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July 14, 2016
Notes from the Pentagon

Islamic State attack in Saudi Arabia targeted U.S. military
The recent spate of suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia by the Islamic State terrorist group reveals that the al Qaeda offshoot is having difficulties operating inside the kingdom.

Multiple suicide bombings took place July 4 as the Islamic observance of Ramadan was ending and appeared to be the work of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, although no group officially claimed responsibility for the attacks, according to a State Department security report.

One of the attacks appeared to target the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah. The report said the attack could signal “the first incident directly involving U.S. diplomatic missions in Saudi Arabia by ISIL.”

The July 7 report cautioned that it is too soon to say whether the Jeddah attack signals an increase in Islamic State targeting of Western interests.

“The attacks highlight the ongoing threat posed by terrorism, and a persistent desire by ISIL to show increased capability and coordination in the country,” the report by the Department of State-led Overseas Security Advisory Council says. “However, the overall limited impact — only one of three attacks led to fatalities besides the bombers themselves — shows that the group still is lacking the capacity to conduct complex, coordinated attacks and overcome Saudi’s robust security apparatus.”

Another factor is that targeting one of Islam’s sacred sites in the country could undermine Muslim backing for the group.

The first attack occurred around 2 a.m. local time when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest in the parking lot of a hospital next to the U.S. Consulate. The blast injured two security officers who were questioning the terrorist, who was identified as a Pakistani national.

The second attack took place in Medina around 7 p.m. in a parking lot near the Prophet’s Mosque, a site revered by both Sunnis and Shiites.

That attack involved a bomber who set off his explosives as security officers approached him. The resulting blast set several cars on fire, killed four security officers and injured five others.

Around the same time, a third attack took place as three suicide bombers tried to enter a Shiite mosque in Qatif along the Persian Gulf, north of the bridge connecting Saudi Arabia to Bahrain — the location a major U.S. Navy base.

The three bombers were prevented from entering the mosque by security barricades and set off their explosives while inside a vehicle. They were the sole casualties in a location that has been declared off-limits for all U.S. government personnel as a result of past violence there.

Prior to the three attacks, a total of 26 terrorist assaults were carried out in the kingdom over the past two years, most of them by Islamic State militants focusing on Shiite mosques and Saudi security forces.

“The attack on the Prophet’s Mosque raised widespread condemnation from the Muslim world, and may risk backfiring for the extremist group,” the report said. “The backlash against this attack may explain why there has been no claim of responsibility for the July 4 attacks.”

The Islamic State’s use of suicide bombings in Saudi attacks has been the most successful form of attack.

“Attempts at conducting vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) — which can produce significantly more damage — have largely been intercepted,” the report said. “The group has also used guns in attacks — primarily against security forces; these attacks have gained less attention, and have generally been used more in direct attacks on individuals.”

The report warned Americans to take extra precautions and to limit nonessential travel to the kingdom. It urged avoiding large gatherings and planning for demonstrations and violence while identifying safe locations and how to reach them quickly.

Chinese efforts to gain greater power and influence over Asia while diminishing the U.S. military footprint suffered two major setbacks this month.

Beijing’s first bad news came Friday when U.S. Forces Korea announced that the South Korean government, after years of delay, agreed to go ahead with deployment of the highly effective, ground-based missile defense system known as the Theater High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, in the face of rising threats from North Korea.

“This is an important [South Korea]-U.S. decision,” said Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the U.S. forces commander. “North Korea’s continued development of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction require the alliance to take this prudent, protective measure to bolster our layered and effective missile defense.”

China had launched a major information warfare operation to derail the deployment. The program included lucrative offers of Chinese trade and investment from Chinese President Xi Jinping to South Korean President Park Geun-hye in exchange for canceling THAAD.

China’s military and Communist Party spokesmen also took to official state media in recent months to threaten retaliation. The party-affiliated Global Times reported Tuesday that unspecified “countermeasures” to sanction or punish Seoul could be taken. “The THAAD deployment will invite a new arms race,” the newspaper said, without explaining how a defensive anti-missile system posed a threat to China.

Beijing has warned that THAAD will be used as part of a linked regional missile defense connecting U.S., South Korean and Japanese forces to counter China’s missiles. Beijing has stationed hundreds of missiles in areas along China’s eastern coast.

Days after the THAAD announcement, the U.N. Permanent Court of Arbitration dealt China another major setback, essentially ruling that China’s efforts to take control of the South China Sea are illegal. A tribunal of five judges and legal experts ruled that China’s claim to control 90 percent of the sea within a Beijing-declared “Nine Dash Line” had no basis in international law.

China had asserted maritime sovereignty based on historical use of the waterway and recent administrative actions creating laws that Beijing says establish Chinese control of the strategic waterway.

The State Department hailed the ruling as a first step in resolving the territorial dispute and said it was “legally binding” on Beijing.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday denounced the United States, claiming Washington had violated its pledge not to take sides in the maritime dispute.

“We urge the U.S. to think over its words and deeds, stop advertising the illegal arbitration and meddling with the South China Sea issue, and cease undermining China’s sovereignty and security interests and escalating regional tensions,” ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement.

Analysts say China could respond to the ruling by imposing a regionwide air defense identification zone over the sea or by seizing a grounded Philippine ship in the Spratly Islands that is being used as a military base by the Philippine military.

The Army last week warned all military personnel in the United States to avoid 37 American cities this week over concerns that anti-police protests, dubbed “Days of Rage,” are planned and could turn violent. The July 8 notice from the U.S. Army North said there is a potential for violence or criminal activities in the aftermath of the shootings of five Dallas police officers.

The Army notice appears based on an online rumor, since denied, that the anarchist hacker group Anonymous had called for nationwide protests Friday in the U.S. cities. reported Tuesday that the rumor calling for Days of Rage protests is false and is based on an identical false posting that circulated online and in emails in August 2014, related to the Ferguson, Missouri, protests against police.

A U.S. Army North spokesman, Lt. Col. Jason Shropshire, said the safety of soldiers and their families is a high priority. “For security reasons, we don’t discuss force-protection measures that we put into place at our Army installations or the specifics of cautionary advice we provide to our soldiers,” he said.

“However, the advisory was to provide situational awareness for all Army personnel within the U.S. Northern Command area of responsibility who may find themselves in the vicinity of any protests (planned or spontaneous),” he added in a statement. “At this time, we do not have information regarding any specific threats to DOD personnel.”

The notice says that “being anywhere near these protests greatly increases the chance that you could become a victim of violence. When the mob mentality takes over, normally decent people can commit heinous acts.”

The “Alcon” notice — short for “all concerned” — urges commanders to pass on the warning to all Army troops who may be traveling to the cities.

“Use this as a list of places NOT to be on Friday the 15th,” the notice says. “While the media does specify nonviolence and denounces the actions taken against police officers that were not involved in these deaths, with the tagline ‘Day of Rage’ it is safe to expect emotions to be running very high on both sides of the line. No matter how great your empathy might be for those who have unjustly lost their lives, these protests are not safe places to be.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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