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Saudi Bombings Raise Security Concerns Ahead of Annual Pilgrimage

  • Cecily Hilleary

People stand near the site of an explosion in Medina, Saudi Arabia, July 4, 2016.

People stand near the site of an explosion in Medina, Saudi Arabia, July 4, 2016.

This week’s suicide attack on a revered holy site in Saudi Arabia has shocked Muslims—Sunni and Shia—across the globe. It has also raised questions about the Kingdom’s ability to protect pilgrims in the upcoming Hajj, which begins in early September.

Four security officers were killed and five wounded in a suicide bombing Monday just steps away from the burial site of the Prophet Mohammed in the city of Medina. It was one of three attacks across the Saudi kingdom in a 24-hour period.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but many Saudis say they bear typical IS hallmarks. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared IS caliph, made clear his intentions to destabilize the Kingdom in a 2014 audio message urging attacks against Shia, Westerners and the monarchy itself, urging followers to “snatch them as groups and as individuals.”

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Wahhabism, an austere Sunni doctrine credited, ironically, with inspiring IS in the first place. IS accuses the Saudi monarchy of using Wahhabism to legitimize its rule, particularly its custodianship of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest sites.

“I think it’s become painfully obvious that ISIS will stop at nothing to try to create an air of uncertainty and instability in Saudi Arabia,” said Saudi security analyst Fahad Nazer, using an acronym for the terrorist group. “ISIS is seeking to destabilize it by creating a sense of uncertainty and insecurity and by attempting to foment sectarian discord between the majority Sunnis and Shia minority. It clearly thinks that the Saudi government is illegitimate and that ISIS should rule Mecca and Medina.”

Some analysts suggest the attacks demonstrate the kingdom is failing in efforts to contain homegrown extremism, and that this puts visitors at risk.

“The Saudis bear responsibility to protect the Prophet's Mosque, and the incident will prompt diplomatic discussions on security among the kingdom's friends and foes in the Muslim world,” noted the geopolitical intelligence and consulting firm Stratfor. “The bombing also draws questions about Saudi Arabia's continued ability to shoulder the burden of hosting what are, at their core, international spaces.”

Nazer rejects that notion.

“Ultimately, Saudi Arabia faces the same sort of challenge that the U.S. or any other country that has been hit with ISIS' brand of terrorism has faced,” he said.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz Wednesday promised to retaliate with an “iron fist” against extremist groups who target youth with “malicious calls” to violence.

Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Naif Wednesday visited Jeddah, where a suicide bomber had targeted the U.S. consulate two days earlier, and reassured Saudis that security in the kingdom is tighter than ever and getting stronger every day.

Muslim pilgrims gather around the bodies of people crushed in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015.

Muslim pilgrims gather around the bodies of people crushed in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015.

Last March, the Kingdom held a workshop to review security procedures during the Hajj, but media suggest the focus was on preventing disasters such as the deadly stampede in September 2015 that killed more than 200 pilgrims.

In May, the Kingdom announced it would shortly introduce and require pilgrims to wear water-resistent e-bracelets, equipped with barcodes that link to personal information -- even individual medical records. Presumably, these will also help security authorities keep track of pilgrims.

Police had already increased security patrols in Mecca prior to Monday’s bombings, and the interior ministry has set up a national security center in that city, which it says is staffed by more than 1,600 security officers and civilians and linked to 18,000 security cameras.

But security, said Nazer, is just one element in combating IS inside Saudi Arabia: “The other is an effort to discredit ISIS' narrative and to expose its brutality. I expect that effort will continue for the foreseeable future,” he said.

VOA reached out to Sama Tours, a California-based agency that makes travel arrangements for pilgrims.

“We have not received any calls or any cancellations from anyone registered to go with us to Hajj this year,” a spokesman replied by email.

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