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Saudi Arabia: anxiety and insecurity

Saudi Arabia: anxiety and insecurity

Recent IS terror attacks shake the Kingdom

After five years without a single terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, there have been at least three shootings and multiple reported threats over the last few months, against the Kingdom and Western interests. With these developments occurring as Islamic State militants (IS) continue to hold territory across the border in Iraq, anxiety among the Western expatriate and business community in the Kingdom has increased.

The Saudi authorities have considerable experience in managing domestic terrorism. They have swiftly detained suspected terrorists and tried to contain what they say is a growing threat from Syria and Iraq-based extremism. But they appear to be struggling to deal with what is a relatively new kind of threat, in the form of lone wolf terrorists, whose plots can be much harder for the authorities to detect or intercept.

Islamic State directs attacks

The most deadly terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia in many years, a shooting in Al-Ahsa province, was also the first indication that IS militants may be able to direct as well as inspire attacks outside of Syria and Iraq. In that attack in early November, at least three assailants targeted Shia civilians, killing five people. Sunni extremist attacks in the Kingdom have not previously been sectarian. Instead, terrorists have tended to target Westerners and security force personnel.

A statement from the Ministry of Interior on 25 November said that the man leading the attack received ‘orders from abroad that specified the [nature of the] target, those targeted, and the time [the attack] should be carried out.’ The statement specifically named IS as the foreign contact. Although this allegation has not been confirmed independently, it would explain why that attack was sectarian in its targeting, since IS has frequently conducted similar attacks on Shia in Iraq.

The lone wolf threat

In contrast to the Al-Ahsa shooting, recent attacks against foreigners have involved lone attackers. In mid-October, a single gunman killed a US contractor and wounded another at a petrol station in Riyadh. Exact details of the attack have not been made publicly available, but information from well-placed sources indicates that the assailant came well-armed. The police were quick to attend the scene and later arrested the suspect.

The attacker used to work for the same company as the victims, and some accounts of the attack have suggested that his dismissal led to the attack. However, this occurred up to four years previously, so it seems unlikely that he was motivated purely by a grievance about his dismissal. The targeting of foreigners, specifically those from the assailant’s former company, combined with the location of the attack near to the company’s compound suggests that it was singled out. It also raises the possibility that the assailant intended to kill foreigners, and selected the location knowing the petrol station was used by nearby compound residents.

While the assailant’s motivations remain unconfirmed, that incident demonstrates how much harder it is for the Saudi security forces to prevent individual actors than cells. This was again seen in another shooting of a Danish citizen in Riyadh, just a month later. The motivation in this attack is similarly unconfirmed, but in the absence of any other explanation for the attack, and because of the targeting of a Westerner, we suspect it was more likely than not to have been terrorism-related.

Responding to the threat

The extremist threat to foreigners in Saudi Arabia appears to be again re-emerging, although the exact relationship between this threat and the current strength of IS militants in Syria and Iraq is not clear. While intelligence cannot always provide forewarning of specific attacks, it can identify attack patterns, such as the use of fairly crude weapons to target victims in transit, or the emergence of a new threat, like that from IS-inspired extremists.

In this context, effective security management by private companies can also provide reassurance to foreign employees, and also ensure mitigation appropriate to the threat. This is particularly important since extremists appear to be seeking ways to overcome security measures already in place, for example by targeting victims as they travel from better secured locations at work or at home. Most importantly, appropriate mitigation can allow personnel to continue to work as normal in Saudi Arabia, a country that for many companies remains an important market.


Published: 3rd December 2014