The men were not hardened militants. One was a pharmacist, another a heating and cooling technician. One was a high school student.
They were six cousins, all living in Saudi Arabia, all with the same secret. They had vowed allegiance to the Islamic State — and they planned to kill another cousin, a sergeant in the kingdom’s counterterrorism force.
And that’s what they did.
In February, the group abducted Sgt. Bader al-Rashidi, dragged him to the side of a road south of this central Saudi city, and shot and killed him.
With video rolling, they condemned the royal family, saying it had forsaken Islam.The Islamic State, however, has been able to infiltrate the kingdom through digital recruiting, and it has found devotees willing to kill fellow Sunnis, as well as Shiites, to destabilize the monarchy.
In July, a 19-year-old man murdered his uncle, a police colonel, before carrying out a suicide attack near a prison, wounding two guards.
In an audio message released by the Islamic State after his death, he addressed his own mother.
“Your apostate brother was a loyalist to the tyrants,” he said. “Were it not for him, the tyrants would not exist.”
Maj. Gen. Mansour Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, said that terrorist attacks over the past two years had killed scores of people, along with about two dozen militants. In addition, about 3,000 Saudis have joined militant groups abroad, and more than 5,000 have been incarcerated at home on terrorism charges, a large increase in recent years.
Saudi Arabia has a tangled history with Islamic militant groups. For a long time, it backed them as proxy forces to push its agenda in places like Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan (where it worked with the United States). But that largely ended in 2003, when Al Qaeda turned its focus on the kingdom and staged a series of deadly attacks.
Now the Islamic State poses a new challenge, by turning aspects of Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist creed against it. Wahhabism has been molded over the years to serve the interests of the monarchy, emphasizing obedience to the rulers and condemning terrorist attacks, even against those seen as apostates.
Still, among the Islamic State’s many enemies, Saudi Arabia is the only one that considers the Quran and other religious texts its constitution, criminalizes apostasy and bans all forms of unsanctioned public religion.
The country was founded on an alliance between the Saud family, whose members became the monarchs, and a fundamentalist cleric named Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab, whose teachings were used to justify military conquest by labeling it jihad against those deemed to be infidels, most of whom were other Muslims.
Sheikh Abdul-Wahhab’s descendants still dominate the religious institutions of the Saudi state, which now play down the violence in the country’s history and emphasize aspects convenient to an all-powerful royal family, like the importance of obeying the leadership.
Saudi officials reject comparisons between their ideology and that of the Islamic State, noting that millions of non-Muslims live in the kingdom and that the government is closely allied with the United States and participates in the American campaign against the militant group. They also say that Saudi Islam does not promote the caliphate, as does the Islamic State, and that senior clerics condemn the terrorist attacks and have branded the group “deviant.”
But critics argue that many Saudi clerics have never renounced the aspects of the Wahhabi tradition that the Islamic State has adopted, especially with regard to Shiites, who make up an estimated 10 percent of the kingdom’s 20 million citizens. Many Saudi clerics consider Shiites heretics and accuse them of loyalty to Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran.
The jihadists have exploited this by repeatedly launching suicide attacks on Shiite mosques and then accusing Saudi clerics of hypocrisy for condemning the violence.
“It is clearly hard for Saudi clerics to condemn outright attacks on Shiites,,” said Mr. Bunzel, the Princeton scholar. “And you get the feeling that they don’t care as much if the Shiites get attacked, since they’re not really Muslims in their view.”