Suicide bombs hit Saudi fault line as Islamic State widens war

Volunteers search worshipers arriving for midday prayers at Al-Anoud mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia on June 3, 2015. Photographer: Glen Carey/Bloomberg
Volunteers search worshipers arriving for midday prayers at Al-Anoud mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia on June 3, 2015. Photographer: Glen Carey/Bloomberg

Waist-high concrete barriers are being installed around the Al-Anoud mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia, and young Shiite men in yellow vests search worshipers arriving for midday prayers.

The asphalt outside is still charred from the suicide bomb that killed four people there last week. “We’re trying to make people safe,” said Ahmed Hafeef, a 21-year-old member of the security committee that’s sprung up as locals seek to prevent a repeat attack. “After what happened, there are many volunteers.”

By targeting Saudi Shiites, a minority that already harbors doubts about the kingdom’s commitment to protecting them, Islamic State is striking at a fault line that runs through the world’s biggest oil exporter. In several of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, the same sectarian divisions have already erupted into civil wars.

The May 29 bomb at the Al-Anoud mosque in Dammam came a week after the kingdom’s worst attack in years left at least 21 people dead at another Shiite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia. Islamic State, known as Da’esh in Arabic, claimed both.

At Al-Anoud, the bomber tried to enter the mosque disguised as a woman, and blew himself up when he was turned away. Hassan al-Hashim, an 18-year-old high school student, watched it happen. “I had blood spattered on my clothes,” he said. “I lived because I was protected by this wall.”

He wears a large medallion over his black shirt with pictures of the four victims, one of whom was his cousin. They were buried after a funeral on Wednesday.

‘Religious War’

For the jihadists, it’s a change of approach. Attacks in the kingdom have typically targeted Saudi authorities or their foreign allies and business partners, according to Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

The latest bombs, by contrast, “are intended to inflame longstanding religious divisions among Muslims, an approach that is at the heart of Da’esh’s strategy in Iraq and Syria,” Freeman said. It’s “an attempted extension to Saudi Arabia of a religious war within Islam that can indirectly weaken the Saudi state and destabilize Saudi society.”

The threat is directed at a kingdom that’s undergoing rapid change. Under King Salman, who ascended to the throne this year, Saudi Arabia has become more assertive and willing to use force in the region. It’s leading a military intervention against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, one that has sparked almost daily clashes along the kingdom’s southern borders.

In Syria, the Saudis have joined U.S.-led operations against Islamic State. Months after that decision the sectarian killings began. In November, gunmen targeted the celebrations of a Shiite religious festival in an eastern village, leaving several people dead.

‘Killers, Bloodsuckers’

At the Al-Anoud mosque, Ibrahim Abu Ahmed, another volunteer, is eager to point out that Saudi Arabia is different from Iraq or Syria. The jihadists who come back to the kingdom from those countries are “killers, bloodsuckers,” he said. “We differentiate them from Sunnis, the real Sunnis,” he said.

The violence poses a risk to another Saudi shift that’s under way — the opening of markets to foreigners. The Arab world’s largest stock market will permit direct foreign investment for the first time on June 15.

“If we see at least a couple of more significant attacks within the next month or so, people will start talking about a wave of terrorism,” said Paul Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer now at Georgetown University in Washington. “This would begin to affect foreign investment decisions, possibly significantly.”

Capital Threat

So far, Saudi stocks haven’t been hit. The main index is up 16 percent this year, recouping some of the losses it posted in the last months of 2014 as oil plunged.

Heightened security is also visible in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where police have been the target of attacks. At popular shopping centers, metal detectors have been installed in recent months and women’s handbags are now searched as they enter.

It’s the eastern provinces, where the biggest oilfields are located, that have seen the worst violence, though. Most Saudi Shiites live in that region, and the community has complained about discrimination by the kingdom’s Sunni rulers, occasionally staging protests.

Senior Saudi clerics, who follow the strict Wahhabi version of the Sunni Muslim faith, mostly reject Shiite practices as un-Islamic.

Mohammed al-Barrak, a member of the kingdom’s Muslim Scholars Association, is an example. He’s a professor at Umm al-Qura University in Mecca, and a religious authority with 220,000 followers on Twitter. On May 20, he wrote that the faults of all other sects combined “would not come close to how bad the Shiites are.”

‘Stop the Hatred’

Such derogatory comments overlap with the views of Islamic State, which dismisses Shiites as heretics and has killed them in Syria and Iraq as well as Saudi Arabia.

“Unfortunately, the government hasn’t done enough to stop the hatred against the Shiites,” Tawfiq al-Saif, a prominent Shiite activist from the east, said in phone interview.

Saudi officials and some Sunni clerics, including their leader, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, have condemned the attacks on Shiites. Authorities should encourage more such responses, said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Mideast politics at the London School of Economics.

“The Saudis should use these attacks as a catalyst to stress inclusive national unity and impress on the religious establishment the fierce urgency to show and practice tolerance,” Gerges said.

‘One Hand’

The leading role Saudi Arabia has played in assembling Sunni countries to bomb Shiite rebels in Yemen may work in the opposite direction. It has “probably exacerbated sectarian tensions within Saudi Arabia, given the obvious sectarian dimension of the fight in Yemen,” said Pillar, the former CIA analyst.

The tensions were visible when Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, the interior minister and heir to the throne, visited families of those who died in the mosque bombings.

A Shiite relative of one of the victims told him that if the government fails to bring the killers to justice, “that makes it an accomplice in this crime against us,” according to footage on state television.

When the man tried to raise the issue of anti-Shiite incitement by clerics, Prince Mohammed interrupted him, placing a firm hand on his shoulder, and said: “We will restore security and go after anyone who tries to disrupt it, no matter who they are. So let us all be one hand with the state.”