Technical hitches limited the death tolls in three suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia but the apparent coordination of the blasts suggests the extremists have the tools to sustain their bombing campaign.
A young Saudi suicide bomber at the Prophet’s mosque in Medina killed four policemen last Monday, while more three young Saudis detonated explosive vests near a Shiite mosque in Qatif, killing only themselves,
Before dawn the same day a 34-year-old Pakistani driver had blown himself up in a car park outside the US consulate in Jeddah but only injured two security guards.
“Technically these people are poor. Psychologically they are very poor. Training-wise they are poor,” said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security expert at the Jeddah-based Gulf Research Centre with ties to the Saudi interior ministry.
Nevertheless, that five individuals were able to build or acquire explosive vests and to plot three attacks on the same day points to a command chain and supply network that presents a formidable threat, security analysts say.
No group admitted to the attacks, although the government believes ISIL is responsible after detaining 19 suspects linked to the five attackers.
The coordination but poor training appear to be a sign of ISIL’s operational model in Saudi Arabia, recruiting would-be militants online and managing plots remotely with minimal involvement in training.
An ISIL recruit inside the kingdom will then seek friends or relatives to join him in an attack, while his handlers in Syria or Iraq suggest a target and help to provide explosives and instructions on how to make a bomb.
That low profile makes it very difficult for the security forces to identify networks or uncover attacks before they are carried out, and ISIL’s minimal investment in operations means it has little to lose if a plot goes awry.
Unlike during an Al Qaeda campaign a decade ago there is no network of interconnected cells under a central leadership in Saudi Arabia that can be infiltrated or rolled up by the security services.
“They ask young people to stay in Saudi Arabia and create sleeper cells and this is a very dangerous thing because you do not know who is in a sleeper cell or who is a lone wolf,” a senior Saudi security officer told Reuters last year.
Traces of nitroglycerine were found at the locations of each of last week’s explosions and preliminary investigations suggest the explosives were of a type used by the military.
Police at present believe they came from the same source, said interior ministry spokesman Major General Mansour Turki.
“We’re talking about highly organised attacks under a central command [outside Saudi Arabia] and with a chain of supply,” said Mr Alani.
However, he said the lack of an in-country leadership able to carefully select and groom recruits, provide training, centralise bomb making and prepare attackers psychologically meant that many of its operations were ineffective.
The attackers in Jeddah and Medina were both approached by police in car parks near their likely targets because their nervous behaviour attracted suspicion. The Jeddah bomber detonated his device too far from the police to kill them.
After the attack in Qatif, police found explosive packs intact, Mr Alani said, indicating that only the detonators had exploded, killing the bombers but not causing wider damage.
Saudi Arabia’s success in clamping down on Al Qaeda since its 2003-06 attacks has forced ISIL towards its model of remote control for lone wolves or sleeper cells.
Western diplomats say the kingdom has developed one of the most formidable counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister.
The security police, known as the Mubahith, closely monitor Saudis with suspected connections to militants and have detained over 15,000 suspects since the Al Qaeda campaign began.
The rate of arrests slowed near the end of last decade but accelerated again after 2011.
“The Saudis have come up with a successful strategy with dealing with this sort of problem and they have mounted a highly effective public education campaign in the mosques,” said former US ambassador Chas Freeman.