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Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber: Current threat zones – Saudi Arabia

This article is part of AOAV’s report, Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber, to read the whole report, please see here. To see the other sections of the report, please go here.

Saudi Arabia has become increasingly vulnerable to SIED attacks in recent years. In fact, almost half of the 16 SIED attacks that the country has seen throughout its history have occurred since 2014. Of the recent attacks, a majority have targeted Shia mosques.

In terms of understanding the cult of the suicide bomber, however, analyzing Saudi Arabia is as, if not more, crucial to understanding their role as an exporter of suicide bombers as it is to analyzing the country bearing witness to the victim of them. In this section, we shall try to examine both the domestic threat of suicide bombings but also the regional implications and repercussions suicide bombings and Saudi Arabia might have.

SIED attacks in Saudi Arabia 2011-2015
Saudi Arabia has only experienced seven attacks within the timeframe examined in this report. In 2014, AQAP took credit for a suicide bombing in Sharurah, just a few miles from the border to Yemen. Suicide bombings would increase drastically in 2015, with Saudi Arabia seeing five attacks, three of which targeted Shia mosques in the country’s east and south, whilst the others targeted a mosque used by security forces and a police station (using a suicide VBIED). The first half of 2016 had one suicide attack, on 29 January, which also targeted a Shia mosque in the Eastern Province. All of the SIEDs in 2015 were been claimed by IS, who are also suspected for having conducted the one occurring in January 2016.

Wahhabism, violence, and Saudi suicide bombings
The first SIEDs in Saudi Arabia were almost exclusively anti-Western. The first recorded SIED attack occurred in 2003 and targeted Westerners as a response to the US invasion of Iraq. Two years prior, 15 Saudi nationals had participated in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Many Saudi jihadis were critical of the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States, which led al-Qaeda affiliated groups to carry out more than eight attacks against Westerners and Saudi security forces in 2003 and 2004. However, since 2014, SIEDs have predominantly targeted Shia mosques, indicating a shift regarding the perception of who the most important enemy is among Saudi SIED perpetrators.

Saudi state ideology, Wahhabism, is often blamed for being the ideological basis for many of the Salafi-Jihadi ideologies practiced by groups like IS and al-Qaeda. Although Wahhabism is very radical compared to mainstream Islam, and even to other forms of Salafism, it would be wrong to see the ideology as inherently violent. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which Wahhabism may inform some of the violent aspects found in Salafi-Jihadism. The most obvious one would be the very hostile sectarian tendencies which are found within Wahhabi scholarship and literature, some of which is mandatory reading in the Saudi educational curriculum. The recent rise of sectarianism in the Middle East has also seen Wahhabism being used to religiously motivate anti-Shia sentiments, most expressively expressed in Saudi Arabia’s regional rivalry with Iran.

Although there is a history of peaceful coexistence between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia going back hundreds of years, the legacy of Wahhabism is unfortunately intertwined with hostilities against Saudi Arabia’s Shia population, a minority that makes up between 10% and 15% of the country’s population.

Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the founder of Wahhabism, based many of his beliefs on literal Islamic scholars such as Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyya. He also considered those who deviated from the strict Salafi interpretation of Islam as non-Muslims and apostates.

When Wahhab formed an alliance with local warlord Muhammad bin Saud, assaults on villages or rivaling tribes were religiously motivated by Wahhab’s doctrines. Saudi Arabia’s Shia population did, expectedly, not conform with Wahhab’s views of ‘true’ Muslims, and Wahhab used takfir (a practice now used by several jihadi groups) in order to excommunicate them. Several Shia shrines were also destroyed during this and subsequent military campaigns carried out by the Saud ruling family, all sanctioned by Wahhab’s ideology. Moreover, in the 1920s, the Saudi Wahhabi ulama ordered the demolition of Shia mosques and forcibly took charge of teaching duties in the remaining ones, in addition to attempts of converting the Shia population.[i]

The Saudi curriculum has also come under fire for inciting violence against religious minorities. Freedom House concluded in the mid-2000s that Saudi educational texts then contained a plethora of inflammatory and hateful messages. This was particularly true of Islamic studies textbooks that, according to Freedom House, propagated hatred against ‘unbelievers’ such as Christians, Jews and Shia minorities. Saudi cleric and regime critic Hatem al-Awni went even further in his criticism, stating that certain books used in the education system practically serves as jihadi propaganda.

