Saudi Shiites defiant after 5 killed in 'IS shooting'

Ian Timberlake
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Saudi Shiite worshipers are frisked by members of security as they make their way to a hussainiya, a Shiite hall used for commemorations, in Qatif, on October 16, 2015

Saudi Shiite worshipers are frisked by members of security as they make their way to a hussainiya, a Shiite hall used for commemorations, in Qatif, on October 16, 2015 (AFP Photo/Hussein Radwan)

Riyadh (AFP) - Saudi Shiites vowed Saturday to continue commemorating Ashura, one of their faith's holiest occasions, despite a purported Islamic State group gunman killing five people at one of their gatherings.

The attack in Eastern Province was the latest in a series of bombings and shootings linked to the Sunni extremist group in Saudi Arabia over the past year.

A suspect with an automatic weapon opened fire at a Shiite meeting hall in Qatif city Friday evening, killing five people and wounding nine more, an interior ministry spokesman said.

Police intervened and shot him dead, the spokesman said without identifying him.

A group calling itself Islamic State-Bahrain Province said one of its "soldiers", Shughaa al-Dosari, "attacked a Shiite infidel temple with an automatic weapon."

It warned that "infidels will not be safe in the peninsula of Mohammed," the Muslim prophet.

IS considers Shiites to be heretics.

Most previous attacks in Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia have targeted the minority Shiites, who often complain of marginalisation.

A video purportedly of the attack posted on YouTube showed terrified people, including many children, running frantically for cover as gun shots could be heard.

Witness Ali al-Bahrani said the gunman fired at random at the faithful, who had been listening to a sermon.

Ashura, which peaks late next week, marks the killing of Imam Hussein, Mohammed's grandson, by the army of Caliph Yazid in 680 AD. It lies at the heart of Islam's divide into Shiite and Sunni sects.

- 'Attacks won't deter us' -

Jaafar al-Abbad, the uncle of Buthaina al-Abbad, 22, the only woman killed, said she died a "martyr for the sake of her beliefs".

"She was about to graduate from university as a doctor. Now she is a martyr, and this is even better," he said.

"People are pouring in to congratulate her parents," said Abbad.

He echoed other Shiites in saying that such attacks "will not deter us from continuing to observe our rituals".

Romain Caillet, a French expert on jihadists, said the attack poses a double challenge for Saudi authorities.

First, they should avoid the risk of "pushing some of their (Sunni) citizens into radicalisation" by allowing Shiites to practise their beliefs.

"The other challenge is security, as authorities should deploy more.. means to protect their population."

He said this was the first attack by this branch of IS in the Arabian Peninsula, and said the use of the name was in keeping with the group's aim of redrawing borders.

Centuries ago, "Bahrain" referred to a large part of modern Saudi Arabia's east, as well as the neighbouring kingdom with that name, he said.

Nasema al-Sada, an activist from Eastern Province, said volunteers had set up checkpoints at the entrances to places of worship in coordination with authorities since the start of Ashura.

Residents of Dammam, a city where Shiites are not allowed to build places of worship, come to Saihat to attend regular sermons during Ashura, said Sada.

- IS seen as 'enemy' -

Witnesses said the meeting hall, known as a husseiniya, and an adjacent mosque were both targeted in Friday's shooting.

"We demand more protection and a law that would criminalise sectarianism," said Sada. "We are living in a place made out of paper, which could catch fire any minute."

"People are angry. And these attacks will only make us more attached to our rituals," she said.

"They can't stop us from practising our beliefs."

Security has been tightened at Shiite institutions since May, when suicide bombings at two mosques claimed by IS killed 25 people.

During Ashura last year, gunmen killed seven Shiite worshippers, including children, in the eastern town of Al-Dalwa.

The interior ministry said the unprecedented incident had links to IS, which has also targeted police.

The Gulf Cooperation Council issued a statement Saturday saying it "strongly condemns the terrorist attack", which it described as a "horrific crime".

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours last year joined a US-led military coalition that is bombing IS in Syria and Iraq, where the jihadists have set up an Islamic "caliphate".

In July, Saudi Arabia said it had broken up an IS-linked network and arrested more than 430 suspects involved in attacks and plots.

Earlier Friday, Saudi Arabia's top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, branded IS as an enemy of Islam.

"The reality is that they are shedding Muslim blood and destroying Islam. There is no good in them," he said during weekly prayers in Riyadh.