ISIS Suicide Bombers Hit Inside Saudi Arabia

The wave of Ramadan attacks continues, including a strike near the second holiest site in Islam.

Saudi Bombing

While not as bloody as recent attacks elsewhere in the world, ISIS got the world’s attention yesterday by striking inside Saudi Arabia:

Suicide bombers suspected of links to the Islamic State struck for the fourth time in less than a week, targeting three locations in Saudi Arabia in an extension of what appeared to be a coordinated campaign of worldwide bombings coinciding with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The triple attacks Monday ranged across the kingdom: near a U.S. consulate in Jiddah, a mosque frequented by Shiite worshipers in an eastern district, and at a security center in one of Islam’s holiest sites, the historic city of Medina. The Saudi Interior Ministry told the state-run television station that four security guards died in the Medina attack and five were injured.

The attacks offered further evidence that in the two years since it declared the existence of its so-called caliphate, the Islamic State has developed the capacity to strike at will in diverse locations around the world.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the bombings bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State, with suicide attackers picking targets that closely coincided with the group’s declared enemies: Americans, members of the Shiite Muslim minority and the Saudi security services.

On Tuesday, the Saudi Interior Ministry identified the bomber behind the Jiddah attack as a 34-year-old Pakistani, Abdullah Qalzar Khan, who it said arrived in the kingdom 12 years ago to work as a driver. The statement gave no other immediate details.

The militant group, as it has in each of the three years since it announced its existence, had urged its followers to carry out attacks during the holy month of Ramadan, a period of fasting, abstention and prayer that will conclude Wednesday with a holiday of feasting and family visits.

This has turned into the most blood-soaked Ramadan yet in the Islamic State’s campaign. At least 290 people have been killed in attacks claimed by or linked to the Islamic State — at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, at a restaurant frequented by foreigners in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, and in Baghdad. The vast majority of them, 222 people, died in the Baghdad blast, which targeted a shopping street packed with people celebrating the end of the day’s fast and shopping for the approaching holiday.

Omar Mateen, the gunman who killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub last month, may also have been inspired by the call for Ramadan attacks issued by the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, Mohammed al-Adnani, in late May. But although Mateen cited the Islamic State as his inspiration in phone calls to emergency responders, investigators have found no evidence that he was directly linked to the group.

The Islamic State also did not claim the attack in Istanbul, but Turkish investigators say the group is the leading suspect.

The attacks in Saudi Arabia raised concerns that the group is taking deeper root there, potentially threatening the stability of one of America’s closest Arab allies. The Islamic State has frequently threatened the kingdom, whose status as the guardian of the holiest sites in Islam is challenged by a group that regards itself as the rightful leader of the Muslim world.

The first blast came in the afternoon outside the closely guarded U.S. Consulate in the city of Jiddah, the first of the past week’s attacks directly to target a U.S. facility. Two security guards were wounded, and the bomber died, after security guards approached the man and he detonated his explosives, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

Hours later, a suicide bomber blew himself up near a mosque in the majority-Shiite city of Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia. A resident of the city contacted by the Reuters news agency said there appeared to be no casualties other than the bomber, because worshipers had already gone home to break their fast. The Islamic State has in the past year claimed a number of deadly bombings against the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia.

The final attack came in Medina, the second-holiest site in Islam, which is visited by millions of Muslim pilgrims every year. It apparently targeted Saudi security forces stationed near the 7th century Mosque of the prophet Muhammad, who is buried there.

As noted, there don’t appear to have been any deaths or injuries from any of these attacks, but the fact that ISIS was able to pull off attacks inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to begin with is likely to set off shockwaves throughout the Muslim world. Of particular concern will be the attack on Medina, the second holiest site in Islam and one that, unlike Mecca, has seemingly been largely immune to violence in recent decades. What the impact of such attacks is likely to be is unknown, but some analysts suggested last night that the attack on Mecca in particular is likely to offend Muslims worldwide even though it was on a security checkpoint rather than the shrine itself. The more important immediate reaction, though, is likely to be the one from Saudi governing authorities, who have long prided themselves on their ability to keep the Kingdom relatively immune from the kind of terrorist attacks that have become all too common in other parts of the Islamic world. In the past, the Saud family has dealt with problems like this is one of two ways, either via brutal crackdowns or by striking a deal with militants that essentially pays them off to leave the Kingdom alone but does nothing to resolve the problem for the rest of the world. Often, as in the case of al Qaeda, the Saudi ‘solution’ has made the problem much, much worse for the rest of the world.

