The battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group must be beaten ideologically, and not necessarily militarily, Gulf political and security analysts told Al Jazeera following a suicide bombing on a Shia mosque in Kuwait that killed at least 27 people and left more than 200 others injured.
In a message posted on Friday on a Twitter account known to belong to the group, ISIL claimed the blast was the work of a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest. The attacks came days after ISIL urged its followers “to make Ramadan a month of calamities for the nonbelievers”.
Gulf political and security analysts spoke of their initial “shock” and “puzzlement” following the attack in Kuwait.
“The bombing of al-Sadiq Mosque has brought quite a big and unexpected shock to Kuwait, as our country has remained untouched in the last two decades from any kind of terrorism of today’s magnitude,” said Dahem al-Qahtani, a Kuwaiti journalist and political researcher.
The attack is the first such bombing targeting Kuwaiti Shia, who make up around one-third of the country’s native population of 1.3 million people, and who have lived relatively harmoniously with their Sunni countrymen.
Nasser Ahmed bin Ghaith, an independent political researcher from the United Arab Emirates described Friday’s attack as puzzling, as many in the region did not expect further incidents after similar suicide bomb attacks took place at Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia last month.
“ISIL’s actions were unpredictable, and their actions inside the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] countries aren’t as consistent as they are in Iraq and Syria – so political analysts who focus on ISIL aren’t able to anticipate when and where such attacks can take place,” said bin Ghaith.
Analysts say that rather than attacking state institutions or popular landmarks, ISIL fighters are targeting Shia mosques with the intent of deepening the sectarian divide and sowing discord among Sunnis and Shia in the Gulf Arab states.
“ISIL wants to undermine national solidarity and unity. We should be aware that they thrive on sectarian conflict. The more sectarianism and hatred flourishes in the region, the more ISIL feels it could operate in a situation of divide-and-conquer,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based professor at Emirates University and political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
Kuwait, along with the other Gulf states – except Oman – has participated in the United States-led coalition targeting ISIL in Iraq and Syria since August 2014.
The attacks on Shia mosques in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have been carried out by young men whom several analysts describe as “lone wolves influenced by the ideologies that ISIL represents”.
Their actions have been attributed to the widening rift between the youth of the GCC and their governments.
“Many youth today are facing injustice, inequality and high unemployment rates in their home countries. This is where ISIL is capturing our youth, through their appealing ideologies, which the masses of our youth are unfortunately viewing as an alternative.”
Theodore Karasik, a United Arab Emirates-based geopolitical adviser, said that those who should be held accountable for the recent attacks are those who have “allowed ISIL to form in the first place and allowing its hateful ideology to expand unchecked”.
“There is indeed a hyper media war ongoing that is egged on by both Sunni religious figures in GCC states but also by Iran and affiliated press agencies and Twitter trolls,” said Karasik.
Qahtani, the Kuwaiti journalist and political researcher, believes that in order to avoid similar attacks from occurring in the future, a much-need overhaul of governmental and civil societies’ policies towards the youth in the GCC region is crucial.
“The government and civil society institution are required to provide suitable alternatives in every field of democracy be it freedom of opinion, social justice and the fight against poverty, and especially to combat ignorance,” said Qahtani. “We have to be careful and prevent politicians and clerics from spewing religious doctrines that fuel sectarian and ideological views to avoid the events of Friday from reoccurring,” he added.
But Osama al-Munawer, a lawyer and former member of Kuwait’s parliament, disagreed with Qahtani, noting that relatively open societies such as that in Tunisia did not prevent many young men there from joining the ranks of ISIL.
“The main battle has to take place physically. The majority of the foreign fighters inside ISIL come from Tunisia, a country that is known for its secular and European-like nature for the past 40 years. If we need to fix any ideologies, it must be to increase the expansion of our religious Islamic studies in our schools and curriculum, to show the real and truthfully peaceful nature of Islam,” said Munawer.
Tunisian authorities have estimated that as many as 3,000 Tunisians have gone to Iraq, Syria, and Libya to join ISIL, raising further fears of battle-hardened fighters returning home to plot attacks.
Abdullah al-Shayji, a Kuwaiti professor and chairman of Kuwait University’s political science department, agreed with other analysts who said that further battle against ISIL has to take place locally, as the war against ISIL in Iraq and Syria has been “unsuccessful”.
“By attacking Shia mosques, the lone wolf’s action shows the message that there are sleeper cells and that there is a need for much more transparency and clarity from our security officials,” said Shayji.
Although analysts disagreed on the best ways to thwart ISIL’s influence in the Gulf, they agreed that further attacks on Shia Muslims are much more likely to happen again if necessary actions aren’t taken immediately.
By day’s end, a remarkable show of solidarity between Kuwait’s Sunnis and Shia took place when a viral video showed men from both sects praying side by side, an uncommon practise in most places of Muslim worship in the Gulf.
“Today’s tragic actions, where ISIL specifically targeted a group of innocent people praying, gives the message that they aren’t interested in targeting governments who’ve taken military actions against them – but specifically on innocent people who have defied ISIL and their extremist ideologies,” Qahtani said.