Bombers Raise Saudi Stakes With Back-to-Back Suicide Strikesby and
Kingdom has experience crushing a militant insurgency
Escalated violence seen triggering tough government response
Militants escalated their campaign against Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family with three suicide attacks in a single day, in the biggest challenge to the kingdom’s internal security since it crushed an al-Qaeda insurgency a decade ago.
With no claims of responsibility, suspicion has fallen on Islamic State, which has vowed to overthrow Gulf rulers they see as betraying Islam. One of the bombings on Monday, near the Prophet’s Mosque in the holy city of Medina, targeted the heart of the Al Saud family’s legitimacy -- its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest shrines.
“The Saudis are likely to react firmly, if not harshly, to the attacks,” James Dorsey, a senior fellow in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said in response to e-mailed questions. If coordinated, the bombings “would demonstrate the ability of IS to strike multiple times in the kingdom within a 24-hour framework and as such suggest that the kingdom has a real problem.”
The violence began in Jeddah, a commercial center, where a man identified by the government as Pakistani-born blew himself up near the U.S. consulate. Hours later on the opposite side of the country, two bombers struck a Shiite mosque in the kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province. In Medina, Islam’s second-holiest city after Mecca, four security personnel were killed outside the Prophet’s Mosque.
The attacks extended a two-week terrorism spree that has killed dozens in Iraq, Turkey and Bangladesh. Kuwait bolstered its security around oil installations on Monday after breaking up a network allegedly planning to assault the Shiite community and a state facility.
Saudi Arabia is determined to fight terrorism “with an iron fist,” King Salman said Tuesday in a speech commemorating the start of the Muslim Eid holiday. The biggest challenge for the Muslim community is protecting its youth from “the dangers of extremism,” he said.
The kingdom’s rulers faced a similar insurgency a decade ago when al-Qaeda militants returning from battling U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq redirected their fire against Saudi government targets and foreign workers. Authorities crushed that threat by 2007, jailing many al-Qaeda supporters and forcing others to flee to neighboring Yemen.
Today, militants inspired by Islamic State, an al-Qaeda breakaway, are waging a low-level campaign against police and other symbols of power. They’ve also mounted assaults along the country’s religious fault lines with attacks on minority Shiites.
“The group is experimenting and trying to learn about the state’s weaknesses to exploit them,” Firas Abi Ali, principal analyst at IHS Country Risk, said in an e-mailed report. “It also suggests that the group’s ideology is sufficiently popular in Saudi Arabia to obtain individuals eager to take their own lives.”
The threat of violence has changed security procedures in the capital, Riyadh, with office buildings and retail centers installing metal detectors and bag scanners. A year ago, Saudi authorities said they had arrested more than 400 Islamic State militants accused of aiding attacks inside the kingdom, most of them Saudi nationals.
The flare in violence in the world’s largest oil supplier comes as Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman leads the biggest economic shakeup in the kingdom’s history with plans to reduce reliance on oil and increase foreign investment. Economic growth in Saudi Arabia will slow to 1.5 percent this year, the lowest level since 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Monday’s bombings didn’t affect oil prices. Brent crude dropped below $50 a barrel amid signs that global oil supplies remain plentiful. Saudi Arabia’s stock market is closed this week for the Islamic Eid holiday.
“If these are one-off attacks the impact to the larger economy will be limited at this point,” John Sfakianakis, Riyadh-based director of economic research at the Gulf Research Center said in response to e-mailed questions. “If they are generalized and recurrent in intensity, obviously there could be an impact at a time when the economy is in a slowing growth cycle.”
During Saudi Arabia’s battle with radical Sunni militants, attacks against religious sites have been rare. In 1979, a group of gunmen briefly seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Al-Qaeda linked militants a decade ago attacked the kingdom’s largest oil processing facility in Abqaiq and targeted foreign nationals, but not religious sites.
Islamic State and its followers are attacking worshipers -- Sunni and Shiite. Last year, a suicide bomber killed about a dozen security personnel praying at mosque in the southwest province of Asir.
No Red Lines
Islamic State, also known as ISIS, “has long made it apparent that it has no moral red lines,’’ said Fahad Nazer, who worked at the Saudi embassy in Washington and is now a political analyst at JTG Inc. in Virginia. “It is cut from the same cloth as the militants who laid siege to the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. That group had no compunction about shedding Muslim blood in Islam’s most hallowed ground. Neither does ISIS.’’
The attack in Medina may ultimately backfire, according to Paul Sullivan, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington.
“Whoever did this may be thinking to attack the economy of Saudi Arabia or rattle the sense of security in the country, but you can be sure the Saudis and many others will exact vengeance like nothing in the recent past,” Sullivan said.