At the very least, what we see yet again in this attack is evidence of ISIS’s ability to strike nearly anywhere that it wishes even as its territory shrinks. One could argue that this is evidence of a force that is slowly dying striking out blindly in a last ditch effort to have an impact. It could be that, or it could be a sign of an evolving ISIS that is showing that it no longer needs to rely upon its base in Iraq and Syria to have an impact around the world, and a sign of a change in strategy that has also included the movement of forces to areas such as Libya, Yemen, and the Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan. If that’s what we’re seeing then, as I’ve said before, our current strategy of using conventional military forces to strike at ISIS territory, particularly the targeting of the ‘capital’ of its putative Caliphate, may be too little, too late.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, National Security, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Jack says:

    The religion of pieces strikes again.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    One could argue that this is evidence of a force that is slowly dying striking out blindly in a last ditch effort to have an impact.

    One could indeed. We do seem to be seeing ISIS crumbling on the ground while GOPs run around saying Obama has no plan for fighting ISIS. Of late GOPs frequently remind me of David Halberstam’s history of the Korean War, The Coldest Winter. He made quite a point of the irony and difficulty for Truman of actively prosecuting a shooting war against communists while constantly being attacked by GOPs for being soft on communism.

  3. Pch101 says:

    It could be that, or it could be a sign of an evolving ISIS that is showing that it no longer needs to rely upon its base in Iraq and Syria to have an impact around the world

    But the point of building a caliphate is to build a caliphate. If one can’t build and maintain such a thing, then the mission is a failure.

    One reason that ISIS broke away from al-Qaeda in Iraq is that AQ wanted to fight foreign forces while ISIS wanted to establish a pan-national state as it converted Muslims to ISIS’ idea of Islam.

    As it turns out, nationbuilding is a lot tougher than is waging an asymmetric conflict against outside forces. If you have a capital, then it can be bombed and captured. If you take territory, then you can lose it. These are not the problems that rebel groups excel at solving; it is easier for them to wage wars of attrition against foreign occupiers who will eventually withdraw after it becomes apparent that the price of occupation isn’t worth paying.

    You can compare this to the Japanese invading the Pacific and bombing Pearl Harbor. It may have appeared to be a show of strength, but it was really an indication that its imperial plans were unwinding and doomed to fail.

  4. SKI says:

    From a domestic political perspective, what remains to be seen is how these latest attacks, by ISIS on fellow Muslims, get processed in the minds of public and their impact on Trump’s & the GOP’s message of “Radical Islam” being equatable with all of Islam.

  5. Mikey says:

    @SKI: It won’t make a difference. Muslims have always made up 90% of the victims of ISIS terror attacks, but nobody pays much attention until ISIS hits a Western target.

    I’d wager if you asked the typical Republican what percentage of ISIS attacks target Muslims vs. target the West, you’d get an answer that’s the exact inversion of what has actually happened.

  6. SKI says:


    It won’t make a difference. Muslims have always made up 90% of the victims of ISIS terror attacks, but nobody pays much attention until ISIS hits a Western target.

    Except that these attacks did have attention paid to them. Hence my question.

  7. Mikey says:

    @SKI: Previous such attacks have drawn attention too. It has still made no difference in the Republican view.

    Look at the first comment in this thread for an example. It’s irrelevant to him that these attacks targeted Muslims on their most prominent holiday, or at one of their holiest sites. They’re all lumped together under “religion of peace.” And it’s been that way no matter who ISIS hits.

  8. SKI says:

    @Mikey: Not in the same way and not with clear tie-in to attacks in western countries, including the US.

