Last week I wrote that ISIS would attack Saudi Arabia this spring. This week the opportunity to attack with a high likelihood of success arrived: The King of Saudi Arabia died today. Unfortunately for the Saudi's, King Abdulla died before his Kingdom's gambit to gain control of ISIS paid off. Here's what they were trying to do but failed to pull off in time:
- Saudi Arabia has been pumping oil like crazy to drive the price of oil down. It worked. Prices dropped. Lower oil prices are undercuting the funding ISIS gets from its illicit oil sales across the region.
- Given time, the Saudis believed that this reduction in funding from oil sales would eventually force ISIS to approach Saudi Arabia for financial support. When it did ask for financial help, the Kingdom would be able to gain the leverage necessary to neutralize the threat it posed (as it did with al Qaeda decades earlier).
- Needless to say, this gambit didn't work. ISIS proved much more resilient financially than al Qaeda and other non-state groups are. ISIS has many, many more sources of income than donations from sympathisers and oil sales.
The failure of this gambit means that with the death of the King, ISIS may have a golden opportunity to pivot south to take Mecca and Medina. A southern pivot would capitalize on the increased fragility (of an already fragile country) caused by the succession. It would also allow ISIS to continue the its impressive string of victories in the field. However, this won't be a conventional war. It's going to be an open source war to win a moral victory. Here's a taste for how they would do it:
- ISIS would pivot forces from Syria and Iraq for a push south (indications are that this is apparently already underway), and then use these forces to rapidly overwhelm numerous border posts to create widespread confusion within the Saudi security forces. If done correctly, the rapid advances of black flags will cause a mass rout that will yield significant equipment and a considerable number of new jihadis (as troops flip to join the ISIS jihad).
- Simultaneous with the drive south, cells of ISIS jihadis and lone sympathizers will activate across the Kingdom, causing disruption and confusion. With this, lines of authority and communication within the kingdom will begin to break down.
- The advancing jihad will connect with local forces along a massive front moving south, jumping from city to city. The speed of this will depend on how willing the population is to accept ISIS. However, since Saudi Arabia has already indoctrinated its population with a religious ideology that is sympathetic to ISIS, the speed of the advance may be very rapid.
What will this attack on Saudi Arabia mean? Here are the worst potential outcomes.
- The borders of Saudi Arabia might be completely rewritten within the next couple of months. >> Once humpty dumpty is broken, all the kings horses and all the kings men won't be able to put it together again.
- In desperation, US ground troops would be deployed to defend the oil fields in the east (Ghawar, etc.). This deployment would radically increase the ability of ISIS to recruit and potentially turn this into a regional jihad.
- The advance of ISIS would result in massive refugee populations of Shia (towards Iraq) due to a religious cleansing of towns and cities across the kingdom.
PS: If this doesn't occur, ISIS missed the opportunity, and we're all better off for their mistake.
PPS: ISIS is a theocratic network of networks that is both entrepreneurial and dynamic. The KSA is a theocratic hierarchy that's risk averse and inflexible. Which one wins?