The al-Qaeda breakaway group that has captured Iraq’s biggest northern city is on a recruitment drive in Saudi Arabia.
The evidence showed up last month in Riyadh, where drivers woke up to find leaflets stuffed into the handles of their car doors and in their windshields. They were promoting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has grabbed the world’s attention by seizing parts of northern Iraq. The militant group is also using social media, such as Twitter and YouTube, to recruit young Saudi men.
Already at war with the governments of Iraq and Syria, ISIL also poses a potential threat to the Al Saud family’s rule over the world’s biggest oil exporter. Saudi authorities gained the upper hand in their battle with al-Qaeda, which targeted the kingdom a decade ago, yet analysts said the latest generation of militants may be harder to crush.
ISIL, known as Da’esh in Arabic, has “territorial ambitions and is far more difficult to deal with than al-Qaeda,” Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, said in a telephone interview. “These people are able to hold ground, they have army-like units, and they conduct terrorist attacks.”
Stability in Saudi Arabia under the Al Saud has been essential for global oil markets. When supplies from Libya and sanction-hit Iran were disrupted after 2011, the kingdom increased output to meet demand. It produced 9.67 million barrels of oil a day in May, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Global oil markets have been rattled by the instability in Iraq. Brent crude posted its biggest weekly jump for almost a year last week, and West Texas Intermediate also surged. Brent futures pared gains today, dropping 0.8 percent at 2:30 p.m. in London, as Iraq’s military struck back at the insurgents.
In the past, the Saudi oil industry was an al-Qaeda target. The group’s followers, including Saudi veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who returned to the kingdom, attacked Abqaiq, the world’s largest oil processing plant in the Eastern Province, with car bombs in 2006.
There are concerns that conflicts in Syria and Iraq will play a similar role to those earlier wars, pulling fighters from different Arab and European countries.
In its first public comment on the crisis in neighboring Iraq, the Saudi government said that the tensions there were due to “sectarian policies” which threatened its “stability and sovereignty,” according to the official Saudi Press Agency, which cited a cabinet statement. It warned against foreign intervention and urged Iraqis to form a national unity government.
Al-Qaeda’s offshoots such as ISIL are increasingly taking the initiative in the war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In Iraq, they control a swathe of territory, and Saudi authorities are on guard against local cells. Saudi Arabia conducted large military exercises along its northern border in April, in a show of force against possible threats.
In May, the Interior Ministry said it arrested 62 militants who were planning attacks against domestic and foreign targets in the kingdom. Major General Mansour al-Turki, the ministry’s spokesman, told Al Arabiya that police are still looking for another 44 members. Some of the suspects had ties with ISIL in Syria and with al-Qaeda’s splinter group in Yemen.
“We recognize that all terrorist-related groups are a threat, including ISIL,” al-Turki said in an interview yesterday. “But our security forces are very well prepared to handle any terrorism threat.”
The leaflets showed up on cars on back streets in two residential neighborhoods in Riyadh in May, according to a Saudi security official, who asked not to be identified because police are still investigating the incident. It’s also unclear if those responsible had direct contact with ISIL or were acting on their own, the official said.
In the leaflets, the group warned against Muslims with “fake beards,” or those who pretend to be followers of Islam but are really its enemy, according to copies posted on Twitter by residents of the capital.
Such language has often been used by jihadi groups to criticize the Saudi monarchy, which enforces Islamic law at home and yet has also cultivated an alliance with the U.S., seen as enemies by most Islamists.
The kingdom is home to Mecca’s Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest shrine, which was temporarily seized by militants in 1979. Juhayman al-Otaybi, who led the takeover of the mosque, had accused the ruling Al Saud family of being un-Islamic and called for them to stop selling oil to western powers.
“The Saudi leadership is seen by many extremist groups, even those groups that Saudis financially support, as corrupt,” said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington.
Saudi Arabia is backing the mainly Sunni rebels fighting Assad in Syria, though there is no evidence that authorities are funding ISIL.
ISIL’s printed literature also accused Western nations of using the war on “terror” to assault the Muslim world, a message that may ring true with some Saudis, who are suspicious of the U.S. role in the Middle East.
In the western Saudi city of Taif, a video posted on YouTube showed militant slogans spray-painted on government buildings.
Al-Turki said police monitor young Saudis who engage in activities such as spraying graffiti, or filming themselves carrying the banners of radical groups, “in response to requests posted on terrorism-related accounts” on social media. He said several are being questioned by authorities.
ISIL is “expanding its strategic campaign to the kingdom,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said in a phone interview. “ISIL is using simple information operations to get their message out.”
There’s a potential audience of sympathizers in Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year, a group of veiled Saudi women posted a video on YouTube calling upon ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to topple Al Saud because of “their un-Islamic and unjust reign.” The authenticity of the video couldn’t be independently verified.
The language in the leaflet, and on the video, is reminiscent of Osama Bin Laden, who also urged the overthrow of the Saudi rulers. By taking control of a swathe of territory across northern Iraq and Syria, Al-Baghdadi’s fighters have achieved gains that al-Qaeda never managed. The U.S. has dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf as President Barack Obama weighs options to halt the group’s advance in Iraq,
“Its members are more brutal in their killings,” Abdulsalam Mohammed, head of the Abaad Studies and Research Center in Sana’a and a specialist in Islamic movements, said in a phone interview. “They have a greater tendency to exploit and promote sectarian division. But they’re also willing to target Sunni groups.”