Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use – The sectarian dimension

Salafi-jihadi intellectual tradition has long justified attacks on other Muslims through the process of takfir, and this has spurred attacks on civilians who either don’t fall in line with their agenda or simply practise another form of Islam. Inevitably, this has also provoked attacks on Shia Muslims, and most Salafi-jihadi groups hold violent anti-Shia views. This is yet another symptom of the so-called Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East today, which is in many ways exacerbating terrorism and several armed conflicts, and therefore explosive violence in the region.

Given that the original schism took place in the 7th century, it is often suggested that the Sunni-Shia conflict has been ongoing for hundreds of years. Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, there was disagreement over who should lead the newly established Muslim community. One camp opted for Abu Bakr as the new caliph, as in their view he was the best candidate, whereas another camp saw the Prophet’s cousin Ali as the best choice given that he was related to Muhammad. Abu Bakr ended up claiming the title, and although Ali would eventually become caliph himself, this sparked anger among his supporters. This camp was called Shiat Ali, meaning ‘partisans of Ali’, which is from where the name Shia is derived.

Although the two camps differ in some religious practices and fought battles early on, this is not a conflict that has been raging for more than a thousand years. In fact, Sunnis and Shia populations have co-existed peacefully for a much longer time than they have been in conflict. Rather, this divide is largely a matter of geopolitics, and specifically the so called ‘regional cold war’, or battle for regional hegemony, fought between Saudi Arabia and Iran. These two states are not only the two main players in the Middle East, they also lay claim to be the bastions of Sunni and Shia Islam respectively. This has led to very little separation between religion and state, at least on a discursive level, which inevitably gives the impression of a battle between sects. The fact that the two countries also support armed groups with sectarian agendas further accentuates the image of a region polarised by sectarianism.

This is a fairly new phenomenon, and depends on the instrumentalisation of religious identities. This is something that has been done in the Middle East before. Colonial powers often played groups against each other in newly created nation-states, and regional authoritarians have also used this to their profit. Saddam Hussein (a Sunni) in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad (an Alawite) in Syria, both belonged to minorities in their respective countries, and employed a loyal clique of supporters from their own sect to entrench their rules. However, both of them were wary of the backlash this could provoke, and therefore made certain to co-opt important figures in the ethnic and religious majorities. This way, sectarianism was both institutionalised and contained.

This lid was taken off after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which allowed for sectarian sentiments to bloom in the power vacuum that had been created after Saddam Hussein’s ousting. Iran, on their part, used the occasion to support Shia militias in Iraq, which made Saudi Arabia and several Gulf states warn against increased Iranian influence. Similarly, the countries that had objected to US presence in Iraq, such as Syria and Iran, as well as their non-state allies Hezbollah, warned against an ‘imperialist intervention’ in the Islamic world’s affairs. When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, these divisions were accentuated, as various regimes instrumentalised sectarianism to quell the uprisings. For example, protests in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were portrayed by the respective regimes as being carried out by Iranian agents. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad quickly made use of the fact that Saudi Arabia and Qatar supported some of the more radical opposition groups to rally the support of Syria’s religious minorities against a Sunni-majority opposition. In many ways, Syria has become the major hotbed for sectarian violence and discourse, primarily because the actors invested in it see it as the decisive battle in the regional struggle for hegemony.

Along with the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, Middle Eastern sectarianism has also been exacerbated by the ongoing war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting against a Shia group known as the Houthis, who in turn receive backing from Iran. Although this would lead many to divide the region between a pro-Saudi and Sunni camp facing off against a pro-Iranian and Shia camp, this would be to simplify the issue. Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president and a Sunni, has for example allied with Houthis. Similarly, many Sunnis are fighting on the Syrian regime side in Syria’s civil war. The regional division narrative has succeeded partly because of Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s rhetoric, which attempts to turn attention away from problems on their home turfs by making grandiose statements about a regional war of religion. To some extent, this has worked, as some analysts have pointed to the fact that young people in Saudi Arabia are more engaged in nationalist discourse in relation to the Saudi campaign in Yemen than with criticising the Saudi state for cutting back on many of the economic benefits that their parents enjoyed.

