The militant group claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that killed 21 people and injured 81 others in the Shiite-majority city of Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia on Friday.
“We were in the middle of prayers, when someone entered abruptly and blew himself up in front of the worshippers,” Mohammed Alsaeedi, a journalist who was in the mosque at the time of the attack, told RFI’s partner television network, France 24.
“What’s for certain is that the hard-line sectarian discourse is one of the reasons behind the attack,” al Saadi said, referring to tensions surrounding the Sunni-majority kingdom’s Shiite minority, which accounts for about 10 per cent of the population.
It is the first time the Islamic State armed group has claimed responsibility for an attack in the Saudi kingdom since establishing a presence there in November 2014.
“They are trying to destabilise Saudi Arabia,” says Alain Gresh, an editor with French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique and a specialist in the region. “Many Saudis despise the Shiites, the religious establishment despises the Shiites, so they [the Islamic State group] can use the attacks to gain popularity.”
Gresh argues that by fanning the flames of sectarian violence, the armed group is also seeking to draw out “contradictions” in Saudi authorities’ activities in the region, namely its campaign of air strikes against Shiite Huthi rebels in Yemen.
“[The Saudis] are trying, at the regional level, to create a kind of Sunni front against Iran and Shia Islam,” Gresh explains. “We see it in Yemen, where their ally in a paradoxical way is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is fighting with them against the Huthis, who are Shiite. But at the same time, they cannot accept terrorist activities on their territory.”
However, even if the attack reflects a strategy of fuelling sectarian violence and destabilising states in the region, Charlie Winter, a researcher with London-based counter-extremism think tank The Quilliam Foundation, says the attack does not necessarily mean the radical Islamists have established a strong presence in the country.
“They [the armed group] want us to think there’s a huge swell of Islamic State supporters in Saudi Arabia,” Winter explains. “Of course, that’s not the case. It doesn’t take very many people to be able to carry out an attack like this, but what it does do is really project and exaggerate the presence of the group. ”
The attack comes at a time when the group has also seized border areas between Syria and Iraq and captured the Syrian city of Palmyra, where it threatens to destroy 2,000-year-old monuments. Winter warns there could be more activity out of the group in the coming weeks, and urges caution about how both the group and Western media portray its actions.
“Given that we’re coming up to one year on from the caliphate declaration [on 29 June 2014], there is going to be a lot of agitation and activity by the Islamic State to try and inflate its position and look as menacing as possible. But it’s very important to recognise that this is a very strategic decision made by the top political levels of the Islamic State.”
“Propaganda is central” to the armed group, Winter affirms. “They need to ensure the brand is getting as far out as possible. It’s all about attracting new recruits and differentiating itself from past jihadist groups, so it can attract the new generation.
“The moment the Islamic State loses the perception of momentum, it will be in a very different position,” he adds. “It’s the perception of momentum – the claim that God is on its side, and that’s why it keeps making these victories and expanding – that attracts most people to it.”