January 6, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Looming Fight with Saudi Arabia

• A January 5 terrorist attack on Saudi border guards near the border with Iraq left two Saudi officials dead, including the commander of Saudi Arabia’s northern Border Patrol

• While not confirmed, the Islamic State is the most likely culprit: the timing is not coincidental, as a fight is looming between the terrorist group and the Kingdom

• The recent announcement that Saudi Arabia will send a technical team to Baghdad as part of the process of reopening its embassy there is a huge blow to the Islamic State’s drive to portray the Iraqi government as a Shi’a apostate proxy of Iran

• Frustrated in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, the group will likely strike south into Saudi Arabia, where it will hope to tap into potential sympathies among radical elements inside the Kingdom

• Saudi Arabia accounts for the second largest number of foreign fighters—and the most suicide bombers—within the Islamic State, and the group is most likely sending a message that it is capable of turning these fighters against their home country.


There is a fight looming between the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia. The proto-terrorist state is, as expected, experiencing a winter of severe discontent in both Iraq and Syria. No longer expanding, the group is suffering incremental but meaningful territorial and personnel, equipment, and financial losses in both countries, and has had little success in exporting its influence into neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, though it is still a destabilizing force in both. Boxed in from the north, west, and east, the group might seek ‘expansion’ in the south. Its relations with Saudi Arabia have gone from Riyadh turning a blind eye to the Islamic State’s operations in Iraq—because it fit Riyadh’s goal of destabilizing the former Maliki regime and Iran—to open opposition.

Adding serious insult to injury, Saudi Arabia recently announced it was sending a technical team to Baghdad in order to reopen its embassy there after a 25-year absence. While the new Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi is certainly more acceptable to Saudi Arabia than previous Iraqi regimes, it is the threat of the Islamic State that has caused Riyadh to move closer to Baghdad, and in doing so, move closer to a fight with the Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia is the land where Islam began and where the faith's most sacred sanctuaries are located. It is also the home of Wahhabism, and as such is the place from which the Islamic State claims to pull its ideological power. The recent rapprochement between what the Islamic State views as an Iranian Shi'a apostate government in Iraq and the Saudi government is a serious blow to the sectarian narrative of the group. The Islamic State’s ideology drives the group, but it persists because of chaos, poor governance, and short-sighted regional machinations: if those circumstances begin to actually change for the better, the group is in serious trouble.

To counter this, the Islamic State will likely move against Saudi Arabia—albeit far less ambitiously than it did in Iraq and Syria. The timing is as good as the group can hope for, with the uncertainty surrounding King Abdullah’s health and the always opaque and unsettling issue of succession. The group will hope to capitalize on the swirling palace intrigue over a new king—which will be another reminder to angry disaffected youth that the Kingdom is not a place for radical change—and recruit more support among the general population.

Saudi Arabia accounts for the second most foreign fighters within the Islamic State, and the most used in suicide attacks, such as the January 5 attack on the Saudi border guards in which one of the attackers blew himself up and killed two Saudi officials. The government has increased security along its northern border with Iraq, and additional attacks are likely. More concerning would be the increased likelihood of significant terrorist attacks in major population centers such as the capital, Riyadh. The government has done quite well in disrupting what it calls Islamic State cells but the group certainly has a meaningful and operational presence in the country. Targets aimed at flaring the sectarian divide are always favored by the Islamic State, but also targets such as foreign national housing—as was the case with the May 2003 al-Qaeda attacks in Riyadh that killed 39 people. Government installations will likely also be considered, but if these defenses are appropriately hardened, the group will strike where it can, ranging from lone-wolf attacks to coordinated assaults.

The group likely is enraged at recent moves by the Kingdom, from the government’s crackdown on extremist rhetoric to its support for the international anti-Islamic State coalition. The January 1 2014 death of one of its three spiritual leaders, the radial Saudi cleric Othman al-Nazeh al-Assiri, in Kobani, Syria, is yet another blow to the group’s delusions of coopting Saudi religious authority for its own. Faced with increasing frustration in its efforts to delegitimize the Iraqi government—while its own efforts at governing are predictably failing, the Islamic State might seek revenge on the one country it had most needed and wanted not to fight.



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