If education forms the roots, then the flowering of that seed has been a bloody one indeed. Sunni-Shia tensions have reached levels unprecedented in modern times – particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and as a result of the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia has often slammed domestic dissidents and protestors as being mere ‘Iranian stooges’, both at home and in neighbouring Bahrain, where Saudi assisted the Bahraini regime in crushing protests by sending in troops during the Arab Spring. Such epithets are also used for Saudi Arabia’s enemies in Yemen, where the country is fighting the Shia Houthi rebels, and in Syria, where Saudi Arabia has supported several hard-line Salafi-Jihadi organisations as an attempt to oust the Iranian-supported Bashar al-Assad.

Although their aims appear to be far more geo-political than religious ones, Saudi Arabia’s own rhetoric and domestic experience leads any observer towards looking at the regional wars of the Middle East through the prism of sectarian violence. It is a sectarianism that has been ramped up by the prolific presence of several TV preachers propagating extreme anti-Shia views on Saudi TV channels, preachers such as Nabil al-Awadhy, Adnan al-Aroor and Mohammad al-Arefe.

In light of this, it is necessary to question the connection between Saudi official ideology and the recent SIED attacks the country has faced. On 22 May 2015, for example, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Shia Muslim mosque in al-Qudeih village, in the governorate of al-Qatif in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, killing 20 and injuring 120 civilians. IS claimed responsibility for the attack, identifying the bomber as Abu ’Amer al-Najdi, his nom de guerre indicating that the attacker was from Najd, which incidentally is the historical stronghold of Wahhabism.

Mohammad al-Obeid, a brother of one of the victims, confronted Interior Minister Mohammad bin Nayef during a visit he made to families of the victims, saying that the government did not do enough to protect Saudi Arabia’s Shia population. In January 2016, al-Obeid was detained by the security forces and as of mid-April 2016, was still being held without charge.

Abid Al Jalil, a young Shia Muslim, who Prevented Terrorist from Entering Imam Hussain Mosque in Dammam, SA, on 2015-05-29 Credit: Nannadeem

On 29 May 2015, a few days after the al-Qudeih attack, another suicide bomber blew himself up in a parking lot of the Shia Imam Hussein Mosque in the Eastern Province city of al-Dammam, killing four civilians. A video shows the suicide bomber, who was disguised as a woman and wearing a long black ‘abaya religious dress, blowing himself up as he was pushed away, apparently after being recognised by a Shia man volunteering to protect the prayers.

On 29 January 2016, four more people were killed in a suicide bomb attack in the Shia Imam Rida Mosque in al-Ahsa in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. The attackers were identified as 22-year-old Saudi Abdulrahman Al-Tuwaijri and an Egyptian called Talha Hisham Mohammed Abda.

Terrorism in Saudi is, however, not only born from sectarian intolerance. Saudi security forces have also been targeted, and despite claims that Saudi Arabia partially founded (and funded) IS, the group has itself called for the downfall of the House of Saud.  There is, however, a consensus among many analysts that the ultra-conservative and rhetorically sectarian policies of Saudi Arabia have come back to haunt the country. Even the country’s religious credibility gained from being the home of the two holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina, does not seem to have saved the country from terrorist attacks, as evidenced by the suicide bombing in Medina in July 2016.

