The Who, What, and Why of ISIS' Bombings in Saudi Arabia

The recent suicide bombings signal a disturbing escalation in ISIS activity.

If, after the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the May 22 suicide bombing at a Shia mosque in Saudi Arabia’s Qatif region, you pointed out that this was neither their first attack nor was it likely to be their last, you would have been right. On May 29, Wilayat Nejd (Nejd is a name that refers to central Saudi Arabia) claimed another suicide attack in front of another Shia mosque—the al-Anoud Mosque—in Dammam. Four were killed. These two incidents, both during Friday prayers precisely one week apart, represent the most sophisticated attacks thus far, with the Qatif bombing by far the most deadly. When taken in the context of previous attacks, arrests and threats that can be traced back to the fall of 2014, they also represent a significant escalation.

The “Who”

The fact that Saudi nationals constitute the majority of militancy-related arrests and perpetrators of domestic militant attacks demonstrates that the country’s main threat stems from radicalized locals. Fighting between Saudi forces and Houthis along the southern border has remained localized to this area, while there have been only three attacks from abroad since July 2014 (two at or near the northern Arar border crossing with Arar and one at the southern Wadia border crossing with Yemen).

However, when it comes to radicalization, the twenty-six arrested members of the “terrorist cell” tied to the Qatif bombing and the bomber himself were all Saudi citizens. Similarly, the majority of the ninety-three arrested in April were Saudis, while the two connected to the April 8 Islamic State–linked shooting of two police officers in Riyadh were also Saudi citizens. In December, of 135 announced arrests, 109 were Saudi nationals. The three individuals tied to IS who were arrested in connection to the November 20 shooting of a Danish national were Saudis, and seventy-three of seventy-seven arrested for involvement in the November 3 shooting of Shia were citizens, to name a few examples.

While it has been argued that the Qatif bombing, and IS strategy overall in Saudi Arabia, may represent “lone-wolf” attacks, the opposite appears to be true. In addition to the claims of responsibility, the Ministry of Interior stated that the Qatif bomber “was wanted for being active member of an ISIS-affiliated terror cell since one year ago with 26 of its members, all Saudis, arrested so far.” The April arrests also included cells that were dismantled; one in Qassim reportedly had sixty-five members. The militant Sunni organization clearly has inspired more than lone-wolf attackers in this country.

The “What”

Within this time frame—that is, from September 2014 to now—there have been eight reported attacks, including the two most recent bombings and one whose motive remains unconfirmed (a January 2015 shooting incident that targeted two U.S. nationals working for a defense contractor). There were also various foiled plots and warnings issued by the U.S. Embassy. Among these incidents, there is a clear line of escalation—until the Qatif and Dammam bombings, they only involved shootings by individuals linked to IS. With the April arrests, more sophisticated, albeit foiled, bombing plots were revealed, such as the planned suicide car bomb against the U.S. Embassy. This has now culminated in successful suicide bombings and “official” claims by “Wilayat Nejd.”