Security forces in Saudi Arabia foiled a terror plot targeting the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The terror attack was planned by three terrorist groups, two based in Mecca and the third in Jeddah. The foiled attack targeted worshippers at the Grand Mosque just as the fasting month of Ramadan ends.
The first terror operation was foiled in Mecca in Assilah district. Security forces had shot dead a wanted man at a suspected Islamist militant hideout in Mecca's al-Assilah neighborhood. The second terror operation was thwarted in Ajyad al-Masafi neighborhood. The Saudi Interior Ministry also said a third cell had been broken up in the Red Sea city of Jeddah but gave no further details.
The police said they engaged in a shootout at a three-story house in Ajyad Al-Masafi neighborhood, with a suicide bomber, who blew himself up and caused the building to collapse. He was killed, while the blast wounded six foreigners and five members of security forces, five others were arrested.
The Saudi Interior Ministry did not name the group involved in the attack. No group immediately claimed involvement, though ISIS sympathizers online have urged more attacks as an offensive in Iraq slowly squeezes the extremists out of Mosul, and their de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria comes under daily bombing from a US-led coalition.
The Grand Mosque as target of militants
The Grand Mosque has been the target of militants before, in part because it represents a symbol of the ruling Al-Saud family and the Saudi monarch bears the title of "custodian of the two holy mosques." Several attacks have targeted Mecca’s Grand Mosque throughout history, perhaps the oldest of which was in 1979.
In 1979, some 250 armed extremists took over Mecca’s Grand Mosque led by Juhayman al-'Utaibi and Muhammad al-Qahtani who claimed to be the Mahdi. They held it for two weeks as they demanded the royal family abdicate the throne. Saudi security forces fired back at the attackers after a fatwa (religious edict) was issued. When Saudi troops stormed the mosque, the official death toll was 229, including extremists and soldiers.
The second attack on the holy Grand Mosque happened during the Hajj pilgrimage in 1989, where two explosions took place. The first explosion was detonated on one of the roads leading to Grand Mosque and the other one on the bridge adjacent to it. The attack killed one person and injured 16 others.
In July 2016, three suicide bombings took place in Saudi Arabia; one of them blew up in the parking lot of the emergency forces near the Prophet's Mosque leading to the death of four security men.
A missile attack almost hit the holy city in October 2016. The Saudi air defense has intercepted the ballistic missile launched by the Houthi militias from Yemen.
The Grand Mosque has been the target of militants before, in part because it represents a symbol of the ruling Al-Saud family’s clout in the Islamic world. Saudi monarchs usually spend the last ten days of Ramadan in Mecca.
Millions of Muslims from across the world have traveled to Mecca during the holy fasting month Ramadan. The month of Ramadan ends with the Eid-al-Fitr holiday. A suicide attack carried out at or near the mosque could have led to a horrific loss of life. The densely packed sea of pilgrims would panic and result in a stampede similar to a tragedy that occurred on September 24, 2015, when for a still unknown reason, tens of thousands of pilgrims panicked, and the resulting stampede killed upwards of 2500 people.
The disrupted attack comes at a sensitive time in Saudi Arabia as King Salman earlier this week short-circuited the kingdom’s succession by making his son, Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, first in line to the throne. The newly appointed crown prince, 31 years old, is the architect of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen against Shiite rebels. He has also offered aggressive comments about the kingdom confronting Shiite power Iran.