How Powerful is the Islamic State in Saudi Arabia?

Originally posted at The Henry Jackson Society

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 27 April 2017

The U.S. Department of State designated Mubarak Mohammed Alotaibi, also transliterated as Mubarak Muhammad al-Utaybi, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), because he has “committed, or pose[s] a significant risk of committing, acts of terrorism that threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States.” Al-Utaybi is a citizen of Saudi Arabia and is the “Syria-based deputy leader” of the Islamic State’s (IS) branch in the Saudi Kingdom.

Al-Utaybi was born on 8 January 1986, thus he is thirty-one-years-old, in Riyadh. Al-Utaybi has used the names “Abu Ghayth” and “Waqqas al-Jazrawi”.

IS first announced the acceptance of foreign branches as wilayats (provinces) on 13 November 2014. In Egypt, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (The Partisans of Jerusalem) became Wilayat Sinai. In Libya, al-Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (The Islamic Youth Consultation Council) became Wilayat Derna. In Algeria, Jund al-Khalifa (Soldiers of the Caliphate) became Wilayat al-Jazair. And in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, anonymous groups were brought into the fold that would eventually form two “provinces” in Al-Saud and six in Yemen.  The revelation that Mubarak al-Utaybi is the deputy leader of the Saudi IS branch is therefore significant.

The connection between Saudi Arabia and IS has proven immensely controversial in Western commentary. Outside of the fever swamps were the Saudi government is said to support IS, there have been more ostensibly serious arguments that draw a line between “Wahhabism”, the state Salafism practiced by the Saudi regime, and the rise of IS. But this narrative is simplistic.

In the first place, in Iraq, where IS matured with help from the underground jihadi networks after its origin in the camps in Taliban Afghanistan, Saddam Husayn kept Saudi influence out even as he Islamized his regime. Undoubtedly there is a Wahhabi thread to IS’s doctrine, but it is not alone.

Al-Qaeda and the broader jihadi-Salafist movement emerge out a milieu shaped by al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Awakening), a Saudi opposition movement beginning in the 1970s, which will forever be associated with the name Salman al-Awda, even if he has now apparently taken a more moderate turn, and where other lesser-known figures like Muhammad Surur played key roles. The Sahwa movement, led in many cases inside Saudi Arabia by Muslim Brotherhood immigrants from Egypt and Syria, combined together traditional Salafi/Wahhabi religious precepts and the revolutionary methodology of political Islam, as Stéphane Lacroix has explained. The result was, as Hassan Hassan has documented, a politicized Salafism and a Salafized, i.e. more conservative, Muslim Brotherhood.

IS’s focus on the Saudi Kingdom is clear. Saudi Arabia has been seriously afflicted by IS’s foreign attacks campaign, and multiple cells of IS jihadists continue to be uncovered. In his November 2016 speech, which was otherwise devoted to telling his troops to stand firm in Mosul, IS’s leader Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), took time to attack the Saudi government as “the head of every tribulation [suffered by the jihadists] and the reason for every calamity”, encouraging the population to rebel and overthrow the Saudi royal family. “At the heart of the rivalry [between the Saudis and IS] is the question of who gets to pose as the defender of ‘Sunnidom’ in the face of Iranian expansionism in the Middle East”, as Nibras Kazimi put it. The two contenders are playing for the same turf, and for IS to displace the Saudi rulers as custodian of the Two Holy Mosques would be a victory far more important than any territory taken or terrorist strike thus far conducted.

The strength of IS inside Saud Arabia is opaque. There are hints, however, that IS might be stronger in the Kingdom than current evidence suggests. IS’s strategic depth is in the rural areas, as the group itself has noted. Saudi Arabia has a history of being unable to lay hands on prominent antagonists if they move into the desert interior of the country. Juhayman al-Utaybi, who most dramatically brought the Saudis’ Islamist problem into public view, had been wanted by Saudi authorities since mid-1978, but Juhayman went into the deserts and was only found again when he and his followers seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979. More recently, in 2009, Nimr al-Nimr, a Saudi Shi’a cleric, gave a series of incendiary lectures, calling on the Shi’is of the Eastern Province to secede from the Kingdom and impose the rule of wilayat al-faqih, the revolutionary Islamist doctrine practiced by the Iranian regime. Al-Nimr then vanished for two years, before he chose to reappear in 2011 to encourage the (sometimes violent) protests in the Shi’a-majority areas of Saudi Arabia during the early phases of the “Arab Spring”. If such high-profile wanted men can evade the Saudi state, it certainly leaves a question about recruits to IS who are hardly going to be so visible.

IS is on the backfoot in a military sense, though the ideological and physical ground is prepared for the collapse of the statelet and a return to insurgency. Perhaps IS will confine itself mostly to “Syraq”, with occasional strikes in the “provinces” abroad to retain its branding. That doesn’t accord with IS’s record, though, which is one of high risks. The attempt by its founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), to create an Islamic state in the heart of the Arab world, was brash; from the outside there is no way he can have known the extent of the assistance the legacy of the fallen regime would give him. The declaration of the caliphate was an astoundingly brazen maneuver. If something audacious is in the script for IS in the next few years as it tries to recover at the “centre”, Saudi Arabia could well be the set.

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