ISIS loyalists claim responsibility for suicide attack in Saudi Arabia
Friday's suicide bombing appears to be the deadliest in the country in nearly a decade
A suicide bomber killed at least 19 people Friday in a blast inside a Shia mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia as worshippers commemorated the seventh century birth of a revered figure, residents and officials said.
Loyalists of the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group claimed responsibility for the attack — the second against Shias in the kingdom in six months. In November, ISIS was accused of being behind the shooting and killing of eight worshippers in the eastern Saudi Arabian village of al-Ahsa.
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Despite a string of ISIS-related attacks over the past several months that have also targeted police, Friday's suicide bombing appears to be the deadliest in the country in nearly a decade.
Habib Mahmoud, managing editor for the state-linked Al-Sharq newspaper in Qatif, said that the local Red Crescent authorities confirmed to him that 19 people had been killed and 28 wounded.
Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry has not released its count for the number of dead and wounded, but said that a suicide bomber who hid explosives under his clothes was behind the attack. Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki said that the attacker struck the Imam Ali mosque in a village called al-Qudeeh.
In a statement distributed on Twitter feeds linked to ISIS group loyalists, a group purporting to be the ISIS branch in Saudi Arabia issued the claim. It could not be independently confirmed if the new group actually has operational links to ISIS, which is based in Syria and Iraq.
Attacker stood with worshippers
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.
Mahmoud, the editor in Qatif, said the attacker stood with the worshippers during prayer and then detonated his suicide vest as people were leaving the mosque.
A local activist, Naseema al-Sada, told The Associated Press by telephone from Qatif that the suicide bomber attacked worshippers as they were commemorating the birth of Imam Hussain, a revered figure among Shias. She said the local hospital has called on residents to donate blood.
Heightened Sunni-Shia tensions
The Al-Manar television channel, run by the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah group, carried blurry pictures of pools of blood inside what appeared to be the mosque where the attack took place. It also showed still photos of at least three bodies stretched out on carpets, covered with sheets. One person dressed in a white robe was being carried away on a stretcher.
The attack comes amid heightened Sunni-Shia tensions in the region as Saudi Arabia and Iran back opposite sides in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Just before Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes against Shia rebels in Yemen in late March, a purported affiliate of ISIS claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Yemen's capital that killed at least 137 people and wounded nearly 360.
The Saudi offensive in Yemen has sharpened anti-Iranian rhetoric inside the kingdom. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of arming the Yemeni rebels, a claim that both the militias and Tehran deny.
Some ultraconservative Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, known as Wahhabis, have used Friday sermons to rally support for the war and simultaneously criticize Shias and their practice of praying at the tombs of religious figures, which they view as akin to polytheism.
'A crime, shame and great sin'
Mahmoud said people in Qatif are shocked by the attack and "hold those who are inflaming sectarian rhetoric, from those on social media and in the mosques, responsible."
He said that too often the public does not differentiate between what is Iranian government policy and what is Shia, and "blame Shiites for Iranian actions in the region."
The country's top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdel-Aziz al-Sheikh, told Saudi state television that the attack in Qatif aims at "driving a wedge among the sons of the nation" and described it as "a crime, shame and great sin." The country's top council of clerics issued a statement blaming the attack on "terrorist criminals with foreign agendas."
Residents in the country's eastern region say they are discriminated against because of their faith. They say that despite the region being home to most of the kingdom's oil reserves, their streets, buildings, hospitals, schools and infrastructure are neglected and in poor condition. They say unemployment runs high among Shia youth in the area.
In 2011, Shias in the east inspired by the Arab Spring uprising in neighbouring Bahrain took to the streets to demand greater rights. Police arrested hundreds of people and a counterterrorism court sentenced an outspoken cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, to death.
'We want to live like other citizens'
After the bombing, a few hundred people marched in mourning through the village, Mahmoud said.
Al-Sada, the activist, said she too holds the government responsible for not doing more to criminalize sectarian rhetoric.
"The government should protect us, not encourage sermons and schoolbooks to incite against us as non-believers," al-Sada said. "We want them to prevent this from happening in the first place."
"Martyrdom does not scare us, but we want to live like other citizens and with stability," she said.