ATbar The Shia Mosque Bombing in Saudi Arabia – A New Sectarian Frontline

The Shia Mosque Bombing in Saudi Arabia – A New Sectarian Frontline

02/06/2015 | by Shay, Shaul (Dr.)  

On May 22, 2015, a suicide bomber blew himself up during Friday prayers at a Shia mosque in the village of al-Qadeeh in eastern Saudi Arabia, killing at least 21 and wounding 81 others. This suicide bombing was perhaps the deadliest in the country in nearly a decade.[1]

In a statement, the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the suicide attack at a mosque in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province of Qatif.[2]

ISIS has made it clear it sees Saudi Arabian Shias as a target. In November 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s chief, called on followers to “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere”, and announced the extension of his “state” to Saudi Arabia and other states.[3]

ISIS called on followers to carry out attacks against Saudi authorities, Western expatriates and members of the Shia Muslim minority in Saudi Arabia instead of travelling to Syria or Iraq to join the group.[4]

In the past several months ISIS has conducted a string of terror attacks in Saudi Arabia, mainly against foreign and Shia targets. One example can be seen in the November 2014 shooting during the Ashoura celebrations. ISIS is accused of killing eight worshippers and injuring nine others in its attack on al-Dalwah, a town in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

ISIS's attacks against Shia targets in Saudi Arabia are part of a new strategy utilized by the group to spark civil war through the country's long-oppressed Shia minority.

The Shia in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's Shia community accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the total population. The Shia population is mostly based in two districts in the Eastern Province: Qatif on the Gulf Coast and al-Ahsa, southwest of the provincial capital al-Khobar.  Qatif and Al-Ahsa have historically been the focal point of anti-government demonstrations.

The Eastern Province has been the site of demonstrations, mostly in the districts of Qatif and Awamiyah, since February 2011. Protesters have demanded reforms, freedom of expression, and the release of political prisoners. They want an end to economic and religious discrimination.

Shias claim they face discrimination in educational opportunities as well as government employment. In addition, they claim they are referred to disparagingly in text books, by some Sunni officials, as well as state-funded clerics. They also complain of restrictions on setting up places of worship and marking Shia holidays. Lastly, Shias claim that Qatif and al-Ahsa receive less state funding than Sunni communities of equivalent size.[5]  The Saudi government denies these allegations of discrimination.[6]

Over the past few years, Saudi forces have cracked down on anti-government protesters in Awamiya and other towns in Qatif. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent opposition Shia cleric with a popular power base in the region, was sentenced to death last year. More than 20 anti-government protesters have been killed by regime security forces since the uprising began in March 2011.[7]

On April 6, 2015, an operation to crack down on dissent in the Qatif region in Eastern Saudi Arabia killed a police officer and injured three other police officers and two civilians. A government spokesman said that gunfire broke out in the restive town of Awamiya while security forces carried out raids on the houses of anti-government activists and the relatives of those previously killed by government forces.[8]

An official claimed that security forces uncovered a large amount of weapons, confiscated communication devices, and took four people into police custody during the raids.[9]

The Islamic State claimed responsibility

ISIS claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at Qatif’s mosque that killed or wounded 250 people.[10]

The statement said "the soldiers of the Caliphate" were behind the attack by a suicide bomber "who detonated an explosives belt" in the mosque in the Shia-majority city of Qatif. The group identified the bomber as Abu Amer al-Najdi and posted a photo on social media showing the mutilated body of a young man, said to be the bomber al-Najdi.[11]

The group’s statement carried a logo in Arabic referring to itself as the “Najd Province” - a reference to the historic region that is home to the capital Riyadh and the ruling Al Saud family, as well as the ultraconservative Wahhabi branch of Islam.[12]

ISIS also claimed responsibility, through a tweet, for the May 2015 bombing at a Shi'ite Houthi mosque in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. A security source said the attack wounded at least 13 people.

ISIS said it was behind the explosion in a Twitter post, Reuters reported. "If there was an explosion it has already happened in Sanaa in the people's district in a Houthi mosque. The Islamic State claims responsibility,” the group said in the post.[13]

Saudi Arabia and the threat of the Islamic state (ISIS)

Saudi Arabia is building a sophisticated security barrier (a “Great Wall”) to protect the country from invasion by ISIS.

