How ISIL’s attacks on Saudi Arabia aimed at Undermining the Monarchy’s Legitimacy

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Saudi Arabia was rocked yesterday by three terrorist attacks, presumably the work of Daesh (ISIL, ISIS). The attacks were carefully distributed and aimed at delegitimizing the Saudi monarchy, which glories in the title “Servant of the Two Holy Shrines.” The first shrine is Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the site of pilgrimage for millions of Muslims from all around the globe every year. The second is Medina, the city where the Prophet died and was buried. For most Muslims, visiting his tomb is a powerful spiritual event.


One of the terrorist attacks targeted the prayer ceremony after the breaking of the fast at the mosque-shrine in Medina. The man wearing a suicide bomb belt was stopped on an empty lot being used for parking and detonated his payload, killing four Saudi security men and wounding several others.

The bombing likely attempted to underscore that King Salman and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef are not actually very good servants of the two holy shrines, being unable to protect them. It is not completely impossible that the Daesh thinks visiting the tomb of the Prophet is a form of idolatry and that the pilgrims should be punished. Some Daesh extremists may go so far as to want to destroy the Kaaba, the cube-shaped shrine in Mecca around which pilgrims circumambulate, seeing even it as idolatrous.

Prince Faisal Bin Salman, the governor of Medina province, riposted that the terrorist attack on Medina was a criminal act that killed innocent souls whose killing God had forbidden, in the purest of places and in the holy month of Ramadan. He said that such wicked acts only serve the enemies of Islam.

Medina lies in the western Hejaz province, which is largely Sunni and Sufi rather than, as with Najd, Wahhabi. Wahhabi Islam is a small minority of the worldwide Muslim community and mainly exists in Saudi Arabia, where it comprises about 40% of the country’s population. It is hyper-puritan and believes in morality police and a literal approach to Islamic law. The royal family belongs to this sect, and its clerics help dictate religious policy throughout the kingdom. The Sunni Islam of the Hejaz is far more tolerant and flexible. Any attack in the Hejaz likely aims at sowing division between its Sunnis and the Wahhabis of the center of the country.

(The Wahhabi branch of Islam was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the middle of the 18th century. While it is rigid and puritanical and often intolerant as a tradition, not all Wahhabis are themselves of the same description. The charge sometimes made that Daesh or ISIL is just a form of Wahhabism is incorrect; Daesh is to Wahhabism what David Koreish at Waco was to Protestantism– a violent cult.)

Another attack was launched in the western port city of Jedda, near the US consulate, which may have been the target. But again, the suicide bomber was stopped by suspicious security near a hospital, and he blew himself up, lightly injuring some security personnel. Daesh seeks to undermine the Saudi royal family by portraying them as puppets of the United States, so targeting the US consulate was meant to punish them.

A third attack targeted a Shiite mosque in the eastern, largely Shiite city of Qatif. Three mangled bodies were found there but as we go to press, details are still sparse. It is possible that the body parts belonged to the bombers themselves and that no innocents were killed. Qatif is in the traditionally Shiite Eastern Province, which is also where most of Saudi Arabia’s oil is. About 12% of Saudis are Shiites, and they are treated very badly by the Wahhabi state, which views them as wretched heretics and potential supporters of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s Shiite arch-rival. (Saudi Shiites are Arabs and are not loyal to Iran, but rather want a better seat at the table in their own country). This attack, like earlier bombings of Shiite mosques, was intended to sow further dissension between the Wahhabi government and the Shiite population (the terrorists hope that Qatif Shiites will blame the king for not providing them better security).

The three attacks in Saudi Arabia, then, were symbolically orchestrated to cause maximum tension in the kingdom and to deny the Saudi monarchy its honored position as servant of the two holy shrines, as firm US ally, and as dominant over the Eastern Province where the oil that makes Saudi Arabia an important country comes from. The bombings played on the key fissures within Saudi society.