    The commentater above isn’t who I’m wondering about. He already suffers from cognitive deficiency. I’m thinking of the general voter, frequently relatively ill-informed but not hyper-partisan, who tends to grab onto a narrative. The question whether the narrative that forms will be shaped by these ISIS on Islam attacks or not. And we just won’t know for awhile.

  9. Jack's Drinking Buddy says:

    Obviously Shillary called ISIS and ordered them to distract everyone while the FBI helped coverup how she personally murdered everyone in Benghazi.

  10. humanoid.panda says:

    @SKI: The thing is that the kind of voter you describe simply does not care much about news from the Middle East. As far as he is concerned, bombings there are just a fact of nature, just like tornadoes in Kansas.

  11. Mikey says:

    @SKI: OK then: based on prior responses to similar attacks over the past several years, I don’t expect any shift in the narrative, nor any major change in how the typical voter views such attacks. As @humanoid.panda said, things like this are just what happens “over there” and even if there’s some unusual factor involved it will drop off the radar in a day or two. But I could be wrong.

    Either way, you’re correct, it will probably be some time before we know.

  12. James Pearce says:


    The religion of pieces strikes again.

    That was probably funnier when you heard it on the radio.

    The other day, Xeni Jardin tweeted:

    Dude ISIS is bombing Muslim people in Muslim communities during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan how is ISIS Muslim no they’re psychopaths

    But go ahead with the “religion of pieces” jokes.

  13. barbintheboonies says:

    It makes you wonder just what they mean to achieve in these senseless targets. It proves brainwashing is a tremendous tool in war. What is it in humans that we are so easily led? Why would anyone believe this is a good thing? I know it is in all of us to follow something if given the right circumstances, but just how far would we go. Nazi Germany shocked the world. Fear and intimidation add economics and you find yourself wondering if this could happen to you too.

  14. Gustopher says:

    The House of Saud has been playing with the crazies for a long, long time. It’s surprising how seldom the crazies turn on them.

    Well, they pretty much have to react now…

  15. gVOR08 says:

    I’m curious as to how the Saudi public view this. I expect they’re mostly OK with attacking a US consulate. Many of the majority Sunni may not care much about an attack on a Shiite mosque. But are they going to distinguish between attacking the security forces guarding the mosque where Muhammad is buried and attacking the mosque? That seems a fine point of distinction.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    @barbintheboonies: The strategy does seem less than obvious. It may just be that if you broadcast a call for loosely associated crazies to attack, you have little control over the results.

    One has to wonder how many crazies there are who are willing to commit suicide or risk a high probability of being killed, and yet are capable of planning and executing these attacks.

  17. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    Well, I was going to ask if we could dispense with the idea that ISIS was anything other than Muslim in name only. But then I read Jack’s witt(less)y reposte reinforced by the thoughtful musings of SKI and Mikey and realized that I might as well give up to begin with.

  18. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08: This and the attack on the Turkish airport seem odd. Bad choices on the surface at least.

    ISIS needs to porous border with Turkey to have access to Europe, and now the Turks are likely to begin firming up that border and the airport.

    And ISIS has enjoyed the not-quite-support-but-tacit-approval of the Saudis. Wahhabism and the House of Saud go back a long way. ISIS practices a particularly vicious variant of Wahhabism, but it seems like a mistake to go after the closest thing they have to an ally.

    And to make an attack on the mosque where Muhammad is buried is consistent with their radical anti-iconography and anti-idolatry and monotheism (if there is no God but Allah, why are you venerating a mere prophet), but should make it harder to recruit garden variety Sunnis.

    Just odd. Not suggesting a conspiracy, I just don’t think there is a grand strategy at work here, and that these attacks are going to be a long term problem for ISIS.

  19. Cory says:


    I don’t expect there to be any processing among the Trumpsters and the GOP. They see ISIS bombing all over the world and will say….Mooooslums!!!

  20. SKI says:

    @Cory: Some will, no doubt. But it is bigoted and foolishly false to claim that all Republicans are stupid.

    My guess is that, like many other areas, the belief will follow the perceived victor.