The Issue of Sleeper Cells and Terrorist Activity in Saudi Arabia: Changing Rhetoric
In a recent article published by Al Arabiya, a media outlet based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it was reported that Saudi Arabia has preemptively ordered the execution of four people accused of forming a terrorist sleeper cell used to communicate with Iran. Allegedly, this group trained with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on weapon and explosive usage, as well as military warfare and tactics to avoid security guards. They were then to travel to and from Iran through a tourist agency that has since been shut down and revoked of its licensing by the Saudi Arabian government. According to this report, this group was also trained to carry out bombing attacks and assassinations throughout Saudi Arabia with the intent of “[disrupting] the unity and stability of the Kingdom.” The main rhetoric of this article implies that Iran is the primary antagonist. Though, no information is provided about the nationality or origins of the group that is to be executed.
While the issues of sleeper cells and terrorist activity in Saudi Arabia is not new, the rhetoric with which they are discussed is evolving. In an earlier article published by Al Arabiya in late January 2017, around five months prior to the Qatar crisis, it was reported that 14 individuals were captured following suicide bombing attacks that were carried out by two ISIS extremists earlier that week. Two of the 14 suspects were Saudi Arabian nationals, and the rest were Pakistani. In an article published the following day, January 25, 2017, Al Arabiya confirmed that the two ISIS extremists were both Saudi Arabian. In this article, it is suggested that ISIS was the main antagonist and common link between several different attacks in the region, and that Saudi Arabia is intent on fighting such extremism.
The most notable difference between the articles discussed above is the rhetoric used when discussing Islamic extremism within Saudi Arabia. In the most recent article, the idea that Iran and the Revolutionary Guard is the main antagonist in the issue of sleeper cells and terrorism in the region appears to be the basis of the author’s argument. Additionally, the author does not identify the nationalities of the four suspects. In contrast, in earlier articles published on similar issues, the focus remained on Islamic extremism as a whole and Saudi Arabia’s intent to counter specific terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. The nationalities and names of the suspects were also disclosed in multiple articles. Likewise, it is notable that according to the most recent report, the four suspects were preemptively sentenced to death, whereas in previous reports they were simply arrested and put on trial. Though, it is also important to consider possible disparities between the different cases that could lead to different sentences.
With that said, the changes in rhetoric prior to and following the Qatar crisis provide a clear example of how international affairs and crises can affect media reporting and how issues are framed.
By Emily Fowler