Saudi border guard stands next to a fence on Saudi Arabia’s northern borderline with Iraq. Photo Reuters
The Islamic State group (ISIS) is running up against a wall. As national coalitions take a larger role in the fight against ISIS, the group will become increasingly unable to operate on as large a scale as it has in years past, and it will be pushed out of its previously held territories – its decline may take years or even decades, but it will ultimately decline. But although ISIS may deplete its resources and feel increasing pressure from the international community, its members will not simply disappear as the group loses momentum. ISIS is largely comprised of foreign fighters with limited ties to the countries they fight in, and in the event of a relocation, one country in particular looks like a promising alternative – Saudi Arabia. With internal unrest, the threat of oil-driven economic instability and a history of conflict with its neighbors, the House of Saud is ripe for insurgency and would be the ideal next location for jihadists looking for a new rallying point. As ISIS loses steam and is pushed out of its old stomping grounds, Saudi Arabia is in danger of becoming the next ground zero for terrorism in the region. […]
In addition to internal pressure due to widespread unemployment, a massive immigrant population and falling oil prices, Saudi Arabia faces multiple challenges from external sources as well. Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen is steadily draining resources and political good will. The Iranian nuclear deal was perceived as a loss and a sign of weakness for Saudi Arabia and the Sunni community, which has always fought to contain its Shia neighbor. ISIS has already targeted Saudi Arabia for its ties to the US, and in response the government has been driven to arrest almost 100 people in 2015 alone for suspected ties to ISIS. These perceived weaknesses and flaws in the Saudi government provide ideal material for an insurgency seeking a common enemy, and ISIS may seize that opportunity in the event that it is pushed out of its current strongholds.
But why Saudi Arabia specifically? The foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq come from all over the world – Libya is currently a bastion of ISIS support, as are multiple other locations throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Why would Saudi Arabia suffer the brunt of a relocation?
Saudi Arabia has the potential to be a unifying enemy, with enough ties to the West to fuel radical censure but without the stability of most Western countries to counter an insurgency movement. It provides a platform for recruitment with its youthful population and high unemployment, and at the same time allows for foreign outreach through its massive immigrant population. The Saudi government itself is stretched thin operating in Yemen and contributing military resources to Syria, all while suffering blows to its economy from dropping oil prices. The royal family is caught between a rock and a hard place, risking censure from radical conservatives if it modernizes and popular discontent if it pushes more stringent Wahhabism on its population. Critically, Saudi Arabia is home to two of the most holy sites of Islamic culture, Mecca and Medina, which makes it a natural rallying point. All of these factors make Saudi Arabia an ideal location for insurgency, and suggest that Saudi Arabia will suffer the consequences when ISIS’ power is depleted and its fighters scatter beyond Iraq and Syria.
It is unlikely that ISIS will ever be truly eliminated. More likely it will continue on in some modified form, moving locations and continuing attacks on a smaller scale and under different names. But the dispersed fighters will seek to find a rallying point to reconsolidate their power, and Saudi Arabia provides the optimal environment. While ISIS deserves our full attention at present, we must also consider the repercussions of its decline and watch for new challenges that will emerge as a consequence in other regions.