Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Saudi Shias under fire

The attack on the Imam Rida Mosque in Saudi Arabia was the seventh such attack in the country in recent months, writes Haytham Nuri

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Al-Ahram Weekly

One striking feature of the recent attack on the Imam Rida Mosque in Mahasen, a mixed Sunni-Shia area in eastern Saudi Arabia, was its ominous familiarity.

The target was a Shia place of worship, the assailants hired or motivated by the Islamic State (IS) group and like-minded jihadists, and the random violence a standard way of fuelling sectarian hatred, of starting a vendetta, and of creating a chain reaction of hatred and mistrust for political purposes. The attack was almost taken from an Al-Qaeda or IS guidebook for creating ethnic or sectarian strife.

Less than a week after the attack, the Saudi interior minister announced the arrest of 33 people on charges of terrorism in the country. The bombing took place during Friday prayers on 29 January and, according to police sources, it left four people dead and 33 injured.

Eyewitnesses reported that one suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance to the mosque, while another exchanged fire with the police before being arrested.

It was the seventh attack on Saudi religious sites in 16 months. Three mosques and two Shia congregational halls (often called husseiniyas) were hit in the eastern region of the country where a majority of Saudi Shias live. Two mosques were also targeted in the southern areas of Asir and Najran. In 2015, IS carried out 15 attacks in Saudi Arabia, killing 65 people, most of whom were civilians.

According to the Saudi Gazette, an English-language newspaper with close ties to the Saudi government, there is no evidence that the assailants had links with IS. However, Saudi analysts have noticed “similarities” between the recent attack and the earlier ones mounted by IS.

Suspects recently rounded up by the Saudi authorities include 14 Saudis, nine Americans, three Yemenis, two Syrians, an Indonesian, a Palestinian, an Emirati, a Filipino and a Kazakhstani. The Saudi authorities are currently interrogating 532 people accused of involvement in terrorism. Some of these are said to be members of six cells uncovered by the police last year.

In April 2015, the Saudi Ministry of the Interior said it had busted an IS cell of 65 members planning attacks in the eastern region. The authorities often describe terror attacks as attempts to sow “sedition” and destroy national “cohesion,” but assaults on Shias are often hailed on social media by ultra-conservative Sunnis who regard the Shias as heretics.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government is taking every precaution not to alienate the country’s Shias in the currently charged regional atmosphere. Interior Minister Mohamed Ben Nayef, also the Saudi crown prince, arrived in Ahsa where the attack took place to comfort the victims and give his condolences to the families of the “martyrs,” as the Saudi News Agency (SPA) put it.

The incident can only be understood in the context of the Sunni-Shia conflict in the region that has gained traction in recent years. Its immediate trigger may have been the execution in Saudi Arabia in January 2016 of a Shia scholar, Nimr Al-Nimr, along with 47 alleged Al-Qaeda members.

Al-Nimr was linked to the turf war fought by Riyadh and Tehran in various parts of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, all of which are inhabited by Sunni and Shia communities with a past history of sectarian mistrust.

In Syria, Riyadh continues to support the Army of Islam, an extremist group opposed to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. But since autumn 2014, Saudi Arabia has declared both IS and Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s local franchise, to be terror groups.

Some 3,000 Saudis are believed to be fighting in Syria in the ranks of hard-line radicals. About 700 of these have returned voluntarily to Saudi Arabia and given themselves up.

According to the London-based Guardian newspaper, Saudi officials have pointed out that the number of their citizens fighting in Syria and Iraq is still lower per capita than that of Tunisians, and Tunisia has always been a secular state.

Recent attacks on Shia targets seem to be designed to embarrass the Saudi authorities. If the latter react by offering greater protection to the Shia, they risk alienating the kingdom’s ultra-conservative Sunnis. If they repress the Shia instead, they risk alienating 10 per cent or more of the country’s population.

Saudi Arabia is eager to establish its credentials as a country that is tough on terror. For decades, Riyadh has been accused, often by Arab intellectuals, of being the driving force behind radical Islam.

It has also been accused by Shia of backing the ultra-jihadists who view Shia and other minorities as heretics or heathens. The IS form of Islam, some would claim, is inspired by the Wahhabi puritanism embraced by the Saudi monarchy.

According to an opinion poll commissioned by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a US think tank, and published in October 2015, about five per cent of Saudis support IS, or almost one million people. Some 31 per cent support the Muslim Brotherhood and 52 per cent support Hamas, the pollsters concluded.

Saudi Arabia has a programme for rehabilitating repentant jihadists called monasaha, or “persuasion,” which brings former jihadists into contact with Muslim clergymen who try to talk them out of extremist ideas. However, some of the graduates of the programme have gone back to terrorism after their release, which poses questions about the programme’s efficacy.

According to David Pollock, a fellow at the Washington Institute, the poll was conducted by a “leading Arab commercial survey company” and involved interviews by “local staff” of a sample of 1,000 adult Saudi nationals from various areas and demographic segments of the kingdom.

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