For the first time, the world's leading terrorist group singled out Qatar. Qurayshi attacked Qatar's role in the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, blasted Qatar for hosting a U.S. air base, torched its support for Muslim Brotherhood-backed groups fighting IS in Syria and denounced alleged transfers of billions of dollars to Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
But what Qurayshi did not say struck many as more noteworthy than what he did say. According to veteran IS watcher and counterterrorism expert Hassan Hassan: "This is the first, or at least one of the rarest, statement from the top leaders not to mention Saudi Arabia. It always comes up, even if briefly, as a key messaging by the group."
What are we to make, therefore, of this curious statement that so dramatically departs from the norm? Is it a one-off, to be followed by more conventional calls for Muslims to rise up against the House of Al Saud and liberate Islam's holy sites in Mecca and Medina? Or does it represent a more fundamental change in strategy, whereby IS holds its fire against Saudi Arabia in order to focus on a softer pro-American target?
Only time will tell, but there are a number of reasons to think that IS -- for the moment at least -- could be going soft on Saudi Arabia.
IS is resurgent. Having absorbed the dismantling of its caliphate and the assassination in Syria of its senior leadership, the group has re-mobilized and resumed its deadly attacks in the region and worldwide. IS represents "a real threat" in Iraq, according to Qubad Talabani, the deputy prime minister of the northern Kurdish region of Iraq, who says that the group is benefiting from the ongoing political infighting in the country.
IS's armed activities in Iraq and Syria increased by at least 69 percent in April 2020. IS attacks in Kirkuk rose by 200 percent. In Salah ad Din governorate, one unusually complex attack on May 2 left at least 10 Popular Mobilization Forces militiamen dead, after IS waged a four-hour battle on at least four separate axes.
Closer to home, a Saudi Air Force officer with ties to al-Qaida killed three U.S. sailors and wounded eight at a U.S. naval base in Florida in December. According to FBI Director Chris Wray, "the Pensacola attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation by a longtime AQAP associate." AQAP -- al-Qaida's Yemen-based affiliate -- had guided 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed al-Shamrani for years and cultivated him while he trained at the Saudi Air Force Academy.
The new and improved IS has good reason to go soft on Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and its ally, the United Arab Emirates, are working with IS's comrades in arms, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, to fight Yemen's Houthis. IS views with sympathy Saudi Arabia's harsh suppression of the kingdom's Shia population. And Saudi Arabia has every reason in the world to encourage IS to set its sights elsewhere: It is an opportune tactical move to deflect attention away from the brutal crackdown on dissent in the kingdom, as well as to shield itself (at least temporarily) from terrorist attack. Moreover, piling on the pressure against Qatar serves Saudi Arabia's interests in its three-year dispute with its neighbor to the east.
Saudi Arabia also endeavors to insulate itself against extremist Islam by preaching many of the movement's most offensive tenets. Despite the much ballyhooed religious reforms by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Wahhabi state continues to propagate harsh anti-Christian and anti-Semitic messaging. The Saudi educational system and its schoolbook texts play a major role in the spread of extremism within and beyond the country's borders.
Consider the following excerpts from 10th- and 11th-grade textbooks: "That Allah Almighty punished the violators from the Jews by deforming them and turning them into actual monkeys." And: "The hour [of judgment] will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. [It will not come] until the Jew hides behind rocks and trees."
After finishing 12 years of indoctrination through primary and secondary education, Saudis who enlist in the military are exposed to a second round of extremist and hateful ideology. The magazine Muslim Soldier, distributed to Saudi military personnel by the Ministry of Defense, is replete with religious teachings against Jews, Christians and non-Wahhabi Muslims.
Saudi Arabia may have bought itself some more time, but as a hotbed of pro-IS sympathies (the second largest source of IS foreign fighters), it will never be able to fully insulate itself against the movement's violent attentions. Despite its ongoing efforts to focus extremist Islamic wrath on others, Saudi Arabia will eventually face its day of reckoning. Officially sanctioned prejudice, intolerance and fear of the "other" remain rampant in Saudi Arabia. Poisonous state-sponsored rhetoric continues to infect the minds of millions at home and abroad. Sooner or later, the House of Al Saud will reap the whirlwind of its two-faced policies.
Ali Al-Ahmed is director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs.