has many such facilities within the land it already controls and that is where the "dirty bomb" (a radiological as opposed to nuclear bomb) threat is now unequivocally real.

One can easily use conventional resources to make a dirty bomb, use agents to plant it in a major urban center, then simply watch it ignite and cause billions of dollars of damage. The loss of life would likely be modest -- only those in its immediate vicinity would die. But the psychological element would be huge; as a nuclear specialist told me, the public hears "radiological" and immediately panics. Then there would be the cost of demolishing and rebuilding the buildings that had been contaminated in a far wider area.

While nothing is certain when dealing with what is clearly a fanatical organization, it is clear that IS is organized and thinks strategically. As Dvorkin points out, the chances of IS using even a rudimentary nuclear device are accordingly slim. First, it would risk alienating even Sunni Muslim communities across the Middle East that might presently have some sympathy with its aims. Second, what is now a fractious coalition fighting against IS would almost certainly unite and bring its combined weight to utterly annihilate the organization.

Nonetheless, as The New York Times reported in February, a man linked to the November 13 Paris attackers was found in possession of surveillance footage of a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official. With IS any horror is possible, even if it is not probable.

The question more realistically facing us is not whether IS can employ a dirty bomb -- most likely in Europe or the United States -- but will it? And experts fear the worst. According to Dr. Moshe Kantor, president of the Luxembourg Forum, "the threat of a terrorist group, such as Islamic State, staging a nuclear bomb attack on a major European city, such as London, is 'high.'"

Given that IS has already carried out numerous chemical-weapons attacks in Syria, its willingness to use a WMD of some kind is clearly present. As Kantor continued "the threat of a so-called 'dirty bomb' attack is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War."

The world should be worried.

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. He is working on a book on social media and war

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"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.

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