In this toxic climate, individual acts may become highly symbolic. For example, Saudi Arabia’s execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016 was widely seen as an insult to Iran, simply because of Nimr’s religion. Saudi Arabia allegedly executed Nimr in order to counter the augmentation of Iran’s regional profile through the Iran nuclear deal. Moreover, many Arab countries’ airwaves are filled with preachers spreading anti-Shia messages, and Saudi state ideology (Wahhabism) is filled with anti-Shia discourse. Perhaps because of Shia Muslims’ regional minority status (Iran, Iraq and Bahrain are the only Shia-majority countries in the Middle East), there is much more anti-Shia rhetoric coming from the Sunni camps, both from state institutions and from Salafi-jihadi groups, than vice versa. That is not to say that Shias have never oppressed Sunnis. Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was widely seen as being hostile to his country’s Sunni Muslims, for example. However, given that the groups looked at in depth in this report are exclusively Sunni, anti-Shia rhetoric is currently a larger problem in relation to IED violence.

Regional and local sectarianism as a trigger for jihadism

The sectarianism described above is not simply an abstract geopolitical rivalry, but seems to have taken root in many Middle Eastern societies as a result of the various conflicts in the region. In 2016, more than 22,000 IS registration files were leaked from IS in Syria. The files, which are forms in which new recruits provided personal information, offer some understanding as to how sectarianism may motivate people to join a terrorist organisation.

The North Governorate in Lebanon serves as a case in point, and has seen sectarian tensions between the local Sunni and Alawite communities.[i] Northern Lebanon has long been home to extreme interpretations of Sunni Islam. This has been traced back to the Islamic uprising in Syria, to which northern Lebanon has strong ties, during the 1980s. The uprising was crushed by Syrian Alawite president Hafez al-Assad, and many proponents of the uprising fled to northern Lebanon. Together with a general Lebanese Sunni concern over the growing domestic and regional influence of Shia Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah, this has created a fertile hotbed for Sunni extremism and anti-Shia, and consequently anti-Alawite, sentiments.

The fact that current Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite and is backed by Shia Iran and Hezbollah in Syria’s civil war has only spurred these sentiments further. Since many Salafi-jihadi groups preach a vicious anti-Shia rhetoric, the Sunni population of northern Lebanon, already holding grudges against their Alawite neighbours, are in some ways perfect recruits. Moreover, local clerics such as Sheikh Dai Al Islam al-Shahhal and Salem al-Rafei are known for their harsh anti-Shia rhetoric, meaning that local people are exposed to religious ‘justification’ for violent anti-Shia rhetoric on a regular basis. As a result, the North Governorate has sent 70% of Lebanon’s foreign fighters to Syria.

A similar case can be found in Muharraq Island, an island located outside Bahrain’s capital Manama, which has sent 79% of Bahrain’s total number of foreign fighters. The region has close ties to Bahrain’s royal family, a Sunni family ruling over a majority Shia country, and Muharraq is itself a majority Sunni region. Muharraq was at the heart of the resistance against the predominantly Shia-led uprising in 2011, which was violently struck down by the Bahraini regime. Local anti-Shia sentiments are personified by Turki al-Binali, IS’ most well-known scholar and an advocate of harsh anti-Shia views, who grew up in Muharraq.

As mentioned above, the Bahraini regime has often painted the Arab Spring protests as being sponsored by Iran, and Shia oppositional figures are sometimes referred to as ‘Safavids’.[ii] Given Bahrain’s close relationship to Saudi Arabia, and the latter’s ongoing ‘regional cold war’ with Iran, Muharraq’s intimate ties to the Bahraini royal family adds another dimension to the local anti-Shia sentiments.

This post is part of the report, “Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use”. To see the sections of the report please go here. This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.

[i] Alawites are a sect deriving from Twelver Shia Islam that incorporates syncretistic elements. Although often considered a variation of Shia Islam, it could also be seen as its own religion. Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite.

[ii] The Safavids were a political dynasty in Persia between the 16th and 18th century who converted Persia to Shia Islam. The ‘Safavid’ slur thus alludes to someone faithful to Iran who aims to topple the existing Sunni order