The Saudi press is characterizing all three attacks as failures. Although there were some victims killed or wounded, the number was small compared to what the terrorists obviously hoped for. The hopes of Daesh for carnage on a large scale were dashed (that’s not a pun) by eagle-eyed Saudi security personnel, some of them from the Ministry of the Interior.

Saudi Arabia survived a violent al-Qaeda campaign of bombings and killings in 2003-2006, and so its security apparatus has experience with counter-terrorism.

Daesh is facing its final year as a state, since the Iraqi Army on one side and the Syrian Democratic Forces on the other are gradually closing in on its last strongholds. As it goes down it is lashing out like a fatally wounded crocodile. But its revenge terrorism is not mindless– it is clearly giving a lot of thought to how it might commit symbolic violence against its foes and so demoralize them.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Arirang News: “Saudi Arabia hit with 3 suicide bombings on same day”

11 Responses

  1. “It is not completely impossible that the Daesh thinks visiting the tomb of the Prophet is a form of idolatry and that the pilgrims should be punished. Some Daesh extremists may go so far as to want to destroy the Kaaba, the cube-shaped shrine in Mecca around which pilgrims circumambulate, seeing even it as idolatrous.”

    This could be true, and highlights just how incredibly perverse Daesh is. If hajj, a central pillar of Islam is idolatrous, then just what exactly is left in Islam that is not idolatrous? These people are so ignorant and debased that it simply defies credulity.

    “The charge sometimes made that Daesh or ISIL is just a form of Wahhabism is incorrect; Daesh is to Wahhabism what David Koreish at Waco was to Protestantism– a violent cult.”

    This is also correct; yet, it is important to highlight that Saudi Arabia’s financing of extremist groups in Syria and Iraq has also played a role in enabling Daesh conduct pogroms. The sectarian language that Saudi Arabia uses in it’s media and international affairs also plays a role in dehumanizing religious minorities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.

    On the monarchy’s legitimacy, purely from a political science perspective, Saudi Arabia is an aberration. It is one of seven absolute monarchies in the world, and the only remaining geographic entity that practices gender apartheid. Saudi’s royal family might be able to rule without much opposition in the short to medium-term, but the longer term outlook does not look too rosy. One can hope that Saudi Arabia transitions to a more democratic, tolerant, and just society. We should also place an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia for their actions in Yemen.

  2. Your source for the percentage of Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia?

    As a trend within Sunnism (not quite as distinct to be considered a “branch” within “Islam”) and as other Sunni trends in Saudi Arabia do not have visible distinct rituals or popularly distinct opinions = I am quite interested in knowing how this estimation was reached and based on what criteria?

    Sufism I could understand, but hardly all Sunnis are Sufis.

  3. When you go to war with the idea, that the enemy of your enemy is your friend, then be prepared for the worst. I mean if you play with snakes, don’t be surprised if you get bite. This is advice not only that the Saudi’s should have paid attention to, but this advice would go also to the U.S..

  4. ROYAL BLOWBACK, IN PART: Let’s remember the invasion and occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca on 20 Nov. 1979 by five hundred Wahhabi fanatic salafis; the rebels were products of Wahhabi mosques. What was the Royal response to the Grand Mosque attack? Granting more authority to the ulema and tightening religious restrictions on Saudis. What was the result of the Royal response? … link to

  5. Prof. Cole, You write that, “The charge sometimes made that Daesh or ISIL is just a form of Wahhabism is incorrect…” However, according to William McCants, “When [ISIS] needed textbooks to distribute to schoolchildren in Raqqa, it printed out copies of Saudi textbooks found online. Unsurprisingly then, most of the Islamic State’s hudud penalties are identical to penalties for the same crimes in Saudi Arabia: death for blasphemy, homosexual acts, treason, and murder; death by stoning for adultery; one hundred lashes for sex out of wedlock; amputation of a hand for stealing; amputation of a hand and foot for bandits who steal…But there are two ways the Islamic State distinguishes itself from Saudi Arabia, which it believes is ruled by apostates. Firstly, the State carries out its penalties in public whereas Saudi Arabia hides them because of international censure….Secondly, The Islamic State goes the extra mile in its penalties. It opts for eighty lashes for drinking and slander rather than leaving it to the judge’s discretion, as in Saudi Arabia. Whereas Saudi Arabia prefers to execute people by beheading, the Islamic State does that and more, [such as] throwing people off buildings…When Muslims raise a hue and cry that [ISIS’s] actions aren’t Islamic, the Islamic State’s jurists cite chapter and verse.”

