A wave of suicide attacks Monday in Saudi Arabia, especially one near the burial site of the prophet Mohammed, shows that radicals are increasingly challenging the Al Saud royal family and its role as official protector of Islam’s holiest sites.
Suicide attackers struck the security office at Al-Haram al-Nabawi, a mosque in the western city of Medina that was built by Mohammed and where he is said to be buried. Mecca and Medina are Islam’s two holiest sites. Another suicide bomber blew himself up near a Shiite mosque in the eastern city of Qatif. And a suicide bomber struck near the U.S. consulate in the western city of Jeddah.
While there’s been no claim of responsibility, attacks hitting multiple places at once bear the hallmarks of the Islamic State, which has called for strikes against “infidels” during the month of Ramadan that ends this week. The extremist group, which aspires to create an Islamic caliphate across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is also suspected of bombings in Iraq and Turkey in the past week that together claimed hundreds of lives.
The attack outside Mohammed’s burial site in Medina “is like challenging Al Saud’s claim as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” said David Ottaway, an analyst on Saudi Arabia at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “The caliphate has always wanted to expand to the home of the two holy mosques.”
Whether the attacks show the Islamic State is gaining traction in Saudi Arabia is unclear, but “the challenge to the Al Saud family has always come from the extreme right wing Islam,” Ottaway said.
The low death toll from Monday’s attacks — four security officers in all — shows that Saudi security forces are effective, he said.
“They’ve been one step ahead of the Islamic State, so far,” Ottaway said.
The terrorist threat in Saudi Arabia, which is participating in the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, has been on the rise in the past year, according to Ottaway and David Weinberg of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy.
There have been 26 attacks in the kingdom that have killed more than 200 people since the start of 2015, and Saudi security forces have arrested 2,800 suspects in that time period. The attacks, attributed to the Islamic State and its rival terror group, al-Qaeda, often targeted Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, according to Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, a spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of the Interior.
Saudi Arabia is a mostly Sunni nation. Members of the Islamic State are too, but the group counts among its enemies Sunni Muslims who work with the West, whom it considers apostates.
“The fact there is a proliferation of attacks in the kingdom in the last two years and there weren’t any four or five years ago, suggests something is emerging in the kingdom,” Weinberg said.
Saudi Arabia has endorsed the Jeddah Communique, an international agreement to combat the Islamic State and radical extremism by cutting off funding, blocking foreign fighters and repudiating the ideology that undermines extremism. But Weinberg says the kingdom, which regularly condemns terrorism, “is still grappling with what it means to stop intolerance and extremist speech that incites terrorism.”
When Saudi Information Minister Abdulaziz Khoja shut down in 2014 a television channel, Wesal, which had a record of incitement against Shiites, he was fired within 24 hours by then-King Abudullah.
When, Saad bin Ateeq al Ateeq, a Saudi preacher at a state-controlled mosque, in 2015 urged followers to destroy all Jews, Christians, Allawites and Shiites, he apparently faced no consequences, Weinberg said.
The Saudi government continues to embrace preachers who preach religious intolerance, against LGBT people, embracing or condoning (late al-Qaeda leader)Osama bin Laden, “sending a message this type of speech is OK,” Weinberg said.
Since Saudi Arabia in the Jeddah Communique identified cracking down on hate speech as an element of fighting the ideology of the Islamic State and other extremists, “I would say the Saudis have fallen down on their commitments,” he said.