Seeking to Spark Sectarian War, ISIS Bombs Saudi Arabia

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The Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bombing in Saudi Arabia on May 23 is significant in that it's the group's first claimed suicide bombing in the country, but it's also a strategic move to spark sectarian upheaval in the Shiite-majority province that holds 90% of royal family's oil reserves.

The Islamic State is trying to spark a cycle of sectarian violence that will destabilize Saudi Arabia and heighten the Royal Family's tension with Iran. The terror group thrives in environments where Shiites feel they need Iranian protection and where Sunnis feel threatened by real or imagined Iranian influence. The Saudi Eastern Province has the added benefit of endangering the Royal Family's most critical resource.

The bombing's objective is to spur Islamic State supporters in Saudi Arabia into action against the Shiites and the royal family. An October 2014 poll found that 5% of the Saudi population of 29 million has a positive opinion of the Islamic State (2% very positive and 3% somewhat positive).

The Saudi population includes about 8.5 million foreign residents, and it is unclear if they are included in the poll. This means that the Islamic State has a pool of somewhere between 1 million and 1.45 million supporters in Saudi Arabia that could be inspired to act.

The prospects for the Islamic State are much brighter if an atmosphere of sectarian warfare is instigated; a scenario that can be easily envisioned.

The sensitivity of the Saudi royal family to the bombing's impact on sectarianism was evident in the immediate booking of the grand mufti on state television to condemn the attack on "sons of the homeland." The language was deliberately chosen to assure the Shiite minority that the Saudi government cares about their well-being and to distance itself from any Salafists who may cheer the bombing.

The New York Times reported on how Saudis were declining to donate blood in the wake of the Islamic State bombing, deriding them as infidels and one saying that a Shiite "does not deserve even my spit." Although there are Saudi Sunnis who stand up for Shiites — like one prominent human rights activist who is a leader in the Shammar tribe — their rarity is apparent in the very fact that their activism makes news headlines.

The Saudi government may deploy Salafist-dominated security forces to the Eastern Province to prevent attacks and to stop the Shiites from holding large demonstrations of grief that could easily turn political and demand better treatment.

The Eastern Province is known for its protests against the Saudi government and subsequent arrests of activists and clerics demanding an end to discrimination and democratic reform. The leader of the Municipal Council in Qatif, where the bombing took place, has already blamed the Saudi government for promoting anti-Shiite sentiment.

Through the bombing, the Islamic State has created a catch-22: Any move by the Saudi government to enhance security in the province risks inflaming the passions of the Shiites, resulting in clashes and oppression that further the cycle.

The popularity of Sunni terrorist groups known for oppressing Shiites is a strong indication of how quickly sectarian fervor could sweep across Saudi Arabia, particularly if there are mass Shiite protests and Iran rallies to their side.

The aforementioned poll found that 52% of Saudis support Hamas and 33% support the Muslim Brotherhood. A November 2014 poll by Zogby showed that Saudi Arabia is the only Middle Eastern besides Turkey where a majority (53%) feel that the Muslim Brotherhood played a positive role in Egypt and Tunisia.

A frightening 15% of Saudis most favor Al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, among all the forces fighting the Syrian regime. About 9% support the Islamic Front, a Saudi-backed Salafist group and 3% preferred the Islamic State.

The Iranian regime and its radical Shiite proxies like Hezbollah and the Houthis are looking for an opportunity to strike back at the Saudis for their military intervention in Yemen and ongoing support for Syrian rebels. There is no better opportunity than upheaval in the Eastern Province, especially at this time when Iran's economy is suffering from low oil prices.

The objective of the bombing in Qatif is to make Saudi Arabia an extension of the Shiite-Sunni battlefield seen in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. And the Islamic State isn't crazy for thinking it could happen.


Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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