Terror in the Gulf
Last week’s grisly terror attack on a Shia mosque in Kuwait has sent shivers through the already wary Gulf states, writes Salah Nasrawi
Last Friday three attacks took place almost simultaneously in France, Kuwait and Tunisia killing and wounding dozens of people. The attacks on a factory, a mosque and a beach across the three continents and the killing of dozens of people constitute a grim reminder of the setbacks in the world’s war on terror.
While the barbaric assaults signal that the threat of terrorism remains very real worldwide, efforts on both national and international levels to prevent terror attacks and to fight the deep causes of terrorism remain largely ineffective.
In France, a man was beheaded in an attack on an American-owned industrial gas factory, and in Tunisia a lone gunman killed at least 37 people on a tourist beach. In Kuwait, an explosion struck a Shia Muslim mosque during Friday prayer in Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam.
In all three cases, the attacks are a clear warning that the world is not yet safe, and despite efforts to fight terrorism it still clearly poses a great danger. They also show that terror groups are expanding in their efforts to recruit fighters, taking advantage of the world’s failure to tackle the underlying causes of terrorism and in particular of radicalisation.
The bombing in Kuwait that killed at least 27 people and was claimed by an Islamic State (IS) terror group affiliate provides a clear example of how both the Kuwaiti authorities and the general public have failed to notice extremists working under their noses, failing to thwart their plots.
It is another example of how a stable and affluent nation known for its moderate politics, religious diversity, and vibrant civil society is being plagued by sectarian tensions fuelled by increasing radicalism.
The attack is a huge blow for Kuwait and its government. The Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah, acknowledged that the attack was an attempt to threaten national unity. Many politicians and religious leaders condemned the bombing as a terrorist threat that aimed to tear apart Kuwait’s national unity.
Kuwait is often heralded as an Arabian Gulf success story. Amid the authoritarian regimes in the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the oil-rich emirate has seemed laudably peaceful. It boasts a constitution, free and fair elections of a parliament, and a vibrant media.
Kuwait is also the closest thing to a success story among the countries in the region that have tried to achieve harmony between a predominately Sunni majority and Shia minority.
As its giant northern neighbour Iraq battles IS terrorists and plunges into intercommunal civil war, the Kuwaiti government has managed to keep sectarian tensions to a minimum.
Yet, as Friday’s bombing of the Shia mosque has showed Kuwait is not immune to the violence afflicting much of the Arab world.
The chilling pictures of the massacre are an indication of how Kuwait has badly bungled its response in anticipating the danger as IS extends its influence across the region and forges connections with other terrorist groups, prompting attacks in the neighbourhood.
The Kuwait suicide bombing did not come out of the blue. Some on-the-ground evidence suggests that Kuwait has been at risk of spawning terrorism and that a terrorist strike was only a matter of time.
In June last year, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Interior instructed its forces at border crossings to remain on high alert for fear of possible attacks by militants from IS.
In spite of the government’s commitment to making the country safe, concerns about security in Kuwait have increased in recent months as neighbouring Iraq has become increasingly unstable.
Kuwaitis have been divided about the war against IS, with many Shia siding with their co-religionists in Iraq and many Sunnis lambasting the Shia-led government in Baghdad for alleged abuses by Shia militias against Iraqi Sunnis in the war to recapture areas seized by the terror group.
Following the attack on the mosque last Friday, postings on social media networks carried photographs of vehicles delivering aid sent by Kuwaiti Shia businessmen to Shia militias in Iraq with the headlines claiming that the convoys triggered the bombing of the mosque.
The campaign by a Saudi-led coalition that includes Kuwait against Shia Houthis in Yemen that has polarised the region along sectarian lines has also left its impact on Kuwaitis. While Sunnis cheered the Saudi strikes, Shia in Kuwait denounced their country’s participation in them.
In May, a brawl erupted in the Kuwaiti parliament when hard-line Sunni Salafi lawmakers attacked a Shia member who had tabled a motion to question the government about Kuwait’s participation in the war in Yemen.
Critics have blamed the Kuwaiti authorities for turning a blind eye to radicalism by mosques and clerics who preach anti-Shia rhetoric. Shia are a major component of Kuwait, but many in the country’s Sunni elite deride them as Iran’s stooges.
The social networks are rife with postings by Kuwaitis that accuse Shia of being “disbelievers,” describing their mosques as “temples.”
The Kuwaiti-owned TV channel Wisal is among many outlets in the Gulf that broadcast anti-Shia programmes. The government shut down Wisal’s offices after the bombing of the mosque.
Support for the radicals goes far beyond rhetoric, however. Kuwaiti extremists are believed to be flocking to IS strongholds in Iraq and Syria undetected. According to a CIA report update in January, among the thousands of foreign fighters with IS, Kuwaiti jihadists rank per capita among the top recruits.
In addition, rich Sunni Kuwaitis are believed to be among the top donors to extremist groups, including IS militants.
According to many analysts, the Kuwaiti authorities, like many other governments in the region, have failed to think strategically in dealing with the hard-line groups and preachers who are believed to be feeding terrorism with their extreme ideology.
The disclosure that the bomber in Kuwait was a Saudi terrorist does not make it easier for the Kuwaiti authorities to relieve themselves from their responsibilities. The bombing by a Saudi national only demonstrates how complex networks of extremists can now easily cut across even allied nations and work together to achieve their goals.
The IS admission in an audio statement released on Monday that it was behind the bombing of the Shia mosque in Kuwait and its threats to attacks more Shia will also exacerbate fears of a well-coordinated strategy by jihadist networks in the region to work closely together to target the Gulf countries.
The bombing of the Shia mosque was the third attack in five weeks to be claimed by the Najd Wilaya (Najd Province), which is the Saudi affiliate of IS. The group, named after one of the old names of Saudi Arabia, had claimed two prior attacks on Shia mosques in the kingdom that killed 26 people in late May.
The IS strategy of targeting Shia mosques seems to be aiming at sowing sectarian divisions in already sharply polarised societies where Shia-Sunni friction is not uncommon.
IS militants regard Shia as heretics, and in Monday’s audio statement the bomber, identified by Saudi and Kuwaiti authorities as Fahad Suleiman Abdel-Mohsen Al-Qabaa, vowed more attacks on Shia in the Gulf.
The Kuwait bombing, like attacks in Saudi Arabia, is now raising worries in the Gulf. Reports that several Gulf nations have put their security levels on high alert are based on increasing feelings of common threats.
A well-known extremist in Bahrain has warned that Shia mosques in the tiny Gulf kingdom will be the militants’ next targets.
In an Internet posting, the fugitive Bahraini radical Turki bin Al-Ali said IS would bomb a Shia mosque on Friday 3 July, a threat which has triggered calls by Shia in Bahrain to form self-defence committees to protect Shia mosques against violence.
Authorities across the Gulf have tightened security and promised more safety measures to guard Shia mosques against terror attacks. Yet, there are increasing fears that radicalism, religious polarisation and rising sectarianism will continue to breed violence.
While the police or vigilantes can provide physical security, worshipping inside heavily guarded mosques is not the same as openly exercising one’s religious identity.
What the Gulf nations need to do is to deal with the roots of the problem of terrorism by depriving terrorists of a “supportive environment” and the means which provide them with their lifeblood.
Ultimately, the governments of the Gulf nations, where Shia constitute large communities, should make more efforts to ease sectarian tensions which are sapping their energy and dragging them into a deepening regional crisis with Shia Iran.