The first phase of the 900 kilometers long barrier on the country’s northern frontier with Iraq was announced by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on January 23, 2015.

The Saudi announcement comes at a time in which ISIS has seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. Expansion of the Islamic State could turn into an existential struggle for the Saudi regime, which many hardline Islamists see as decadent and corrupt.

ISIS regards the capture of Saudi Arabia, home to the “Two Holy Mosques” of Mecca and Medina, as a key goal. Further sparking dissent between Saudi Arabia and ISIS is the fact that Saudi forces have joined U.S.-led air strikes against ISIS positions in Syria. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s oil fields are another key strategic goal for the terror group intent on creating a Sharia-run caliphate.

The Saudi Arabian Interior Ministry said it had identified at least 2,000 Saudis who had gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, but that 600 of them had returned to the kingdom and were in detention while others had died.[14]

Saudi Arabia had already decided to enhance its defenses against a potential jihadist assault in September 2014, but construction intensified after ISIS raided a Saudi border post, killing three border guards including General Oudah al-Belawi, commander of border operations in Saudi Arabia’s northern zone.

Shooting a Dane in Riyadh

In November 2014, a group of ISIS supporters released a video showing its members carrying out a shooting in Saudi Arabia of a Danish national who survived an attack. The Dane had been shot in the shoulder as he left his work in Riyadh.[15]

The video was released by al-Battar Media Foundation and claimed to show an operation by "Supporters of the Islamic State in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques", referring to the name some Islamists use for Saudi Arabia.                                                                                                         

It includes clips of speeches by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, calling on Saudis "to kill and spit upon" citizens of Western countries involved in fighting the group.[16]

ISIS plot to attack targets in Saudi Arabia

In April 2015, Saudi Arabia foiled an operation masterminded by a “terrorist cell” that received its orders from ISIS. The terrorist operation involved seven car bombings.[17]

Saudi authorities have detained ninety-three suspected ISIS members, some of whom were plotting to drive a car-bomb into a United States Embassy. According to an official Saudi government news release, the foiled car-bomb suicide attack would have taken place in March 2015 at the U.S embassy in Riyadh.[18]

The alleged terrorists belong to several different cells. One cell, which authorities said contained at least 61 Saudis, sought to recruit members via social media, raise funds, and establish training camps inside the kingdom.

Another part of the group were 15 Saudis who referred to themselves as Soldiers of the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.

ISIS plot to attack Saudi embassy in Malaysia

Malaysian police foiled an attempt by an ISIS terrorist cell to attack the Saudi Arabia and Qatar embassies in Kuala Lumpur and arrested two Iraqi nationals. This is the second time in two months that the Saudi embassy had received threats from ISIS.[19]

The responses to the mosque bombing in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi interior ministry issued a statement that a suicide bomber had set off an explosion during weekly prayers at a Shia mosque. The ministry spokesman called the attack an act of terrorism, vowing that "Security authorities will spare no effort in the pursuit of all those involved in this terrorist crime".[20]

Saudi Arabia’s top Islamic body, the Council of Senior Scholars, issued a statement immediately condemning the attack as a “heinous crime.”

“This crime aims to incite fitna and divide the people of Saudi Arabia,” Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Al-Sheikh warned in a statement carried by the SPA. Fitna is an Arabic term meaning “sedition” or “civil strife” that is often associated with sectarian conflict.[21]

The kingdom’s secretariat general of the supreme judicial council also condemned the attack saying it aims to incite divisions. “This malicious criminal act has nothing to do with Islam or religion. (This attack) must alarm us to the (fact) that there are hidden hands who aim to harm the country’s security and incite divisions and sectarianism,” the council’s secretary general Salman bin Mohammed al-Nashwan told Al-Arabiya. “What we need most at this (time) is to unite our ranks and stand behind our leaders and prevent foreign parties from achieving their (hideous) aims,” he added.[22]  

The response of Iran 

Iran denounced the suicide bombing at the Shia mosque. Official IRNA news agency quoted foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham as "vigorously condemning" the attack. "The fight against terrorist and extremist groups... must be a priority for all countries," she said, and called on Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia to find and punish those responsible for the attack.[23]                                         

The response of Hezbollah

In Beirut, Hezbollah, an ally of Saudi Arabia's regional rival Iran, condemned the attack but said authorities in the kingdom itself bore responsibility.

