Disruption of plot to target Mecca Grand Mosque reflects security forces’ effectiveness at limiting jihadist capabilities
The authorities claimed to have thwarted an imminent suicide bombing at the Grand Mosque – which surrounds Islam’s holiest site – in Mecca on 23 June. The assailant detonated his explosives in a raid on his flat, killing himself, and injuring five members of the security forces and six civilians. Five other individuals were arrested elsewhere in the city and in Jeddah as part of a Government counter-terrorism operation.
There has been a relative lull in jihadist militancy over the past year, reflecting how the effectiveness of the security forces has grown substantially since mid-2015, when Islamic State (IS) carried out a series of high-casualty attacks, mostly targeting Shia mosques. Indeed, there has been no major jihadist violence since 4 July last year, when four security personnel were killed in a series of coordinated suicide attacks in Jeddah, Qatif and Medina’s Prophet’s Mosque – Islam’s second holiest site. IS was likely responsible for these, but may have refrained from claiming responsibility because of their low casualty rate. Similarly, IS was likely behind the latest plot. It will be the only jihadist group willing to strike Mecca, given the intense anger this would provoke from most Muslims, and will likely have been prompted by the group’s 7 June call for violence in the Kingdom, which we discussed last time.
The plot against the Grand Mosque was intended to maximise media attention by capitalising on the site’s religious significance, especially given that it was likely planned to coincide with the Eid al-Fitr holiday. Moreover, the assailant would almost certainly have sought to kill security officers rather than ordinary worshippers, so IS would have been able to portray the attack as retaliation for Riyadh’s participation in the US-led campaign against it in Iraq and Syria. Violence against personnel at Mecca would also help the group to undermine the Saudi monarch’s title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, and thereby damage support for the ruling family. Finally, such an attack would have aided IS’s efforts to fuel regional and sectarian tensions, which it could then exploit to increase its own support, since the Saudi Government would have sought to blame Iran for any violence at a major holy site.
Shia militants are also looking to capitalise on the deteriorating ties between Riyadh and Tehran in the wake of the ongoing Qatar diplomatic crisis. They were likely responsible for two separate rocket-propelled grenade attacks on military convoys that have killed two soldiers in Qatif, Eastern Province on 4 and 6 July. The frequency of such operations will continue to increase as tensions escalate, though Shia militants have only limited capabilities. By contrast, Saudi Arabia has a very large jihadist community, among which there is significant support for IS, and the group considers the Kingdom a top targeting priority. The security forces have been able to contain this threat in the past year, but the large number of sympathisers means a major attack is nonetheless highly possible over the next few months, despite the authorities’ capabilities, with Government, security and Western interests all likely targets.