Ramadan bloodshed and the threat of more
BEIRUT - The Ramadan terror attacks on June 26th are what are known in security circles as lone wolf operations, low-level and unsophisticated, the hardest type of terrorist action to prevent because there is no outside support by established groups and therefore no organisation to penetrate.
Properly carried out, such attacks by individuals against soft targets such as the tourist-filled Boujaaffar beach at the Tunisian resort of Sousse, worshippers in the Shia Imam al-Sadiq mosque in Kuwait and a US-owned chemical warehouse in the L’Isle-d’Abeau industrial zone in south-eastern France, can cause havoc in every sector of society.
Successful lone wolf attacks are gold dust to terrorist organisations because they hit ordinary people, cause crippling panic, force governments to impose severe security measures that erode civil liberties and thus further radicalisation, particularly among the young. In Tunis, authorities closed Shia mosques that are outside government control.
Lone wolf strikes are the terrorist version of “death by a thousand cuts” writ large — and there are likely to be more of them in the days to come.
It is still not yet clear whether the June 26th attacks were coordinated, although they were carried out within the space of a few hours.
The Islamic State (ISIS) has been directly linked to only the suicide bombing in Kuwait. One of its Gulf affiliates, the Wilayat Najd (Province of Najd), claimed it was responsible. The group’s name refers to Saudi Arabia’s central Najd region, which is the heartland of the extreme Wahhabi strain of Islam that jihadists embrace.
Wilayat Najd also claimed responsibility for the bombing of Shia mosques in the kingdom on May 22nd and May 29th that killed 25 people and wounded dozens.
What is telling is that the June 26th strikes occurred three days after ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani called for a wave of Ramadan violence to mark the first anniversary of the proclamation of an Islamic caliphate in Mosul, Iraq, on June 29, 2014.
In a radio broadcast on June 23rd, Adnani urged followers of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “Caliph Ibrahim”, to “become exposed to martyrdom” to inflict “calamity” on his opponents. “O holy warriors everywhere, hurry to make the month of Ramadan a month of disaster for the apostates,” he said in his exhortation.
Whether or not ISIS actually masterminded the far-flung carnage of June 26th, the attacks underline the jihadists’ growing reach and the apparent ease with which they can strike anywhere, any time against society’s soft underbelly, and the group’s ability to inspire, if not coordinate, indiscriminate assaults even while locked in major wars in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS considers the Shia to be apostates who can be killed with impunity. The intention of the Saudi mosque bombings is clear: to ignite sectarian clashes in the world’s largest oil exporter and bring down a monarchy jihadists consider corrupt and illegitimate.
The May bombings indicate that ISIS cells are embedded in the kingdom to a greater extent than was generally suspected and that ISIS has long-term objectives in the kingdom and the Gulf region.
“Many observers… believed that Iranian influence in Iraqi Shia politics would never reach its current peak,” observed US analyst Aaron Y. Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“So it’s important to understand the worst-case developments that ISIS seeks to foment in Saudi Arabia. Some Shia in the kingdom are already beginning to create popular mobilisation committees similar to those Iran is using in Iraq to fight ISIS there,” he said.
When Baghdadi announced the establishment of Wilayat Najd and another affiliate in Yemen, he told his followers that Shias should be their first target, emphasising the wider threat to the Islamic legitimacy of the House of Saud and shaping events to the jihadists’ advantage while upending the established order in the region.
A sustained ISIS campaign in Saudi Arabia could drive its Shia minority, concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province, into rising against a regime that has long kept it marginalised without basic rights and undermine stability in the birthplace of Islam and the religious heart of its dominant sect, the Sunnis.
That would drive Saudi Shias to seek protection from Tehran, which would leave the House of Saud under assault from two quarters. The current attacks constitute Saudi Arabia’s greatest internal security threat since it crushed an al-Qaeda insurgency in 2003-06.
“There’s something familiar about the Islamic State’s current terrorist campaign in Saudi Arabia,” observed Bilal Y. Saab, Middle East security analyst with the Atlantic Council.
“It looks an awful lot like al- Qaeda’s 12 years ago… This time the enemy is more resilient and resourceful… [Osama] bin Laden understood that ultimately he would need to wage war with Saudi Arabia over the biggest stakes of all: control over Islam’s holy cities and enormous oil wealth.”