New Daesh threat puts Saudi fight against extremism in the spotlight
LONDON: In a cryptic audio message, the extremist group Daesh has called on its followers to launch terrorist attacks against oil pipelines and economic infrastructure inside Saudi Arabia as retaliation for the Kingdom’s support for the UAE and Bahrain’s normalization of ties with Israel.
The statement, posted on the group’s Telegram channel, came as the UAE on Monday formally ratified the US-brokered deal, known as the Abraham Accords, which allowed commercial flights between Israel and the Gulf state for the first time.
“The Kingdom supported normalization by opening its airspace to Israeli aircraft on their flights to the United Arab Emirates,” a voice purportedly of Daesh spokesperson Abu Hamza Al-Quraishi said in the recording.
“The normalization agreements are considered a betrayal of Islam. Our targets are plenty, starting with striking and destroying oil pipelines, factories and facilities that constitute sources of income for the tyrannical government.”
Daesh, which at its 2014 peak controlled a portion of the Middle East that included large swathes of Iraq and Syria, lost all its territories in March 2019 after suffering a string of military defeats. Its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US-led operation in October that year.
Although much depleted, remnants of the group have continued to inspire attacks across the region, leading to fears of a possible resurgence.
Its latest call to attack the Kingdom is unsurprising, however. Terror incidents bearing all the hallmarks of a Daesh operation have occurred in the cities of Qatif and Riyadh in recent years.
The holy sites of Islam have been no exception. In 2017, Saudi security forces thwarted a plot to strike near the Grand Mosque in Makkah, while 2016 saw multiple bombings in three Saudi cities, including one near the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah.
The new audio message attributed to Daesh suggests the extremist group has not abandoned its efforts to strike targets in the home of two of Islam’s holiest sites.
Daesh commanded a proto-state straddling Iraq and Syria before its territory was seized in successive campaigns in both countries ending in 2018-2019.
“The Kingdom acts on a global level. It helps maintain security in the region and plays a very important role by exchanging intelligence information with other countries to maintain security and stability,” Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri, a Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar, told Arab News.
“The world depends on its security intelligence and its efforts in the region in this field, and that is why terrorist groups such as Daesh, Iran and others know the Kingdom’s great role. That is why they wish to infiltrate Saudi Arabia, inflict damage on the Kingdom, and cross to the other side.”
Saudi Arabia plays a substantive role in the Global Coalition Against Daesh, second only to the US in the number of airstrikes it has launched during the conflict. The Royal Saudi Air Force has conducted 341 sorties in Syria and allows its coalition partners to use its air bases.
In 2015, under the late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Saudi Arabia established the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) to “pursue terrorism until it is eradicated completely,” to borrow a phrase from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s statements on the issue.
The Saudi-led IMCTC, headquartered in Riyadh, includes almost 40 countries under its regional umbrella, with the notable exception of Iran, due to its role in funding and supporting terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.
By contrast, Qatar, despite being a member of the coalition, has offered only muted support for the campaign, particularly since the Anti-Terror Quartet of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Doha in 2017 over its funding and harboring of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Some of the Kingdom’s joint security initiatives include establishing state-of-the-art centers to counter extremist messaging online, both locally and internationally.
“The Kingdom plays the biggest role in the region in confronting all these militias, so they (Daesh) target it in this field,” Al-Shehri said.
In order to drive a wedge between these allies and stoke wider divisions, he says, an overarching aim of Daesh is to destroy the social fabric within Saudi Arabia and ruin the peaceful coexistence found there between Sunnis and Shiites.
Al-Shehri’s views are seconded by Dr. Hani Nasira, an Egyptian author and political analyst, who said that Saudi Arabia’s role as the region’s standard bearer for security cooperation makes it a prominent target for those hoping to sow discord.
“The tireless efforts deployed by the Kingdom and its allies in Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain in draining the sources of extremism, enabling moderation and peace, rejecting hatred and calling for dialogue, coexistence and global peace, made it the main target and the first enemy of all terrorist groups, whether Sunni or Shiite,” Nasira told Arab News. “The first operations of Al-Qaeda and Daesh outside Syria were in the Kingdom.”
However, it is not just the Kingdom’s fight against extremism that is a source of anger in radical Islamic circles. Saudi Arabia’s crucial position as a major oil exporter that feeds the world economy means any attack on its infrastructure can reverberate around the globe. This was seen in September 2019, when Iranian-supplied drones and missiles struck Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq and Khurais facilities, instantly halving the Kingdom’s crude output.
“They believe that this oil goes out to the world, so if a problem occurs in the Kingdom, it will affect the whole world. A global crisis might occur, and that is exactly what they want, to cause disparity and a crisis in the world,” Al-Shehri said.
As part of Vision 2030, the Kingdom has undertaken a number of mega infrastructure projects, including the Red Sea Project and the NEOM smart city. These developments are designed to be the beating heart of the region’s trade and development sector, but at the same time, they present potentially high-value targets.
“I think these are all matters at the security, political and economic level, so for Daesh the Kingdom remains a target,” Al-Shehri said.
Using Israel’s normalization with the UAE and Bahrain as a ground for attacks on Saudi Arabia is nothing more than window dressing, he said. “These extremists are only looking for justifications and excuses for their conduct.”
Riyadh must nevertheless be fully prepared for opportunistic attacks by terror groups, Al-Shehri said. “If, God forbid, the Kingdom was unable to confront these terrorist groups or play a major role in this field,” he told Arab News, “attacks would come from everywhere, causing a state of chaos in the world.”