    • The differences between Daesh and Wahhabism are wider than that, including the tactical theory of tawahhush or acting like wild beasts, etc. King Abdullah put 2 Shiites on the national Shura Counsel. Do you think Daesh would do that? The differences are quite vast.

      • Putting 2 shias or a handful of women on a council that has no legislative or executive authority is not progress. This is particularly true when Saudi Arabia severely curbs speech and religion for both religious minorities and women. All this amounts to is just tokenism to allay Western grievances. Unfortunately, it seems to be effective at curbing valid criticism of Saudi Arabia.

      • When Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen with banned cluster munitions under US auspices to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe, I think it is more than fair to call those calling the shots in Saudi Arabia as “acting wild like beasts.”

        In this conversation, the entire point is completely lost. Fine, the royal family and judicial authorities in Saudi Arabia are not Daesh, but they is so conservative, so unjust, so utterly debased that if you compare them to any authorities in other countries, Saudi Arabia comes of worse. Yet, Saudi Arabia enjoys tremendous support from the United States, while regional neighbors that are far more advanced and progressive from a human rights or international law perspective are routinely sanctioned and vilified. We have tremendous soft power to insist that Saudi Arabia amend it’s ways, but will always ignore human rights violations in Saudi Arabia for economic gains.

      • “The differences are quite vast.”

        Shi’ites comprise 15%-20% of the population of Saudi Arabia, however the number of Twelver Shi’ite adherents in Syria are only about 1% of Syria’s 22 million people (I am unaware of any appreciable number of Alawite Shi’ites that are Saudi citizens). The two Shi’ites on the Saudi Shura Council do not represent a fair apportionment according to the religious Sunni/Shia demographics.

        Additionally, earlier this year the Saudis executed prominent Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, which exacerbated relations with Iran as well as with Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia community.

        The Saudi Arabian government may be more tolerant than ISIS with respect to Shi’ites – but significant oppression nevertheless exists in KSA.

  6. Juan ,
    Daesh follows ideology taught in Saudi schools:
    Please see;
    SheikhKilbanihas admitted that the jihadist theology emanates from the same Islamic literature being taught in Saudi Arabia. In a TV appearance, he made unequivocal and explicit remarks on the issue. For instance, he said: “IS ideology comes from our own books, our own principles; we follow the same thought—Salafism”. He even dismissed the prevailing self-serving perception in the Muslim community that ‘Islamic State is a creature of the American intelligence agencies’ and went on to say that “the ideology behind Daesh is the Salafist thought that many Muslims follow, but the only disagreement is with the way in which that ideology is acted out from a public relations perspective”. These are the words of Sheikh ‘Aadel Al-Kalbani, former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and a Salafi himself, not of any moderate Muslims or Sufi Islamic scholars who keep denouncing Salafism.–imam-of-mecca-sheikh-kilban’s-confession-leaves-no-room-for-doubt-that-a-pernicious-islamic-theology-is-fuelling-radical-jihadism/d/107664
    Time Ulema Came Out Of Denial: Imam Of Mecca Sheikh Kilban’s Confession Leaves No Room For Doubt That A Pernicious Islamic Theology Is Fuelling Radical Jihadism


  7. Daesh/ its followers will resurface in KSA. The country is going to be consumed sooner than later by its leaders’ incompetence. USG not programmed to accept how fragile things are because KSA is a benefactor of US (protects USD as petrodollar linchpin and pays for CIA’s covert activities).

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