Jihadism has deep roots in Saudi Arabia, the second-largest source of foreign militants in Iraq and Syria since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. Since the mid-2000s, Saudi security forces have contained the jihadist threat in the kingdom, aware of the economic and security dangers it could pose if left unchecked. But in the past year, Islamic State activity in Saudi Arabia — and a recent series of raids against alleged militants — has raised fears that the threat may be growing beyond authorities' control.
After a series of raids in Taif in early July 2015, Saudi officials stopped a man wearing a suicide vest at a roadblock in Riyadh on July 16. To avoid capture, the man detonated his device, setting off a government crackdown that led to the arrest of over 400 alleged Islamic State supporters within two days. The following month, a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a mosque in Abha, a city in western Saudi Arabia. The attack killed 15 worshippers, including 10 members of a special Saudi state security unit, and wounded many others. Since then, three other attacks against Shiite mosques in Eastern Province have occurred, along with a handful of small bombings in Riyadh and several assassinations of police and security officers. In addition, a number of raids against Islamic State members have been conducted in Riyadh, Dammam and Asir. A raid outside Mecca on May 5 sparked a firefight that left four Islamic State fighters dead. Saudi security forces fatally shot two of them — one of whom had been named a suspect in the Abha mosque bombing — and the remaining two detonated suicide bombs to avoid capture.
The threat environment could change even more as Islamic State fighters return from Iraq and Syria, bringing with them experience and honed skills gained on the battlefield to conduct more complex and strategic attacks. Despite the surge in jihadist activity in Saudi Arabia over the past year, however, there is currently no sign that Saudi authorities will lose control of the threat. Nonetheless, potential targets in the kingdom must practice heightened awareness as they look for signs of change in the jihadist threat, such as attacks on oil infrastructure or expatriates, the use of larger and more sophisticated explosive devices or increased surveillance on possible attack sites.