The Coming ISIS Assault on Saudi Arabia Means Awful Things for Washington

ISIS has its next target, and it’s one that threatens U.S. interests in the region more than anything you’ve seen from the terrorist group so far.

Saudi security forces inspect the site of a suicide bombing that targeted the Shiite Al-Anoud mosque in the coastal city of Dammam on May 29, 2015.
National Journal
Kristin Roberts
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Kristin Roberts
May 29, 2015, 10:13 a.m.

Two weeks. Two sui­cide bomb­ings. Both tar­get­ing Shiites in a Sunni land. And both claimed by IS­IS.

If this were Ir­aq or Syr­ia, these at­tacks—sadly—wouldn’t be sur­pris­ing. But it’s not. It’s Saudi Ar­a­bia, home to Is­lam’s most pre­cious sites and the re­gion’s most power­ful Sunni rulers—a re­l­at­ively vast ter­rit­ory, kept re­mark­ably stable by the ruth­less ap­plic­a­tion of au­thor­it­ari­an rule while its neigh­bors teeter un­der the destabil­iz­ing weight of pop­u­lar re­volu­tion and ter­ror­ist in­ter­ven­tion.

And that’s just the way the U.S. gov­ern­ment likes its friend, Saudi Ar­a­bia. Be­cause Wash­ing­ton needs sta­bil­ity there more than it needs to feel good about how the House of Saud achieves it.

But today, in Dammam, a city on the Saudi east­ern coast, a man dressed as a wo­man blew him­self up out­side a Shiite mosque and killed three oth­ers. (The at­tack would have been far more dev­ast­at­ing had guards not stopped the bomber from en­ter­ing the mosque, for­cing him back in­to a park­ing lot.) IS­IS now is brag­ging that their man reached his tar­get des­pite heightened se­cur­ity after the group’s first at­tack in the king­dom just eight days ago. That one, on an­oth­er Shia mosque in a vil­lage called al Qadeeh, killed 21.

“They cer­tainly are sig­ni­fic­ant,” said Mike Singh, former seni­or dir­ect­or for Middle East af­fairs at the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil dur­ing the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. “These at­tacks seem de­signed to ex­acer­bate sec­tari­an di­vi­sions, pre­cisely as IS­IS has sought to do else­where.”

Singh’s right; IS­IS wants to en­cour­age Sunni-Shia hos­til­ity throughout the Muslim world (per­haps as much as it wants to en­cour­age vi­ol­ence between Muslims and non-Muslims world­wide) be­cause it fits its ca­liphat­ic goals.

But for the United States, there’s more sig­ni­fic­ance to read in­to this emer­ging IS­IS as­sault on Saudi Ar­a­bia. And it’s the type of sig­ni­fic­ance that should be at least dis­cour­aging—if not down­right wor­ri­some—to Wash­ing­ton’s Middle East poli­cy­makers.

What these at­tacks say is that Riy­adh doesn’t have the com­fort­ing con­trol over its land that Amer­ic­ans like to be­lieve it does. And if the roy­al fam­ily doesn’t have its ter­rit­ory as buttoned down as Wash­ing­ton as­sumed, what oth­er weak­nesses has it been mask­ing? What oth­er vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies now are on view?

Amer­ic­ans don’t like to talk about trouble in Saudi Ar­a­bia. That’s a little bit be­cause it an­noys Riy­adh, and really, to what end? The Saudis do enough of Amer­ica’s dirty work in the re­gion to de­mand some el­bow room, cor­ralling the Gulf Ar­ab king­doms, only oc­ca­sion­ally cri­ti­ciz­ing U.S. mil­it­ary ac­tions, secretly com­mu­nic­at­ing with Is­rael about shared in­terests when Wash­ing­ton is nap­ping.

It would be dumb to say it’s not also a little bit about oil, but really, that’s just the con­text, not the cata­lyst for co­oper­a­tion any­more.

The real reas­on is that it casts in­to doubt all of the myth­o­logy Amer­ica has cre­ated around its fa­vor­ite auto­crat­ic king­dom. The roy­al fam­ily op­er­ates a gov­ern­ment that is truly au­thor­it­ari­an. It ab­uses the rights of its cit­izens. It dis­crim­in­ates against wo­men. It does fright­fully little to pro­tect its minor­ity com­munit­ies. Be­head­ings. Dis­ap­pear­ances. But, damn, it sure is quiet over there. And man, that’s gotta mean those guys are as tough as we need them to be, that they are the mighty Sunni power that’s go­ing to help us do one thing in par­tic­u­lar—keep Ir­an in check.

In­deed, one fant­ast­ic­al Amer­ic­an be­lief about the cease­less power of Riy­adh feeds in­to an­oth­er fant­ast­ic­al Amer­ic­an be­lief that Tehran wouldn’t dare renege on a deal with the United States. This ar­gu­ment com­ing from some quar­ters that Tehran can be ex­pec­ted to live up to a nuc­le­ar agree­ment is in some part pre­dic­ated on this be­lief that Saudi poses enough of a real and present threat to Ir­an that the Ayatol­lah won’t do any­thing too destabil­iz­ing. (Help Hezbol­lah, sure. Bomb Jordan, prob­ably not. Use a nuc­le­ar en­ergy agree­ment to build a bomb, nah.)

In fact, these two coun­tries are so in­ex­tric­ably tied that con­spir­acy ped­dlers see Ir­a­ni­an med­dling in the IS­IS sui­cide bomb­ings in Dammam and al Qadeeh. That’s in­triguing, but even one of Ir­an’s most ar­dent de­tract­ors in Wash­ing­ton calls it “batty.”

Non­ethe­less, this new Saudi phase of the IS­IS battle plan threatens to shat­ter the il­lu­sion of the Saudi be­hemoth. And that’s ter­ri­fy­ing. Be­cause without a real and present Saudi threat, the last re­main­ing check on Tehran be­comes Is­raeli spies and Amer­ic­an bombs.

If for no oth­er reas­on, Wash­ing­ton needs to pay at­ten­tion to what’s hap­pen­ing just now in Saudi Ar­a­bia.

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