Saudi Arabia has airlifted large contingents of Pakistani and Egyptian soldiers into the kingdom to shore up its border defenses against an impending Islamist State (IS) attack from Iraq. The foreign soldiers are being strung out along the 500 km long stretch of boundary between the two countries, in the hope that their presence will stave off an incursion.
Riyadh fears, according to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, that the IS will send a highly-trained IS task force from Iraq to cover the 1,100 km distance to the shrine city of Mecca, and seize the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammed and the religion he founded, of which the Saudi royal house is the authorized custodian.
Located in the Sirat Mountains, 70 km inland from the Red Sea, Mecca is the site of the Kaaba, a cuboid structure at the center of Islam’s most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram, and the most sacred place on earth for Muslims. This would be the ultimate prize for the violent extremist group for, wherever he may be, every Muslim at prayer turns his face to the Kaaba.
Saudi Arabia’s intelligence appears to rely more on assessments than solid data on the plans of IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They estimate that the self-declared Islamic Caliphate is bound to target Islam’s holiest shrine, because its capture would give this Al Qaeda group unbridled power over all Muslims.
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Saudis uneasy although they have an air force and IS doesn’t
IS has been picking up momentum as well – as American tanks and armored vehicles – as it rides roughshod over the crumbling Iraqi Army. The Saudi military may fare no better.
"No one is certain what ISIS has planned, but it's obvious that a group like this will target Mecca if it can. We expect them to run out of steam, but no one is taking any chances,” said an advisor to the Saudi government.
Saudi Arabia has one major edge on IS – an air force which the Islamists lack. So even if Saudi air power fails to stop the jihadist advance, other air forces in the region – including US warplanes – will likely intervene to halt their march on Mecca.
Although Cairo this week firmly denied sending troops to Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan withheld comment, our military sources confirm that the soldiers have arrived and are at work building strong defense lines. They are shoring up military positions along the Saudi-Iraq border and in the area between the border town of Ar Ar and Riyadh, in case ISIS makes a sudden dash for the Saudi capital.
Funding the foreign troops is no obstacle for the world’s biggest oil supplier. Last year, the Saudis spent an estimated $59 billion on defense, leapfrogging Britain as the world’s fourth-largest military spender. This massive outlay highlights Riyadh’s unease about whether its defenses will hold up against a direct IS attack.
Penetration of Saudi ruling institutions ahead of invasion
While deeply fearful of an Islamist invasion, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources report that the Saudis are just as nervous about the creeping menace of the IS’s gradual penetration of the kingdom’s military, security and intelligence establishments, and their clergy.
Detecting turncoats will be doubly difficult when some may be Saudi nationals.
Al Baghdadi can capitalize on the fact that 1,000-1,500 members of the ISIS hardcore of 5,000 men are Saudi nationalists, who have close family and other ties in the kingdom. Many of the IS followers planted in the kingdom under cover, with orders to seize territory on call, may actually be locals.
IS used this method in Syria and Iraq to eke out its small size. By deals contracted with restive local Sunni tribes or militias, their combined forces overran large swathes of Syria and western and central Iraq (see a separate item in this issue on the latest developments there).
IS has applied the selfsame method to Saudi Arabia, sending out emissaries, our sources report, to recruit followers inside Saudi ruling institutions, and form a radicalized fifth column primed for subversive operations in the event of an IS invasion.
A Saudi intelligence source has information that radical cells have already been planted in Qassim, Khamis Mushayt, Dammam and Hofuf. Two people, one from the indigenous al-Maghamisi clan and the other known only as “al-Matiri”, are responsible for planting those cells in ruling institutions and instructing them in the performance of their missions when called.
They may also be aided by pro-Al Qaeda adherents smuggled into Saudi Arabia from Jordan.
Online campaign targets Saudi intelligence officials
Another part of Al-Baghdadi’s master-plan for undermining the Saudi monarchy from within is a campaign of assassinations for hitting key Saudi intelligence officers, according to reports from American intelligence sources this week.
IS agents this week launched a Twitter project to fuel this campaign. On August 2, US intelligence agencies monitoring jihadist social media communications encountered a crowd-sourced effort to gather names and other personal information on the group’s marks.
It was launched after Saudi National Guard police detective Turki al-Maliki was stabbed to death on July 28.
Online adherents of the Islamic State claimed that this murder was the first successful hit of the new campaign. But US officials believe they were opportunistically exploiting the murder to kick-start their own bloody push the next day. This drive is also meant to support the broader US effort to attract disaffected Saudi jihadists to their ranks and, like in other parts of the Middle East, use it to bargain for the release of Muslim terrorists held in prison.