Attacker detonates bomb in car park of Shia mosque in Dammam, killing four people a week after suicide blast kills 21 at another mosque in east of country
Ian Black Middle East editor Guardian
Friday 29 May 2015 12.02 EDT
In the second attack of its kind in a week, four people have died after a suicide bomber targeted a Shia mosque in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, fuelling fears of an organised campaign by Islamic Stateto foment sectarian tensions inside the conservative Sunni kingdom.
Reports from Dammam described a car bomb explosion at the entrance to the al-Anoud mosque, despite security measures put in place because of last Friday’s incident near Qatif, in which 21 people were killed and 120 injured in the worst attack in Saudi Arabia in a decade.
Video clips showed men at prayers inside the mosque reacting in alarm when a loud bang was heard. The Saudi Press agency reported that guards had approached the attacker’s car as it was parking and that the driver then detonated the bomb. One of the dead appears to have been the bomber.
The latest attack was quickly claimed by Isis, which said the “blessed martyrdom operation” had been carried out by a “soldier of the caliphate” it named as Abu Jandal al-Jazrawi. General Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi interior ministry, said the terrorist was dressed in women’s clothes.
Analysts have described “lone wolf” initiatives encouraged by Isis, though the speed of the claim of responsibility suggested planning and coordination. Isis has been paying special attention to Saudi Arabia since a speech by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, excoriating the royal family as the “head of the snake and stronghold of disease”.
Saudi Arabia’s special status in the Arab and Muslim worlds rests on its custodianship of the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina.
The latest bombing, like last week’s, was also followed by an Isis statement referring to “Wilayat Nejd”. Wilaya is the Arabic term for province. Nejd is the desert heartland of the Saudi kingdom that was first created in the 18th century – as distinct from the Hejaz – the country’s more liberal region along the Red Sea. It also used sectarian language to vilify Shia Muslims – who make up 15% of the Saudi population.
The Saudi government has responded to the bombings with expressions of concern and pledges of severe punishment for the perpetrators. Earlier this week the recently appointed Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef visited the al-Qudaih mosque in Qatif where hundreds of thousands of people turned out for the funerals of the victims. Unusually, Bin Nayef was publicly criticised by a resident who challenged him to put an end to sectarianism. “If you do not do your part … then you are a silent partner in this crime,” the man told the prince. The video showing the encounter was viewed more than 800,000 times in less than 24 hours.
Saudi authorities have jailed two prominent Shia clerics who have called for reforms such as adopting a constitutional monarchy. Last year one leading cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was sentenced to death for leading protests in Qatif.
In the past few days liberal Saudis have called for an end to sectarian messages in education, the religious establishment and the media – and for a crackdown on extremist Sunni preachers blamed for anti-Shia incitement, often on private TV channels.
“The perpetrators of these murderous acts are driven by an insane ideology disseminated by self-appointed clerics and reformers,” commented the Jeddah-based writer Khaled Al-Maeena. “For too long, we have kept quiet as they used the mosques, the media and other forms of communication to spread their evil philosophy. We … watched silently as some imams spewed hatred and spread falsehood about Muslims of other sects. These illiterate bigots should have been advised to shut up. We should not have remained silent and passive allowing their hatred to continue giving them the opportunity to manipulate the minds of many.”
Less progressive Saudi voices have objected to sectarianism on the grounds that it is used by “Safavid (Iranian)-Zionist-Crusader alliance” against the kingdom, in the words of Abdulaziz Fawzan, an influential sheikh.
The Saudi government and many citizens blame Iran, the kingdom’s strategic rival, for backing the Shia-led government in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad in Syria and most recently the Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen, where the Saudis are leading a bombing campaign in an attempt to restore And Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government.
The Saudis are also taking part in a US-led bombing campaign against Isis and rebuff criticism that they were responsible for the creation of the group because of previous backing for hardline Islamist factions fighting Assad. Riyadh now works more closely with its allies in Qatar and Turkey in supporting anti-Assad factions. Still, with an estimated 2,500 Saudi citizens having gone to fight in Syria or Iraq in recent years, an official crackdown in recent months may have meant that more Isis supporters are staying at home – and are prepared to act.
Toby Matthiesen, a Saudi Arabia expert at Cambridge University, said: “Saudi Arabia may now have to choose between anti-Shia [sentiment] as a political tool at home and abroad and the very real threat that extremists taking anti-Shia [sentiment] too seriously will bring the fight back home – with unpredictable consequences for the stability of Saudi Arabia and the wider region.”