Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, issued a statement ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage, stating that Iranians will not be attending this year’s event in Saudi Arabia. The Supreme Leader’s actions reflect a growing concern by many of the ability to mitigate terrorist threats and safety concerns.
Neither the tone nor the content of the statement is surprising given the state of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But Hajj security measures are under particular scrutiny this year in light of previous disasters, the threat of terrorism, and tensions with Iran.
Khamenei said that 500 Iranian nationals died during a stampede at least year’s Hajj. The total number of fatalities as a result of the incident at Mina is disputed, although AP and other news agencies indicated that more than 2,400 people were killed. The exact cause of the stampede and why it resulted in so many deaths is also unclear, but the authorities say they have introduced new measures to manage crowds, including giving pilgrims electronic wristbands. Khamenei described these steps as ‘unprecedented surveillance with the help of…America and the Zionist regime’.
The Saudi Civil Defence authorities will be providing security during Hajj, and are due to deploy 17,000 security officers. In addition to managing the crowds of 2m people who will attend the pilgrimage, the authorities will also be seeking to prevent any major public safety or security incidents, from outbreaks of disease to terrorism. There has not been a terrorist attack during Hajj for two decades, although a bombing in Medina in July shows that this remains a possibility. That attack occurred outside the Prophet’s Mosque, and would have caused more deaths if the security guards had not stopped the bomber from entering the site.
Islamic State did not claim responsibility for that attack, or two other bombings in the Kingdom on the same day, but the Saudi authorities blamed the group. We also think it was the most probable perpetrator. However widespread anger about the bombing, even among hardline jihadists, seems to have led IS to distance itself from its attack. Based on that bombing and previous high-profile IS attacks, we think that members of the group would be prepared to target Hajj, if they thought IS would gain from such an attack. But in light of the negative response to the Medina bombing, we doubt that IS members would believe such an attack to be in their interest at this time.
In addition to facing a negative public response to attacks on religious sites used by Sunni Muslims, militants have struggled to mount attacks on sites with visible security. The Saudi authorities have proved fairly effective at intercepting would-be assailants at security checkpoints, with recent attacks occurring outside important sites. In this context, if IS militants mount attacks during the Hajj or Eid period, we think it is more probable that these would occur away from the pilgrimage. Eid Al-Adha will begin on 12 September.
Clients have also asked us on several occasions in recent years whether, in the context of worsened Saudi-Iranian relations, there is an elevated threat of Iranian-backed terrorist attacks in the Kingdom. We suspect that the latest Iranian statements about Saudi Arabia are likely to maintain such concerns, but assess it is highly unlikely that Iran would seek to mount attack in the Kingdom at this stage. Such a move would directly undermine the way the Iranian authorities have presented themselves as the victims in the dispute over Hajj, and sought to portray Saudi Arabia as a supporter of terrorism.
Rather than seeking to directly destabilise the Kingdom through covert action, it seems much more likely that Iran will continue to try to use proxies and allies to undermine Saudi Arabia’s role in the wider Middle East region. Saudi interests are particularly vulnerable to this kind of activity in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon. The most recent example of this is in Iraq, where the recently-appointed Saudi ambassador has found himself at the centre of a diplomatic dispute amid reports that an Iranian-linked militia group threatened to kill him.
Image: Pilgrims in Mecca; Al Jazeera English /WikiCommons/Creative Commons
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