(Reuters) - Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for Kuwait’s worst militant attack last Friday, has built a network of militants in Gulf Arab states responsible for a campaign of suicide bombings against the Arabian Peninsula’s Shi‘ite minority.
Some of the Sunni Muslim group’s leaders hail from the Gulf, and its Saudi branch, called Wilayat Najd (Najd province), has called for clearing Shi‘ites from the Peninsula and especially from Saudi Arabia, its largest country and home to Islam’s holiest places.
Islamic State subscribes to a puritanical school of Sunni Islam that considers Shi‘ites as heretics and wants to sweep away a hereditary monarchy it regards as un-Islamic.
Following are details about Gulf Arab nationals belonging to Islamic State, recent attacks claimed by the group in the Peninsula, and a note on militant financing.
Turki al-Bin‘ali: From the Sunni-ruled kingdom of Bahrain, this prominent ideologue and recruiter for the group has stridently denounced its many Muslim critics and defended its status as a state. He issued a treatise soon after Islamic State declared a “caliphate” based in Iraq and Syria a year ago rallying Muslims to the cause. According to a biography by one of his students, Bin‘ali, about 30, has been banned from several Gulf States as well as Egypt.
Mohammed Emwazi: Reported by Western officials to be “Jihadi John”, the group’s most notorious executioner, was born in Kuwait, although he moved to Britain at age 6, later graduating with a computer programming degree from the University of Westminster. Emwazi, identified as the masked man wielding a knife over Western hostages such as James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, is a ‘bidoon’, an underclass of stateless people in Kuwait that numbers tens of thousands. A lawyer representing Emwazi’s father has said Western officials have presented no proof his client’s son is “Jihadi John”.
Bandar bin Shaalan: A former officer in the Saudi security services, helped organize Islamic State and encourage religious scholars to endorse the group. According to an unverified series of leaks on Twitter from an alleged militant insider in Syria, bin Shaalan played an important role when Islamic State and al Qaeda’s Nusra Front parted company, soliciting loyalty oaths and donations from jihadi figures in the Gulf.
Omar “Abu Bakr” al-Qahtani: A Saudi Islamic scholar, was appointed as one of the group’s three principal leaders for Islamic Law affairs.
Othman al Nazeh al-Asiri: A Saudi who traveled to fight in Syria in 2013, was a prominent voice advocating membership of Islamic State during its split with the Nusra Front. He was reported to have been killed in Syria in January.
A total of 2,284 Saudis have joined militant groups in Syria since the conflict began in 2011, Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour Turki told Reuters in March, of whom 645 had returned to the kingdom and about 570 had been killed.
The United States suspects that some of the Islamic State’s financing comes from private donations by wealthy Gulf Arabs.
In a March 2014 speech, U.S. Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen described Kuwait as “the epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria.” In an Oct. 2014 address, Cohen said that while the group does not rely heavily on external donor networks, “it maintains important links to financiers in the Gulf.”
Saudi Arabia’s strict official Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam differs from the ideology of Islamic State in outlawing rebellion against governments it regards as legitimate and opposing attacks on non-Muslims in most circumstances. Saudi top clerics have decried militants as “deviants”, but most refuse to acknowledge Shi‘ites as being Muslims or to repudiate the teachings of earlier Wahhabi thinkers who argued for permanent jihad against heretics and infidels.
The attacks have targeted members of the Shi‘ite Muslim minority, policemen and Western expatriates, and represent the most serious militant threat inside the kingdom since it ended an al Qaeda campaign that lasted from 2003 to 2006.
Two suicide bombings on Shi‘ite mosques in Saudi Arabia’s eastern region killed 24 people in May, carried out by Saudi militants and claimed by Islamic State.
The first attack in al-Qadeeh village on May 22 killed 21 worshippers and wounded nearly 100 in the bloodiest militant attack in the kingdom, the world’s top oil exporter, in years.
An Islamist militant suicide bomber disguised as a woman blew himself up outside a Shi‘ite mosque in the city of Dammam the following Friday, killing himself and three other people.
The Interior Ministry said there was evidence of a link between Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and a militant cell in Saudi Arabia that had included the al-Qadeeh bomber.
An unidentified subordinate of Baghdadi communicated with five Saudi men, now in Saudi custody, belonging to the same cell as the suicide bomber, Saleh bin Abdul Rahman Saleh Qashimi, ministry spokesman Bassam al-Attiyeh said in May.
A suicide bomber killed 27 people when he blew himself up inside a Shi‘ite Muslim mosque in Kuwait city on June 26, in the worst militant attack in the Gulf state.
Kuwait identified the bomber as a Saudi citizen, Fahd Suliman Abdul-Muhsen al-Qabaa.
According to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on terrorism released this month, Kuwait foiled several Islamic State bomb plots in 2014 and beefed up its border defenses against infiltration by militants in Iraq.
In December 2014, Kuwait arrested a 12-person cell, among them two former police officers planning bomb attacks on civilian and government targets.The interior ministry said in May that seven members of an alleged militant cell affiliated with the Islamic State were arrested in May for seeking to carry out sectarian attacks.
Sources: U.S. State Department, IHS Jane's Intelligence Review, Soufan Group, Reuters, Jihadica website; Writing by Noah Browning and Sami Aboudi, Editing by William Maclean