The authorities claimed on 30 October that they had broken up a four-person Islamic State (IS) cell in Shaqra, 190 km north-west of Riyadh, which was receiving instructions from an IS leader in Syria. The cell was reportedly planning to target security personnel near Riyadh, Shia civilians near the eastern city of Qatif, and a football match against the UAE in Jeddah.
Our 23 September Report assessed that IS would broaden its targeting criteria in the coming months, and prioritise attacking soft Shia targets in Eastern Province. The planned attack against Shia civilians in Qatif demonstrates that this remains the case, while the plot against the football match suggests that IS is also seeking to carry out high-profile attacks to boost recruitment efforts among the Kingdom’s large jihadist community.
Indeed, the threat of a major strike has risen substantially following the release of an audio statement on 2 November in which IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called for “attack after attack” in Saudi Arabia (see yesterday’s Special Report). The Kingdom is one of the main Sunni-majority countries opposing IS, and so he has identified the country, along with Turkey, as the group’s top regional priority. This is intended to ensure IS is seen as credible and expanding at a time when it is facing mounting military pressure in Mosul. Al-Baghdadi specified attacks against Shia targets, since they would help IS to present itself as protecting Sunni interests. However, he also encouraged strikes against a wider range of targets, including journalists, writers and politicians who back the Government. Such attacks would fuel radicalisation by provoking a Government crackdown on hardliners.
Shia sites and security forces will continue to face the greatest threat from low-level militancy, but sympathisers will now seek to carry out a high-profile attack against the other targets advocated by al-Baghdadi, since failing to do so would undermine the group’s standing. Indeed, IS supporters responded to a similar statement by al-Baghdadi in November 2014 with a series of strikes, including a suicide and gun attack near the border with Iraq two months later that killed three security personnel. IS’s capabilities in the Kingdom have strengthened since then, and there is consequently a significantly heightened risk of a major IS attack in Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, the disruption of the Shaqra cell highlights the security forces’ ability to counter jihadist threats, and this will enable them to foil a number of plots.