A suicide bomber struck a mosque in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern region, leaving at least 21 people dead in an attack on the kingdom’s Shiite minority that was claimed by Islamic State.
The attack took place in the town of Qudeih in Qatif province, the official Saudi Press Agency said. Islamic State said on Twitter that it was responsible. The jihadist group has carried out attacks in the past in the region, where most Saudi Shiites live. The SPA put the death toll at 21 and said more than 100 were injured.
The bloodiest attack in Saudi Arabia for months comes as the country is leading a military intervention against Shiite rebels in Yemen and playing a part in U.S.-led operations against Islamic State in Syria. King Salman appointed younger princes in April to oversee defense and security policy, tasking them with preventing any spillover into the kingdom, the world’s biggest oil exporter.
Authorities see the attack as an attempt to undermine unity in the kingdom, and will pursue those responsible, the SPA cited the Interior Ministry as saying. Saudi Arabia’s top Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, said in televised remarks that the attack was aimed at “sparking unrest among Saudis and different sectarian groups.”
Saudi Shiites have complained about discrimination by the kingdom’s Sunni rulers, and have occasionally staged protests. Islamic State, the Sunni group that has declared a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq it controls, has repeatedly targeted Shiites, whom it considers heretics.
Friday’s explosion was the second assault on Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Muslim minority since November, when three assailants used automatic weapons and handguns to kill five people and injure nine others.
The bomber detonated an explosive belt hidden under clothing, the Saudi authorities said.
“A lot of people have blood on their clothes from helping take the casualties to hospital,” Jaafar al-Shayeb, a local human rights activist, said by telephone from outside the mosque shortly after the bombing.
The smell of the explosive cordite hung in the air as worshipers picked the victims up and put them on stretchers, said al-Shayeb. The floor of the mosque was littered with glass shards and debris.
The attack represents “a very big challenge for the Saudi authorities,” Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of Cornerstone Global Associates, which advises clients on risk in the Middle East, said from London. “The timing is difficult, the challenge is big and everyone will be braced for risk of greater violence.”
The attack did little to perturb the market. Brent crude extended declines, falling 1.6 percent to $65.48 a barrel at midday in New York.
Saudi Arabia has vowed to crack down on Sunni extremist groups, even as it’s accused by its Shiite regional rivals of inciting them. Jihadists such as Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have typically denounced the Saudi royal family for betraying Islam through its alliance with the U.S.
Last month, Saudi security forces arrested 93 people on terrorism-related charges including the “intent to incite sectarian unrest.” Fifteen of them were accused of setting up a local branch of Islamic State calling itself “soldiers of the land of the two holy mosques.”