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Middle East

House of Saud in the crosshairs

The Islamic State called for its followers to carry out 'a month of calamity' to coincide with the Muslim holy month. A string of attacks followed around the globe, Patrick Martin writes, from a lone-wolf gunman in Orlando to a suicide bomber at the Prophet's Mosque in Medina

The introspective Islamic month of Ramadan has been especially violent this year as a string of attacks across the world was carried out, most likely, by the radical group known as the Islamic State (also known as ISIL and ISIS) and its growing legion of followers. Though IS fighters have been losing ground to armies in Syria and Iraq, the scale and diversity of these recent far-reaching attacks show the difficulty in countering a widespread threat that is both directed and inspired.

In May, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani released an audiotape that called for increased attacks worldwide. "Ramadan, the month of conquest and jihad – get prepared, be ready … to make it a month of calamity everywhere for non-believers."

And IS fighters and followers responded with attacks on the targets the Islamic State most reviles: Shiites, infidels and Saudis.

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A timeline of the attacks:

While widespread attacks by Islamic State followers have been carried out in the past, what is new and significant now are the co-ordinated July 4 attacks in Saudi Arabia.

The Islamic State has targeted Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province before, but the attempted assault on the U.S. consulate in Jeddah and especially the attack on the Prophet's Mosque in Medina raise the stakes of this seemingly religious war enormously.

Though the Islamic State has not yet claimed responsibility for these attacks, analysts agree there is little doubt IS elements carried out the bombings with direction from IS commanders in nearby Iraq or Syria.

For one thing, the targets are too important to be left to just anyone. No one but the Islamic State (or possibly al-Qaeda) would dare attack the Prophet's Mosque.

For another thing, only the Islamic State has the right kind of experienced personnel on the ground in Saudi Arabia. In the past four years, more than 3,000 young Saudi men have gone to fight with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Of them, about 700 have reportedly returned home to Saudi Arabia fully trained and willing to carry out such attacks as these.

Finally, it is the Islamic State that harbours the greatest contempt for Saudi Arabia.

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Since the day, two years ago, on which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, declared a caliphate in the parts of Iraq and Syria the group had conquered and occupied, he has wanted to overturn the House of Saud.

IS propaganda labels the Saudi monarch as "al-Salul" – a derisive reference to an Arab tribal leader in Medina whose conversion to Islam, upon the arrival of the Prophet Mohammed, was considered insincere and who would always be known as the "leader of the hypocrites."

Mr. al-Baghdadi describes the Saudi establishment as lackeys of the U.S. "crusaders" and as apostates who have turned their backs on true Islam. To him, they are worse than "non-believers" such as Christians and Jews, and almost as bad as the ultimate heretics, the Shiites.

The Islamic State coats its contempt in the Islamic legal doctrine of takfir, which justifies the excommunication and the killing of apostates such as the Saudis.

It also justifies the Monday attacks on targets as bold as Medina and Jeddah.

"That these attacks failed to produce high casualty counts is irrelevant to [the Islamic State]," the Soufan Group, a U.S.-based think tank that monitors jihadi movements, cautioned observers. "The attention and symbolism are enough."

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Indeed, much of the Muslim world is in an uproar over the attack on Medina.

Even Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Foreign Minister of Shia Iran, commiserated with the Saudis on Tuesday: "There are no more red lines left for terrorists to cross," he wrote on Twitter. "Sunnis, Shiites will both remain victims unless we stand united as one."

Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Sunni Abu Dhabi, agreed. He tweeted: "It's time we work together to save our religion from these deadly criminal gangs."

The Soufan Group in its statement also cautioned observers not to dismiss the Islamic State attacks, such as the one in Baghdad on Sunday, as a sign of weakness. "Rather," the posting said, "they are the predictable actions of a group realigning its targets with its capabilities."

The Iraqi government's inability to prevent these attacks, given the extent to which the Islamic State is entrenched in Iraq, will further stress the tenuous stability of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government.

"There will be more such attacks in the near future," it concluded.

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