ISIS Attempts to Shake the Gulf

Police cordon off the Imam Sadiq Mosque after a bomb explosion following Friday prayers, in the Al Sawaber area of Kuwait City June 26, 2015. (Reuters)

Another suicide bombing has shaken the Gulf region, as young Saudi Abdallah Fahd Abdallah Rashid blew himself up at a checkpoint in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on July 16. Rashid conducted the bombing just after killing his uncle, a colonel with the Saudi Ministry of Interior. The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) claimed responsibility for the dual operation. This attack comes only a week after authorities in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait arrested several Saudi nationals related to an ISIS member in Syria. Police claimed that the men played a part in the attack on a Shia mosque in Kuwait City on June 26. The bombing in Kuwait took place only three days after the ISIS media company Al-Furqan released an audio recording by ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani in which he congratulated Muslims on the commencement of Ramadan and called upon Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, to join the jihad against Shia. The Saudi and Kuwait attacks fall within the broader ISIS strategy of stoking the Gulf Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. In the polarized regional context driven by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, this sectarian game plan threatens to tear the fabric of Gulf society apart.

In the attack on June 26, a Saudi suicide bomber blew himself up in a Shia mosque during Friday prayers in Kuwait City, killing twenty-seven people and injuring another 200. On May 29, a car bomb exploded at the entrance to the al-Anoud mosque in Damam, Saudi Arabia, killing three. Exactly a week prior, twenty-one worshippers died and 120 injured when a bomb exploded inside a mosque in the eastern Saudi province. ISIS claimed responsibility for both attacks. Another attack last November 2014 on the al-Ahsa mosque in the Eastern Province also killed seven and injured dozens. An ISIS affiliate calling itself Wilayat Najd (Najd Province) claimed the attack. Each attack specifically targeted the Shia minority in the Gulf against the backdrop of growing enmity and sectarian tensions between the Saudi Arabia and Iran, which ISIS has used to justify its brutal confessional narrative.

These attacks are Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s legacy to ISIS. The Jordanian al-Qaeda leader believed that a religious war in Iraq would bring more Sunnis to his side and allow for the expansion of his organization. Shortly after Zarqawi sent a letter in 2004 to the al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan on his intentions to attack Shia in Iraq to spark sectarian conflict, members of his organization killed at least 185 Shia celebrating the Ashura holiday in a series of coordinated attacks in Baghdad and Karbala. This began a long string of attacks targeting Shia under his leadership until he died in a US air strike in 2006.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, like Zarqawi before him, sees a window of opportunity in the current upheaval shaking the region. The Arab Spring fractured countries from the Levant to North Africa, where civil war and resurgent authoritarianism has led to a crisis of legitimacy. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia on issues such as Syria, Iraq, and Yemen only adds fuel to the sectarian fire. In countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, riots broke out in mainly Shia areas. Although Shia only make up a minority of Kuwaitis, they still account for an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the population. In Saudi Arabia, the Shia population, located mostly in the oil rich Eastern Province, amounts to about 15 percent of the total population.

Marginalized Shia communities, the rise of Salafi jihadist movement, and the ongoing war in Yemen—a conflict seen as the Sunni response to Iran’s expansion plan in the region—have left both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia vulnerable to the growing regional sectarian strife. Kuwait may have the most inclusive policies toward their Shia community among the Gulf countries (Shia representatives hold ten of the fifty seats in its parliament), the war in Yemen in particular has raised sectarian tensions. Kuwait’s Shia denounced the Saudi-led operation, resulting in a brawl inside parliament in May. Seven of the ten Shia parliamentarians also criticized the Kuwaiti Air Force’s participation.

Shia in Saudi Arabia enjoy far less influence and have begun to agitate in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Carnegie Senior Associate, Fred Wehrey, reported in a 2013 paper “an unending cycle of detentions, shootings, and demonstrations,” many linked to the marginalization of and discrimination against Shia in the kingdom. Gulf clerics have often resorted to hate propaganda against Shia and the Saudi campaign to oust the Houthi Zaydi Shia rebels from Sana’a has clearly taken on a sectarian dimension. Wealthy Saudi and Kuwaiti nationals have also reportedly contributed to funding ISIS and even joined the groups to fight the Assad regime in Syria. An estimated 5,500 Gulf nationals—4,000 of them coming from Saudi Arabia alone—currently fight with ISIS.

These factors make for an explosive cocktail, one that ISIS will utilize to instigate sectarian violence and destabilize the Gulf countries that host significant Shia populations. By targeting the minority community, ISIS hopes to provoke a Shia backlash, gambling on an aggressive Gulf response that would create further instability on which ISIS could capitalize. For the extremist group, the success or failure of a resulting crackdown provides a win-win situation: a successful crackdown would vindicate ISIS’s sectarian narrative; a failure would undermine faith in the Gulf authorities and expand support for the extremist group.

ISIS will likely widen its sectarian war into other parts of the Gulf, beyond Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Given its large Shia population (estimated at approximately 70 percent), Bahrain shares similar traits with Iraq over Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Bahrain’s Shia have faced a massive crackdown since it engaged in protests in 2011 demanding inclusive policies. Prominent ISIS members, such as Shaikh Turki Al Ban’ali who is believed to be serving as a religious leader in the organization, also hail from Bahrain. The United Arab Emirates—home to a Shia population of about 10 percent—might be less at risk than Bahrain, but remains vulnerable to possible lone wolf operations.

While the recent attacks in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait may have shaken these countries sense of security, Gulf governments still maintain a strong security apparatus with which ISIS must contend. Nonetheless, ISIS operations in these countries will create instability in the short term and exacerbate tensions between Sunnis and Shia. To prevent ISIS from establishing a more permanent presence in these countries, Gulf countries should complement counterterrorism campaigns with dialogue between citizens of different religious beliefs and promoting conciliatory measures toward Shia minorities. The ongoing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the proxy competition in countries like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen will also continue to buttress ISIS’s regional ambitions. Until Iran and the Gulf countries reach an understanding on their own regional ambitions, their enmity will fuel ISIS’s sectarian narrative and support the destabilization of divided Muslim countries.

Mona Alami is a Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.