Skip to main content

Saudis fear Syria blowback after discovering ISIS cell

Fears of jihadist blowback from the Syrian war are starting to be realized after Saudi's discovery of a terrorist cell planning attacks on its soil.
Fighters from Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) burn confiscated cigarettes in the city of Raqqa April 2, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT RELIGION SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3JP4Z

On May 6, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced the discovery of a jihadist group in Saudi Arabia linked to the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The newly discovered group sought to restart armed action in Saudi Arabia, and it was linked to ISIS in Syria and had contacts with al-Qaeda in Yemen. The group was collecting donations, coordinating the smuggling of individuals and weapons, and preparing to resume assassinations and bombings in Saudi Arabia, according to the ministry statement.

The statement clearly points to ISIS in Syria and its relationship to groups that are targeting Saudi internal security. This reveals Saudi concern about the growing and rising influence of al-Qaeda, in its multiple groupings, on the kingdom’s northern border with both Syria and Iraq, and on the southern border with Yemen. The Syrian and Yemeni fronts have become safe havens for al-Qaeda in its two conflicting branches: Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. 

Meanwhile, Saudi policy in the two countries calls for supporting the transitional process. In Syria, this is done by supporting the so-called moderate military factions, which are not linked to al-Qaeda. In parallel with this strategy, Saudi policy wants to prevent the growth of influence of al-Qaeda and its affiliates and their acquiring safe havens from which they can threaten Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Shura Council, told the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat that one reason why al-Qaeda and similar groups have a growing influence is the political and security vacuum in a number of countries in the region, including Syria.

According to the Ministry of Interior's statement, the newly discovered group has 62 members, most of them Saudis. The group is establishing a smuggling network of individuals and weapons between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Perhaps this is why the group chose to set up its headquarters in Abha in the southern part of the kingdom, near Yemen.

The director of Al-Arabiya TV in Saudi Arabia, Khalid al-Matrafi, revealed that among those assassinated by the group was a senior cleric in Riyadh. The phenomenon of targeting public figures is not new to Saudi Arabia, and in 2009, al-Qaeda in Yemen tried to assassinate the assistant minister of interior, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef.

The division of al-Qaeda in Syria into Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS will not be limited to Syria, with the split appearing elsewhere. The position of al-Qaeda in Yemen is ambiguous regarding the two groups in Syria, and it has preferred to stay silent and not take sides. However, some leaders of al-Qaeda in Yemen made statements in support of ISIS at the expense of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Monitoring social media reveals that the armed conflict between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in Syria has caused fractures between al-Qaeda supporters in other countries, including Saudi Arabia. This fracture will cause the emergence of a more radical and violent al-Qaeda current, via ISIS, whose supporters on social media do not hide their desire to move their operations and bombings to Saudi Arabia.

The longer the conflict in Syria goes on, the greater the pressure on neighboring countries, to where the crisis may be spread. The repercussions of the Syrian civil war on neighboring countries is exacerbated by these countries engaging in this war by providing political, military and financial support to certain groups.

This regional overlap in Syria will not remain a one-way street if the Syrian civil war continues and if the divisions among the opposition factions increase, in light of the heightened sectarian conflict with the regime, which is being helped by sectarian support from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. Rather, the Syrian conflict will produce a blowback on the states that are supporting and funding either the regime or the revolution. Neighboring countries that are supporting the parties to the conflict in Syria will themselves become theaters of the Syrian conflict. Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan are the countries most likely to suffer the repercussions of the Syrian conflict, whether the conflict between the regime and the opposition, or the conflicts among the opposition factions.

The newly discovered group in Saudi Arabia is the first group to be revealed to have ties with ISIS, which broke away from al-Qaeda in Syria and entered into a war against it. This war is ongoing despite the intervention of al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.

So far, it is not clear whether ISIS established a new group in Saudi Arabia amid the conflict with the mother organization in Syria — Jabhat al-Nusra — to earn credit from the mother organization for fighting in the Arabian Peninsula. It is also not clear whether this will affect the cohesion of al-Qaeda in Yemen, especially in light of the Yemeni army’s war to expel al-Qaeda from its areas of influence.

In light of its struggle against Jabhat al-Nusra and jihadist Salafism for al-Qaeda’s legacy, ISIS may opt to conduct terrorist operations outside Syria.

Saudi Arabia announcing that it uncovered an ISIS group on its soil reveals the features of Saudi policy toward Syria, especially after the talk that Syria’s file is in the hands of Saudi Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who is also playing a key role in the fight against al-Qaeda in Yemen.

The new Saudi policy is moving on two parallel lines: The first is to fight al-Qaeda and its organizations, and the second is to support the moderate military factions that are not linked to al-Qaeda, to push the Syrian regime to accept the transition of power process. Combining these two strategies is not easy, especially since the moderate factions in Syria are no more moderate than the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi government has designated a terrorist group like al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial