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Mosque bombings like the recent one at Dammam, Saudi Arabia, are Isil’s way of showing it’s not on the back foot.
On Friday, Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite Muslim population was struck by Islamic State terrorism for the second time in two weeks, as a suicide bomber disguised in women’s dress attempted to enter the Imam Hussain Mosque in the al-‘Anud area of Dammam, a city in the east of the kingdom. Upon having his entrance obstructed by two worshippers who recognised his intentions, the attacker detonated his device outside the gates of the mosque, killing four. Three hours later, a statement emerged on Isil social media claiming responsibility for the attack on the “evil gathering of filth”, identifying the bomber as Abu Jandal al-Jazrawi.
On the same evening, an Isil audio statement surfaced online. Entitled Eject the Idolatrous Refuseniks from the Peninsula of the Prophet (PBUH), it called for the wholesale extermination of Shi’ite Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula. The unknown speaker announced that it is Sunnis’ “duty to kill them and displace them” wherever they are found, justifying the claim that it was a religious imperative to do so with a typically cherry-picked scriptural reference.
The week before, on 22 May, a similar attack targeted a Shi’ite mosque in al-Qadeeh, also in eastern Saudi Arabia, killing 21 and injuring more than 50. Three hours later, in Isil in Najd Province’s inaugural statement, the group claimed credit for the operation, identifying the “brother-martyr” as Abu ‘Amar al-Najdi, a Saudi national.
Of course, these were not the first attacks on Saudi soil that were attributed to supporters of the Isil caliphate. However, they are the first to be officially claimed by the organisation itself. In the past, it has always been the Saudi Arabian government that has made the link. Now, things seem to have been stepped up a notch. Through these last two operations, Isil is signalling to the world that the time has come for it to activate its long-vaunted cells in the Arabian Peninsula.
For observers of Isil, this recent spate of violent agitation comes as no surprise. The House of Saud has long been at the receiving end of its vitriol. It is pejoratively referred to in almost all addresses by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Al Salul, a Quranic reference to the “chief of the hypocrites”, Abdullah Ibn Ubai Ibn Salul and its government is routinely accused of being “the slaves of the Crusaders and allies of the Jews”. Attacking the kingdom is, in the Isil worldview, attacking the “head of the snake”, an interesting reversal of al-Qaeda’s conception of jihad, in which it was always the United States that was the “head of the snake”.
Ideologically, it is easy to see why IS chooses to target Saudi Shi’ites. For believers in al-Baghdadi’s fascist caliphate program, killing Shi’ite Muslims is a no-brainer: they are, without exception, considered to be enemies of Islam, a crime that is punishable only by death. Logistically, Shi’ite Muslims are good targets for Isil – their gatherings are easier to reach than those of government employees and they are infinitely more vulnerable than Saudi’s expat population of Westerners. Politically, too, such attacks make sense for Isil, for targeting this demographic exploits already the rampant sectarianism in the kingdom and only adds impetus to the militarisation of the increasingly restive Shi’ite opposition.
Why bother, though? Why doesn’t Isil just focus its efforts on consolidating its position in Syria and Iraq? There is no one motivating factor but, as much as anything else, it is so Isil can bask in the publicity, enjoy the boost to its momentum. With the beginning of Ramadan – and, hence, the one year anniversary of the caliphal declaration – just weeks away, Isil will be more active, more violent and more abhorrent than ever. It needs to be. The perception of momentum is an existential concern for the organisation: it is its primary source of recruits, an important way of attracting new donors and key to sustaining the support of old ones.
Declaring itself to be a modern-day iteration of the Islamic caliphate was a hugely controversial thing for Isil to do. If ever it looks to be on the back foot, it will be apparent to all that its claims of divine legitimacy are simple rhetoric. Mosque bombings, mass executions and military offensives are all just means by which IS mitigates the risk of this happening.
Charlie Winter is a researcher at the Quilliam Foundation
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