Is Saudi Arabia next target of Islamic State?
While the kingdom has until now considered the battle against Iran a higher priority than the fight against al-Qaeda and IS, circumstances in the coming year may force a change in priorities. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Dec. 26 mocked the coalition and called on the kingdom’s citizens to “rise up against the apostate tyrants, and avenge your people in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.”
The United States and its allies expect Saudi Arabia to step up in battling IS and al-Qaeda, and in the end, that is how the alliance will be judged, at least in Washington and European capitals. The threat from IS to the kingdom is likely to grow. Saudi security forces broke up a cell linked to IS in 2014, and the terrorist group claimed credit for two bombings in 2015 that killed 36 people. IS continues to hold ground in Iraq and Syria, maintains a cell network in Europe and is expanding its presence in Afghanistan, Yemen and North Africa. The kingdom is, of course, not a “fragile” state like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya or Afghanistan, but neither is France or Belgium. Unlike Syria and Iraq, which have ethnically and religiously diverse populations, Saudi Arabia’s population is 85-90% Sunni Muslim. And if IS continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq, as it did in Ramadi last week, it may seek other nearby targets to rally its followers. The kingdom’s hosting of the Syrian opposition conference last month may eventually serve to turn IS and al-Qaeda on the Saudi and Western-backed armed groups, which have been mostly preoccupied with fighting the Syrian government until now. In other words, IS may be taking the fight to Saudi Arabia, even if the kingdom would prefer to keep its prime focus on Bashar al-Assad and Iran.