There is something familiar about the Islamic State’s (also known as ISIS) current terrorist campaign in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it looks an awful lot like al Qaeda’s 12 years ago. Back then, the House of Saud successfully held off its jihadist foe. This time around, however, the enemy is more resilient and resourceful, and regional cards seem to be stacked against the Kingdom. Riyadh will need foresight, statecraft, and above all, introspection to repeat its previous success.
Although the late al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden focused primarily on targeting the United States, Saudi Arabia also preoccupied his mind. The Saudis must be overthrown, he kept saying, because they opened the door to “Crusader and Zionist” domination of the Muslim world and betrayed the Palestinian cause to “Jews and Americans.” But beyond the perceived transgressions, 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.
Given U.S. support for the Saudis, bin Laden was aware of the difficulty of this mission. Yet he was determined to see it through. When Kandahar fell in 2002 following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, hundreds of Saudi members of al Qaeda returned to the Kingdom and joined sleeper cells that had been covertly operating there at bin Laden’s direction. By early 2003, those cells had turned into an extensive terrorist infrastructure mostly made up of Saudis, prompting bin Laden to order an insurrection on February 13, 2003, which coincided with the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (In fact, the invasion offered al Qaeda a unique opportunity to go after the Saudi monarchy by appealing to the intense anti-American reaction the invasion had provoked among the Saudi population.)
The war’s first terrorist act in the Kingdom came less than
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