Three suicide bombers struck across Saudi Arabia in a single day, including a shocking attack at Islam’s second holiest site, the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, where four security guards were killed.
Monday’s attacks on Islam’s spiritual home came as Muslims prepared for the feast marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramzan.
There were no claims of responsibility but the Islamic State had urged its supporters to carry out attacks during the holy month and has claimed or been blamed for a wave of Ramzan shootings and bombings, including in Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka and Baghdad.
Media reports identified the bomber in Medina as 18-year-old Umer Abdul Hadi, who was wanted by the Saudi government on terror charges. The Saudi interior ministry said the bombing in Jeddah was carried out by 34-year-old Pakistani national Abdullah Gulzar Khan.
The suicide bombing in Medina came during sunset prayers at the Prophet’s Mosque – where Prophet Mohammed is buried and which attracts millions of pilgrims each year.
The Saudi interior ministry said security forces became suspicious of the bomber when he was heading for the Prophet’s Mosque through a parking lot. “As they tried to stop him, he blew himself up with an explosive belt causing his death and the death of four security personnel,” an official statement said, adding five others were injured.
The first attack on Monday took place in the western city of Jeddah, where two security officers were wounded when the suicide bomber blew himself up near the US consulate.
Attack in Jeddah carried out by Pakistani
The interior ministry said the attack was carried out by Pakistani resident Abdullah Gulzar Khan, a private driver who had been living with his wife and her parents in Jeddah for 12 years.
Interior ministry spokesman Gen Mansour al-Turki told state news channel Al-Ekhbaria the bomber was closer to a mosque than to the consulate. The ministry said in the statement published by the official SPA news agency that the bomber’s explosive belt had “partially” exploded. Several bombs planted by the attacker were defused by police.
The US embassy in Riyadh reported no casualties among consulate staff. The attack coincided with the US July 4 Independence Day holiday.
At the same time as the Medina attack on Monday evening, another suicide bombing occurred near a Shia mosque in the city of Qatif across the country, residents and the interior ministry said.
The Interior Ministry said it was working to identify the remains of three bodies at the site of the blast, suggesting there may have been three attackers.
The attack in Qatif did not appear to cause any injuries, said resident Mohammed al-Nimr. Qatif is home to many Shias, a minority in the Sunni-dominated kingdom.
IS and other Sunni extremists consider Shias to be apostates deserving of death, and have previously attacked Shia places of worship, including a suicide bombing on a mosque in Qatif in May 2015 that killed 21 people.
Outrage over targeting of Prophet’s Mosque
The targeting of Medina caused widespread outrage. Cairo-based Al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, condemned the attacks and stressed “the sanctity of the houses of God, especially the Prophet’s Mosque”.
The head of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, the kingdom’s main advisory body, said the attack was “unprecedented”. Abdullah al-Sheikh said:”This crime, which causes goosebumps, could not have been perpetrated by someone who had an atom of belief in his heart.”
Iran, the main Shia power, too condemned the bombings and called for Muslim unity against extremists.
“There are no more red lines left for terrorists to cross. Sunnis, Shiites will both remain victims unless we stand united as one,” Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter.
Worshippers expressed shock such a prominent holy site could be targeted.
“That’s not an act that represents Islam,” said Altayeb Osama, a 25-year old Sudanese visitor to Medina and resident of Abu Dhabi who heard two large booms about a minute apart as he was heading toward the mosque for sunset prayers. “People never imagined that this could happen here.”
Ziyaad Patel, 36, from Johannesburg, South Africa, was at the mosque when he heard a blast just as people were breaking their fast with dates. Many at first thought it was the sound of traditional, celebratory cannon fire, he said.
“I actually felt the ground shake,” he said. “The vibrations were very strong. ... It sounded like a building imploded.”
The ruling Al Saud family derives enormous prestige and legitimacy from being the caretakers of the hajj pilgrimage and Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina. The attack may have been an attempt to undermine the Saudi monarchy’s claim of guardianship.
In 1979, extremists took over Mecca’s Grand Mosque, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba, for two weeks as they demanded the royal family abdicate the throne.
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and anti-terror tsar sought to reassure Saudis of the country’s security after the suicide attacks Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, who is also the interior minister, visited two security officers and a citizen wounded in Jeddah.
“The security of the homeland is good, it is at its highest levels and thanks be to God it gets stronger every day,” Prince Mohammed was quoted as saying by state news agency SPA.