Saudi Arabia is ramping up security ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, in light of recent attacks on its soil by the Daesh (ISIS) extremist group.
Daesh is attempting to extend its reach in the Arabian Peninsula, expanding the scope of its attacks and drawing in new recruits with its radical ideology. Its determination to bring about radical change has raised concerns it could threaten the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage later this month.
So far, the extremist group’s presence in the kingdom appears to be in a low-level stage, but it has claimed four significant bombings since May, one of them in neighbouring Kuwait. And it has rapidly ramped up its rhetoric, aiming to undermine government.
Asked about possible security concerns on the Hajj, Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour al-Turki replied that “that security forces will act swiftly and decisively with any violations of laws and instructions related to Hajj.”
He said the holy sites are protected by a force specifically dedicated to the task and a large number of additional security forces will be deployed during Hajj to ensure pilgrims’ “security and safety” and manage the traffic of the large crowds. He also pointed to the elaborate security system of surveillance cameras and helicopters that the kingdom implements each year. He could not give exact figures or specify whether the deployment would be larger this year.
The kingdom has also arrested hundreds of suspected militants this year. Overseeing that effort is Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz, who is also interior minister and led the battle that eventually crushed al-Qaeda’s branch in the kingdom in 2006.
Hani Sabra, head of Middle East practice at Eurasia Group of Eurasia Group said despite a strengthening presence said that Daesh does not currently represent a direct threat to Saudi stability. He pointed to the crown prince’s experience in counter-terrorism. “Mohammad Bin Nayef has proven that this is a job that he takes very seriously.” An attack last month in which Daesh claimed responsibility appeared to mark a significant spread in the group’s reach. Militants claiming loyalty to the group had already carried out three major bombings — two in eastern Saudi Arabia in May and one in Kuwait City in June, all targeting Shiite mosques and killing 53 people.
But on August 6, a suicide bomber attacked in western Saudi Arabia, hitting a mosque inside a police compound in Abha, 350 miles south of Makkah, killing 15 people in the deadliest attack on the kingdom’s security forces in years. Eleven of the dead belonged to an elite counter-terrorism unit whose tasks include protecting the Hajj pilgrimage.
The alleged affiliate that claimed responsibility for the August attack called itself the “Hijjaz Province” of Daesh, its first claim of a branch in the Hijaz, the traditional name for the western stretch of the Arabian Peninsula where the holy cities are located. The previous attacks were claimed by the group’s “Najd Province,” the traditional name for the central heartland of the peninsula and the homeland of the al-Saud family.
Lori Boghardt, Gulf security analyst at the Washington Institute, said it would not be surprising if Daesh militants tried to take advantage of Hajj to stage an attack, particularly since the group has encouraged lone wolf operations. This year, Hajj begins September 21 and is expected to draw some 3 million Muslims from around the world.
“The kingdom is a holy grail of sorts as a target from the perspective of [Daesh] because of its significance to Muslims,” she said.
The group “has made it very clear they have no red lines,” said Saudi analyst Fahad Nazer, a senior analyst at the Virginia-based consultancy and security firm JTG Inc.
Little is known about the structure of Daesh in Saudi Arabia. It is not known if the militants in the kingdom have direct operational ties with the group’s leadership based in its self-declared “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria — or if they simply operate independently in the group’s name.
In all four attacks claimed by the branches in the kingdom, the bombers were young Saudis, suggesting the group’s ranks are largely home-grown as opposed to foreign militants. The bomber in the August attack was identified as Yousuf Sulaiman, a 21-year-old Saudi with no record of ever having travelled abroad, pointing to the group’s ability to radicalise even youth who have not gone to join fighting in Syria.
“If you are looking at Daesh as a state, the territory it controls is not going to vastly expand, but the ideology it espouses is expanding,” said Sabra of the Eurasia Group.
Concerned about possible radicalisation, the late King Abdullah last year banned fighting abroad or encouraging it. But by then, some 2,500 Saudis had already gone to Syria. The Interior Ministry says around 650 have since returned and that they left disillusioned with the fighting.
This year, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries joined the US-led campaign of airstrikes against Daesh in Syria.
A prominent radical Saudi cleric, Nasr al-Fahd, who has been imprisoned since 2003 for connections to militancy, recently declared support for Daesh in a message smuggled from his prison. In the letter carried by Daesh supporters online, he advised others to pledge allegiance to Daesh, which he said had “destroyed the idols” and is implementing Sharia, not “man-made laws.”
The kingdom’s highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz al-Shaikh, denounced Daesh and al-Qaeda as Islam’s number one enemies.
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