SAUDI ARABIA

Gunmen attack Shiite worshippers amid rise in hate speech

Masked gunmen shot dead at least five people in the Al-Ahsa district of eastern Saudi Arabia on Monday evening. The victims were leaving a Shiite ceremony that was part of the annual Ashoura commemorations. Our Observer in Al-Ahsa worries these attacks on Shiites, which are a minority in Saudi Arabia, could exacerbate tensions amid a rise in hate speech.

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Shells of bullets used in an attack on Shiite worshippers. Screen grab from the video below. 

Masked gunmen shot dead at least five people in the Al-Ahsa district of eastern Saudi Arabia on Monday evening. The victims were leaving a Shiite ceremony that was part of the annual Ashoura commemorations. Our Observer in Al-Ahsa worries that these attacks on Shiites, which are a minority in Saudi Arabia, could exacerbate tensions amid a rise in hate speech.

According to the Saudi authorities, three masked men opened fire with machine guns and pistols, killing five and wounding nine before fleeing. On Tuesday, six men in total were arrested in connection with the attack. A seventh suspect was killed by security forces, a member of which was also killed.

Local Shiite activists said the victims were mainly young men who were leaving the local gathering place, known as Husseiniya, where the Ashoura’s eve ceremony was taking place. Ashoura is a holy day commemorating the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson.

A video filmed after the attack, showing blood and shoes scattered by the fleeing crowd. 

Al-Ahsa is one of the cities in Saudi Arabia with the highest concentration of Shiites, along with Qatif. Both of these eastern cities have seen regular protests by Shiites who feel they are being discriminated against by the kingdom’s Sunni rulers, notably in terms of access to education and job opportunities. These protests have intensified since the Arab Spring that swept up many of Saudi Arabia’s neighbours, but have been frequently repressed by the authorities. Recently, there have been several cases of security forces being attacked in these areas.

Tensions have also been high since Shiite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr, a leading force behind these protests, was sentenced to death for sedition last month. 

A young victim explains that he saw an armed man come into the room and shoot at him and others. "We fell to the ground ... and we were taken to the hospital". 

“We hope this is not the start of something worse”

Sadek Al-Ramadan is a human rights activist in Al-Ahsa.

Everyone assumes it is a religious attack, since it happened during such an important religious event. It’s really shocked everyone here, because we’ve never seen violence like this. We’re a very mixed population; it’s quite peaceful here, and Shiites and Sunnis generally get along. I have lots of Sunni friends. So it really feels like this is the wrong place for something like this – even if there’s no ‘right’ place! On social media and in the streets, pretty much everyone’s reaction is that this is a horrible incident, that it’s bad for everyone.

Worshippers gathered again at the scene of the attack on Tuesday. They yell, "We will not be afraid". 

Everybody is hoping that this is an isolated incident, and that this is not the start of something worse. And I hope that these lunatics aren’t from our town. So far, all we know through the Saudi press is they arrested the six suspects in different areas – in Al-Ahsa, but also in another eastern town [Al-Khoabar] and in a town in central Saudi Arabia [Shaqra, near the capital Riyadh]. There is fear that the attackers could be linked to jihadist groups like the Islamic State, but really, we have no idea; we’re waiting for the authorities to tell us more.

 

“Hate speech is becoming more open than it used to be in the past”

Whether these criminals worked alone or not, I worry that this attack could be inspired by an increase in hate speech, both online and in mosques. Ever since the Arab Spring, it seems sectarian problems happening in other countries around us are spreading hatred in Saudi Arabia. Hate speech is becoming more open than it used to be in the past. And after talk of hate, comes acts of hate.

I and many other Saudi human rights activists would like the government to make efforts to criminalise this hate speech, by passing laws to that effect. These should of course apply to everyone, Shiite and Sunni.

Fear of jihadist rhetoric spreading in Saudi Arabia is widespread among Saudi human rights activists. Saudi Arabia is a member of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq, but many worry that Saudi sympathisers could launch jihadist-style attacks at home. Thousands of Saudis have already joined the ranks of jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.