While a bombing at a Shia mosque in Kuwait on Friday was the first attack against the oil-rich Gulf state in more than twenty years, the country’s relative stability has long been at risk due to recent increase in sectarian rhetoric and impunity for nationals funding extremists.
Friday’s attack killed 27 and injured another 200 worshipers at the Imam al-Sadiq mosque in central Kuwait City. The attack was claimed by Wilayat Najd, an Islamic State affiliate whose name refers to a region in central Saudi Arabia. The group claimed two attacks on Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia last month that killed 25 people.
Up to 800 Kuwaitis are thought to have joined the Islamic State and several hundred have returned to Kuwait. The attacker himself was a Saudi national in his 20s named Fahad Suleiman Abdulmohsen al-Gabbaa who arrived in Kuwait via Bahrain. Authorities claim he had no history linking him with extremist groups. Here’s a video of the man entering the mosque:
— Ala’a Shehabi (@alaashehabi) June 26, 2015
Security has tightened all around places of worship in the various Persian Gulf states, the Guardian reported Saturday. Before last Friday’s attack — which saw an Islamic State-linked attack on a Tunisian beach and a beheading in southern France that is yet to be claimed on the same day — Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani called for more attacks to take place over the last three weeks of Ramadan.
“I was expecting this to happen. What makes us different that we should not be a target? It’s clear no country here is immune,” Manaf Behbehani, a marine biology professor at Kuwait University, told Reuters from the funeral procession for those killed in Friday’s attacks.
“We had sectarianism before Syria. There were examples, even in parliament, of language that was very strong. We had tensions, but there was no violence. No attacks. No bombing.”
Reuters reported chants at the funeral of “No Sunni, no Shia, one, one Islam”, followed by “Down with Daesh! Down with Daesh!” using an acronym for the Islamic State that the group considers insulting.
Kuwait is a small country sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Iraq to the west and the Persian Gulf to the east. Over 76 percent of the country is Muslim, the majority of which are Sunni, but Kuwait also boasts one of the largest Shia minority communities in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. While Kuwait’s Shia community is relatively well-taken care of compared to other Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the country also hosts a powerful Salafi community that has shown hostility toward Shia Muslims and critics have previously warned of potential repercussions.
“Our school books encourage violence against other people, including Muslims,” lawyer and former Kuwaiti MP Khaled al-Shatti wrote in an ominous New York Times op-ed late last year, where he warned that the education received by young Kuwaitis could manifest in support for extremist groups. “Imams preach the same destructive message that is producing terrorism in our government mosques and on our television stations.”
Kuwaitis have been among the premier financers for radical Islamist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq (like the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front) over the last four years, according to a report in the Washington Post that ran in April 2014. The Kuwaiti government however has done little to impede individual financiers, even naming one well-known financier to ministerial positions despite having “been featured on fund raising posters for a prominent Al Nusra Front financier.”
“The hand of extremism has penetrated deep in Kuwaiti society,” al-Shatti wrote, adding that other countries must “avoid the fate of my small nation — liberated by the United States, then occupied by extremists.”