One positive aspect that has been noted during the recent surge of terror on Saudi soil is the apparent inability of IS to form any established network inside Saudi Arabia. Instead, IS has had to focus on sleeper cells and on recruiting lone wolves. This has become apparent in suicide bombings that have taken place in Saudi Arabia, particularly in the latter half of 2016. For example, in July 2016, three suicide bombers detonated themselves outside a Shia mosque in Qatif, killing only themselves. The same day, another suicide bomber managed only to kill himself outside the US consulate in Jeddah. Local intelligence suggested that the lack of organised training given to these bombers resulted in poor technical skills, which is why civilian lives were spared. However, given that terror groups active in the country seem to be willing to target even the holiest of Muslim sites, coupled with the significant ability of groups like IS to recruit individual attackers, shows that there is reason for concern regarding future SIED attacks in Saudi Arabia.

Exporting suicide bombers?
Saudis have, historically, played important roles in jihadi organisations.  In fact, Saudis formed a majority of the ‘Arab Afghans’ that took part in the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s.[ii] As has been noted in the preceding sections on Syria and Iraq, Saudis also seem to be overrepresented in groups like IS, and hold senior positions in several al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. In fact, more than 2,500 Saudis are believed to fight for IS. And an astonishing 60% of suicide bombers in Iraq are apparently Saudi, according to Saudi outlet al-Hayat.

Interestingly, a surprisingly small number (6%) of Saudi recruits identified in the IS registration files stated that that they had advanced Islamic education; the rest either stated that they had basic or intermediary Islamic education. This is surprising given that religious education is compulsory in Saudi Arabia. According to Saudi analyst Abdullah al-Malki, IS deliberately targets those with poor knowledge or Islam, as they seem to do elsewhere in the world too, since they are more easily convinced of IS’ ideology. It has also been noted that most of Saudi Arabia’s foreign fighters have come from the centre of the country, from regions such as Qassim, which are well known for being conservative, as well as for holding anti-government views.

In an interview in Arabic media, jihadi expert Hudheifa Abdullah Azzam claimed that the Saudis are often preferred by IS for suicide missions as well as for fighting roles, whereas Iraqis are preferred for more strategic positions. The feeling seems to be, in some way, mutual. As mentioned, Saudis are the most represented nationality among those volunteering for suicide bombings in the IS registration files.

Jihadism scholar Thomas Hegghammer has suggested that Saudi participation in jihadi activities can be traced to a strong sense of pan-Islamic nationalism, or solidarity, cultivated by the Saudi state. State-sponsored hard-line interpretations of Islam and tribal connections over the Iraqi border may also play a role in this.[iii]  Toby Mathiessen, an expert on sectarianism in Saudi Arabia, has written that IS and al-Qaeda recruits from Saudi Arabia are often motivated by a desire to contain both Shia and Iranian influence. On a similar note, academic Aaron Zelin has suggested that the influx of Saudis to Syria rapidly increased after the public entrance of the Shia movement Hezbollah in the conflict in 2013.

One example of a sectarian-motivated SIED attacks perpetrated by a Saudi national in Syria was that carried out by Abu Dujana al-Asiri, a suicide bomber acting for either IS or Jabhat al-Nusra (local sources state different groups). He attacked Syrian armed forces in May 2013, and stated in his will that he aimed to cut the heads of all Alawites in Syria. Although the caveats regarding wills should be stressed here, such rhetoric is not entirely different from that of certain clerics present on Saudi TV networks. Adnan al-Aroor, for instance, a man originally from Hama in Syria, and a frequent guest on Saudi TV channels, once publicly promised to ‘grind the flesh’ of pro-regime Alawites and ‘feed it to the dogs’. Mohammed al-Arefe, who has his own TV show on the Iqraa network, has also said that Shia Muslims are ‘non-believers that must be killed.’ Considering that such statements are permitted on broadcast channels, it is impossible to completely disconnect Saudi domestic policy from the actions of the thousands of foreign fighters the country has either sent or permitted to go abroad, just as it is impossible to ignore the deep similarities between public discourse in Saudi Arabia and jihadi propaganda.  Both these things – foreign fighters and propaganda – have played a vital and disturbing role in the rise of the use of suicide bombing, and a large part of that rise can only be understood in the wider context of the political and military actions of Saudi Kingdom.

This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.

[i] David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, IB Tauris 2009.

[ii] Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge, University Press, 2010).

[iii] Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge, University Press, 2010).