How the mighty have fallen.
Like the Axis of World War II, once the Islamic State stopped winning battles, it seems it could only lose them.
Just what was the turning point in the battle against IS? Was it the defeat at Dabiq, the Syrian town central to its ideology as the site of the final battle of the apocalypse? Was it the fall of Mosul, its crown jewel? The siege of Raqqa, now in its final stages? The comparisons to Stalingrad, to the Battle of the Bulge, to the fall of Berlin, will surely be endless as the dust settles.
Yet unlike the Third Reich, the Islamic State is a pan-national supremacist movement, with geopolitical fuel in any country with Sunni Muslims who feel they haven’t been given a fair shake. Their defeat in Iraq and Syria means instead their survivors will try elsewhere.
For its supremacist vision to survive, the Islamic State must find discredited and disorderly states where they can operate. But to avoid becoming just a rival to al-Qaeda, which has adapted into a low-level, often local terror group in places like Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, IS feels compelled to go big.
The biggest target of all is the holy grail of jihadists: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But uprisings have been tried in the past; the Saudi security forces have gotten quite good at breaking up terror cells, as they recently did in Riyadh. Instead, the best way to knock the crown off King Salman’s head is to provoke one of his greatest enemies to strike.
In June, an Islamic State cell attacked Tehran. In August, the Iranian government broke up another IS cell, and IS released propaganda calling for attacks on Shi’a within Iran. As IS morphs from an army to an insurgency and a cell-based terror network, it will almost certainly shift its attention to Iran.
The playbook is right out of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq, who infamously bombed one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest sites in Iraq in 2006 and provoked a murderous Shi’a-Sunni civil war. As a terror group butchers its group enemies indiscriminately, it compels its group enemies to consider butchering right back. With enough atrocities, that’s what happens, collapsing states and creating fertile ground for extremists to recruit and take power.
The Iranians are taking the bait. After the Tehran attack in June, the Revolutionary Guards lashed into Saudi Arabia: “This terrorist action, coming one week after the meeting of the president of the United States with the leader of the one of the region’s reactionary governments [Saudi Arabia] … shows they are involved in this savage action.”
Iran can ignore isolated terror attacks, but not a string of them. Sooner or later, the Islamic Republic will have to crack down on the Iranians who are joining the Islamic State. Some 5-10% of the population is Sunni; hardly enough to form a governing majority, but plenty to recruit cells and provoke an overreaction.
That reaction against Saudi could take place in three places: by escalating support for the Houthis in Yemen, who are quite capably resisting the Saudi army in open battle, by proving material support for the restive Qatif Shi’a of the Eastern Province, who hate the Saudi government more by the day, and by stirring up Bahrain’s Shi’a majority who remain a tinderbox of protest.
All of that would play into the Islamic State’s weakened hands. The more conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the less resources Saudi authorities would have to hunt down their cells and harass their supporters. The more Saudi Arabia failed to defeat Iran, the more ordinary Saudis might be tempted by the siren call of the Islamic State’s puritanical vision as an alternative for leadership (there is not much ideological light between Saudi’s legal system and the Islamic State’s).
In conjunction with strikes within the Kingdom itself to spark conflict between Saudis, this is the most rational strategy left for the soon-to-be-scattered Islamic State. Iran can expect IS to try a campaign of terror against it. Tehran would be wise to avoid overreacting.