On Thursday, al Qaeda-linked rebels bombed an important shrine in the city of Raqqa, Syria, in a move that will likely inflame tensions between Shiites and Sunnis in the region. The attack took place on the Shrine of Ammar bin Yasser and Owais al-Qarni, and The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that al Qaeda splinter group Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS, sometimes ISIL for Levantine) is responsible.
Bin Yasser, one of the two individuals interred at the shrine, was an early companion of Prophet Muhammad, and is revered by Sunni and Shia Muslims. His shrine was a top destination for Shiite pilgrims seeking to give homage to his religious accomplishments. Al-Qarni was also an early Muslim, contemporaneous to Muhammad, who was well noted for his support of the prophet’s family.
As important figures in Islamic history, the attack on the shrines of these figures will likely be viewed as an affront to the Shiite Muslims who typically perform pilgrimages at the memorial. While Sunni Muslims view the two personalities favorably, they typically avoid attending or visiting shrines of any revered figures, believing the practice to be an “innovation” and thus sinful. Despite this, multiple Sunni groups have expressed anger at the attack.
The attack followed a test explosion earlier in the month, wherein rebels detonated a model of the structure and announced they had destroyed the actual shrine. Due to the obvious lack of credibility in the earlier claim, which rebels posted on YouTube, they were met with ridicule, and a real threat to the shrine was not expected.
Reports on Twitter, however, indicated a gradual build up to the attack. ISIS members performed a mass execution of “Liwa Owais al-Qarni” (followers of Owais al-Qarni) members a week later.
Raqqa is controlled by ISIS militants. However, the response was immediate, as three air attacks by government forces were conducted on the city and surrounding regions within hours of the bombing. According to a BBC report, despite the air raids, “Now Raqqa … may be the largest city in the world ever to be controlled by al Qaeda.”
Analysts believe the attack marks a critical change in Syria. In 2013, similar attacks occurred when Nusra Front rebels exhumed the thousand year old grave of Hujr ibn Adi, and stole the remains, posting photos of the incident on Facebook. Ibn Adi is a highly respected historical figure for Shiite Muslims, and the unusual attack prompted a heightened response from throughout the Shia world. Shortly thereafter, rebels launched a rocket attack on the shrine of Lady Zainab, granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad.
While some damaged occurred, the attacks drew backlash from throughout the Muslim world, and for several months, it seemed that the practice of attacking and destroying graves had stopped. Today’s attack, however, proves that notion wrong.
In an effort to clearly indicate that the main victims of this terror attack are Shiite Muslims, Syrian rebels posted photos of the attack with the label “the pagan Iranian shrine,” following the incorrect stereotype that all Shiite Muslims are Iranian. Pew Research indicates that approximately 67 percent of the world’s Shiites are non-Iranian.
Many believe that a campaign of successful attacks against the religious holy sites of any sect of Muslims could destabilize Syria and the surrounding region.