Why Islamic State attacked a Kuwait mosque during Ramadan

The aftermath. EPA/Raed Qutena

June 26 2015 saw three violent terrorist attacks across three continents. In Tunisia, gunmen opened fire on tourists on a beach in Sousse; in France, a man beheaded his employer and attempted to blow up a gas plant; and in Kuwait, a suicide bomber attacked a mosque during the holy month of Ramadan. This is the latest in a series of attacks across Gulf states that are attempting to further schisms between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Abu Suleiman al-Muwahhid, named by Islamic State sources as the suicide bomber who targeted the Imam Sadiq mosque, apparently opposed its promotion of Shia Islam; IS referred to the mosque on Twitter as a “temple of the apostates”. The attack took place just after the midday Friday prayers, when the mosque was at its busiest.

The bombing left 27 dead and more than 200 injured, making it the worst attack to hit Kuwait in many years. It was also the first time a mosque had been targeted in the country’s history.

Saudi-based Wilayat Najd, the latest in a line of groups to to declare affiliation to IS, has taken credit for the attack. The group had previously claimed responsibility for attacks on two Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia in Dammam and Qatif.

A widening chasm

Like other Gulf states, Kuwait has a large Shia population. The group accounts for as many as a third of the country’s 1.3m citizens. This attack is seemingly an effort to challenge national unity in a state in which Sunni and Shia often live side by side. But it also highlights the sectarian schism widening across the Gulf region in general.

Regional competition between Gulf states has taken on an increasingly sectarian element since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia (ruled by Sunnis) and Iran (ruled by Shia) has, in particular, shaped the geopolitics of the region.

Their competition generally plays out through certain proxy countries – such as Iraq and Syria – but has of late spilled over into other states, as we’ve seen in this attack in Kuwait.

The tensions have aggravated the divisions between societies that began to emerge after the Arab uprisings – divisions IS and its affiliates seem intent on accelerating.

IS is seeking to delegitimise political rulers across the region. This in part includes identifying hypocrisy from those in charge, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where the ruling family must choose between defending the Shia in the name of national stability or adhering to the vehemently anti-Shia Wahhabist doctrine taught in schools across the state.

In Kuwait, religious difference does not manifest in political or security issues but the ruling al-Sabah family also needs to acknowledge tensions and stress national unity, even if it is itself Sunni.

IS hopes that by pointing out this apparent hypocrisy, it can build support from Sunni people in the Gulf who might be angered by their leaders’ tolerance for the Shia and wary of open the door to increased Iranian influence in region.

Sheik Sabah Al-Sabah visits the mosque after the suicide attack. EPA/Raed Qutena

Perhaps one of the other aims, though, is to draw Iran further into the mix. By demonstrating the state’s inability to offer protection for its minorities, it’s possible that IS is seeking to push Shia groups further towards Iran, which is committed to protecting its co-religious kin. This can already be seen in Iraq, where members of the elite Quds Force, are operating to protect Bagdhad and the important Shia cities of Karbala and Najaf.

The Kuwait attack is, then, the latest move in a game of regional chess. Relations between rulers and ruled are increasingly frayed and the ramifications are region wide.

Caught in the middle of this are the Muslims across the region who are participating in Ramadan, who are the victims of an increasingly existential struggle.