"Hezbollah holds the Saudi authorities fully responsible for this ugly crime, for its embrace and sponsorship for these criminal murderers ... to carry out similar crimes in other Arab and Muslim countries," the Shia group said in a statement.[24]

The statement appeared to echo Iranian accusations that Saudi Arabia sponsors ultra-orthodox Sunni militant groups in the region, an allegation usually taken to refer to groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda. Riyadh denies these allegations.


Saudi Arabia is a key member in the U.S lead coalition against ISIS. ISIS has stated that one of their key goals is an eventual takeover of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Many of ISIS' most violent fighters are believed to be Saudi nationals. Saudi jihadists who survive the fighting in Syria and Iraq may choose to either remain in ISIS controlled territory or return home, radicalized and brutalized by the conflict. For the Saudi authorities, returning jihadists represent a potential domestic security threat.

The May 22 attack was one of the deadliest assaults in recent years in Saudi Arabia, where sectarian tensions have been frayed by nearly two months of Saudi-led air strikes on Shia Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. Tensions have also soared between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.

It was the first terror attack to target the Shia community in Saudi Arabia since November 2014 when gunmen killed at least eight people in an attack on a religious anniversary celebration. It was also the first time that ISIS has officially claimed an attack in Saudi Arabia.

The attack on Shia targets in Saudi Arabia serve three purposes: to attack the Shia enemy that ISIS considers as heretics, to attack the Saudi regime, and to create tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Hezbollah and Shia communities around the world.


[1] Suicide blast kills 21 at mosque in Saudi Arabia, Al Arabiya, May 22, 2015.

[2] ISIL claims responsibility for Saudi mosque attack, Al Jazeera, May 22, 2015.

[3] Bloodshed in the kingdom ,The Economist, May22, 2015.

[4] Kieran Korkoran, Ninety three  suspected ISIS terrorists arrested in Saudi Arabia after authorities 'uncover plot to car-bomb U.S. Embassy', The Daily Mail, April 28, 2015.

[5] At least 21 killed in ISIL bombing in Saudi Arabia’s Qatif, PressTV, May 22, 2015.

[6] Five killed in Saudi Arabia shooting, Al Jazeera, November 4, 2014.

[7] Saudi police officer killed in Eastern Province ,PressTV, April 6, 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] ISIL claims responsibility for Saudi mosque attack, Al Jazeera, May 22, 2015.

[11] Suicide bomber kills 21 at Saudi Shia mosque, IS claims attack, Ahramonline, May 22, 2015.

[12] ISIS loyalists claim Saudi mosque attack, Al Arabiya, May 22, 2015.

[13] ISIS claims responsibility for Shiite mosque bombing in Yemen ,Fox News, May 22, 2015.

[14] Islamic State followers say they were behind shooting of Dane in Saudi Arabia, The Telegraph, December 2, 2014.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Kieran Korkoran, Ninety three suspected ISIS terrorists arrested in Saudi Arabia after authorities 'uncover plot to car-bomb U.S. Embassy', The Daily Mail, April 28, 2015.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Malaysian police in Kuala Lumpur foil ISIS-linked plot to attack embassies, The Straits Times, March 30, 2015.

[20] ISIL claims responsibility for Saudi mosque attack, Al Jazeera, May 22, 2015.

[21] Saudi Arabia: Suicide bomber targets Qatif mosque, Asharq al awsat, May 22, 2015.

[22] Saudi interior minister: some states sponsor terrorism to target kingdom, Al Arabiya, March 15, 2015.

[23] Iran condemns Saudi Shia mosque bombing ,Ahramonline, May 22, 2015.

[24] Saudi Arabia: Suicide bomber targets Qatif mosque, Asharq al Awsat, May 22, 2015.