(October 1, 2020 / JCPA) On September 23, Saudi Arabia revealed the existence of a terrorist cell in the kingdom trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). A Saudi government spokesman said that 10 operatives, three of whom were trained in Iran, had been arrested, and that the others had connections “in one way or another to them.”
The security forces also discovered weapons and explosives caches, according to the spokesman. He added that the training, under the guidance of the IRGC, took place in Iran in 2017 for several weeks, and included training in the preparation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and individual training in weapons operating.
Among other things, Saudi Arabia uncovered explosive bricks, electrical detonators and rifles of various kinds—Kalashnikov, Heckler & Koch sniper rifles and ammunition. Bahrain also announced that it had foiled an attack on a diplomatic delegation in the kingdom by a cell whose members were trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The Bahraini newspaper Akhbar al-Akhlij reported that the recently formed Qassem Soleimani Battalions planned to carry out attacks against security forces and public buildings in the kingdom.
Similar Iranian sabotage networks in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain
Preliminary analysis of the captured explosives and their pictures show that similar weapons systems linked to Iran have been documented in Yemen and Bahrain and a slightly different configuration in Iraq. It should be noted that IEDs similar to those seized by the Saudis in the latest case are also increasingly being used by the Houthis in Yemen, and some may have been smuggled from Yemen into Saudi Arabia over the past few years, as the Houthis sometimes conduct subversive military activity inside Saudi territory.
Among the items seized were initiation systems for radio-controlled improvised explosive devices (RCIEDs) and electric detonators and main charges in white cylinders. The sophisticated RCIED receivers were equipped with dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) components combined with Passive Infra-Red (PIR) sensors. Connectors comprised of two-pin plugs and sockets were also visible.
Combined RC and PIR initiation systems are designed to provide remote initiation of the IED, in addition to PIR initiation, when the target enters the PIR sensor range. This combination of initiation systems provides an alternative means of initiation in the presence of electronic countermeasures (ECM) jamming the primary RC system, enabling the remotely-armed IED to be initiated by the PIR sensor. The two-pin electric plugs and sockets are well-known safety-arming connectors used by Lebanese Hezbollah.
Assistance to Shi’ite communities
As Iran conducts subversive activities among the Shi’ite minority in the kingdom’s oil-rich east, Iran is providing extensive assistance to Houthi rebels in Yemen—Zaydi Shiites based in northern Yemen on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Iranian aid is intended to help the Houthis. They seized control of parts of Yemen during the Arab Spring, including the occupation of the capital, Sanaa, and they have been fighting since Saudi-led Arab coalition forces intervened to free Yemen from their grip.
Iran provides the Houthis with missiles of various types, suicide drones and boats laden with explosives. A spokesman for Iran’s military also admitted recently that Iran offers Houthi rebels “defensive technology,” and they are adapting it and producing weapons themselves “with great talent—missiles, drones and other weapons systems, including systems in the field of electronic warfare.”
The spokesman denied that Iran sends complete missile systems, claiming, “We only provide experience and knowledge.”
In January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr Bakar al-Nimr, a senior Shi’ite cleric who worked to promote the status of Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia and was particularly popular with the younger generation. Nimr, who was arrested but still was able to preach several times before his execution, was charged by the Specialized Criminal Court for “seeking ‘foreign meddling’ in Saudi Arabia, ‘disobeying’ its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces.
During March 2017, Saudi security forces killed relatives of al-Nimr in al-Awamiyah, Sheikh Nimr’s birthplace. After his execution, the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked, and Iran announced the breaking of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. They have yet to be renewed. Iran named a street in the holy city of Qom after al-Nimr.
The return of Hezbollah al-Hejaz?
Reflecting the extensive Saudi activities to thwart the Hezbollah al-Hejaz, the organization operates with a low profile. The organization is part of the Shi’ite terrorist network that Iran has deployed in the Middle East, mainly in countries with a Shi’ite population. On June 25, 1996, the organization detonated a large vehicle‐borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) outside the Khobar Towers in the eastern Saudi city of Khobar, which served as a base for the international coalition forces enforcing the southern no-fly zone over Iraq after the first Gulf War. After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Hezbollah al-Hejaz urged attacks on U.S. forces stationed in the kingdom to force their withdrawal.
The truck bomb attack killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel and injured about 500 people of different nationalities. In July 2020, a U.S. federal court ruled that Iran was responsible for the attack and ordered it to pay $879 million in compensation to the survivors. The court further ruled that Iran directed the bombing and supplied the explosives to Hezbollah al-Hejaz, which carried out the attack. The organization was also responsible for the attack (1988) on a petrochemical plant in the Jubayl, and for assassinating Saudi diplomats in Turkey and Pakistan.
The signing of a peace treaty between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and normalization of relations between Israel and Bahrain—with the encouragement of Saudi Arabia—sharpened the disputes over regional hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran has threatened that the Arab rulers—the “royal houses”—will pay a heavy price for establishing relations with Israel that harm the Palestinian issue and give Israel a security-intelligence foothold in the Persian Gulf. A Twitter account in the name of Sheikh Nimr calls for the elimination of Israel and defines the normalization of relations by the UAE and Bahrain as “betrayal.”
It is possible that Iran will wake the Shi’ite organizations operating in Saudi Arabia, including Hezbollah al-Hejaz, which currently is dormant and focused on religious and social activity, to attack United States interests on Saudi soil. Since Iran holds Saudi Arabia responsible for the peace agreements between Israel and the Gulf states, U.S. interests and military bases in Saudi Arabia may become a target for attack. This way, Iran can “kill two birds with one stone” and, at the same time, avenge the assassination of Qassim Soleimani in Iraq by the United States.
As part of its long-standing efforts to undermine stability in Saudi Arabia with the help of a Shi’ite minority concentrated mainly in the oil-rich eastern kingdom (Qatif province), Iran is apparently trying to stimulate the sleeper cells it has trained in the kingdom. At the same time, Iran continues to direct Houthi rebels from Yemen to fire missiles and launch drones at strategic sites in the kingdom.
Addressing the U.N. General Assembly electronically on September 23, the Saudi king referred extensively to Iran’s subversive activities in the Gulf States. All these activities are part of the sharpening of the religious-political confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the future of the Middle East along the more recent rift lines.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps will accelerate the activities of dormant cells in the Gulf States that signed peace agreements with Israel. At the same time, Iranian propaganda will continue to incite the Gulf residents against the rulers who signed peace agreements. Meanwhile, Iran notified Shiite organizations in Bahrain to begin inciting against the monarchy, including Sarya Wa’ad Allah and Saraya Suhada al-Quds (Martyrs of Jerusalem), which have already promised to “remove the Israeli presence from Bahrain.”
Iran is the source of the explosive devices and weapons revealed during the day-to-day counter-terrorism operations of the Gulf security forces against Shi’ite elements and organizations in the Gulf States. Iran–through the Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and its net of proxies–is transferring resources to Shi’ite elements in the various confrontation areas for the purpose of subversion, sabotage and terrorism, and for building its power and influence in the region. Iranian training and indoctrination are also transmitted via Lebanese Hezbollah advisers to the regime’s Shi’ite proxies in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other countries.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Acumen Risk Advisors.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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