KUWAIT CITY – An Islamic State sympathizer's deadly bombing in a packed Kuwaiti mosque last week was designed to fit an all-too-familiar pattern: extremists attack Shiites to stoke sectarian hatred and then proclaim themselves the defenders of Sunnis against those they denounce as heretics.
This time the attack seems to have backfired, at least for now. Instead of fueling the kind of sectarian animosity that has devastated Iraq and Syria, the Kuwait attack has reawakened a sense of national solidarity not seen since Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion.
Like its Gulf Arab neighbors, this small but oil-rich nation is ruled by a U.S.-allied Sunni monarchy. Religious conservatives within the Sunni majority are deeply suspicious of Shiites, and by extension, non-Arab Shiite powerhouse Iran.
But within 24 hours of the attack, billboards across Kuwait went up showing an image of the Kuwaiti flag wrapped around a hand, with the slogan: "We stand as one." One of the landmark Kuwait Towers was graced with an illuminated message of condolence that referred to those killed as martyrs.
Sunni activists have taken to social media urging Sunnis to pray at Shiite mosques. Kuwaiti celebrities appear in television commercials speaking about unity, while four of the country's best-known singers recorded and released a song within hours of the blast praising Kuwait's history of coexistence.
The ruling emir, Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, surprised many by arriving at the scene of the blast within an hour of the explosion. A YouTube video of him touring the site soon went viral.
"They are my children," he told officials when they warned him against visiting the site. That phrase too — highlighting the notion that this was an attack against the nation, not a particular sect — now graces billboards along major highways.
Even more remarkably, the Sunni emir lent a private jet to fly the bodies of several of those killed to the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, Iraq, for burial in line with their families' wishes.
Kuwaiti lawyer Kawther al-Jouan says the mood is reminiscent of the days following the Iraqi invasion, when volunteers like her banded together in neighborhood civil resistance groups.
"All differences melted away and everyone was fighting against a single enemy, for a single cause. This is the same scenario, only we are fighting an ideology," she said.
Friday's blast in one of Kuwait City's oldest Shiite mosques killed 27 people and wounded more than 200. An affiliate of the Islamic State group quickly claimed responsibility.
Authorities identified the bomber as Fahad Suleiman Abdulmohsen al-Gabbaa, a Saudi man in his early twenties who left Riyadh the night before the attack, changed flights in Bahrain, and arrived in Kuwait just hours before detonating his explosives. Gulf Air, the airline he flew, said he traveled on a one-way ticket and had no checked baggage, and went through standard security screening before his flights.
Government officials have squarely denounced the bombing and called for unity.
Interior Minister Mohammed Al Khaled Al Sabah said this week his government is in "a state of war" with extremists and would not hesitate to target other terrorist cells. Minister of Education Bader al-Essa was quoted by Al-Jarida newspaper as saying he intends to re-examine Islamic educational materials to ensure they don't promote sectarianism.
The response reflects the degree to which Shiites, who are believed to make up roughly 30 percent of the country's 1.3 million citizens, are integrated into Kuwaiti society.
Bedrocks of the country's influential merchant class, Shiites have traditionally had good relations with the ruling Al Sabah dynasty. They are active in the country's parliament, the most free-wheeling in the Gulf, and serve in the police and military.
In nearby Sunni-ruled Bahrain, by contrast, Shiites make up the majority but have long complained of discrimination and a lack of political freedoms. Saudi Arabia's minority Shiites voice similar concerns, with sectarian tensions exacerbated by the kingdom's ongoing duel with regional rival Iran and its war against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels in Yemen.
The sectarian-charged conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq threaten to polarize Kuwait too. Private Sunni donors in the country have provided significant financial support to militant groups in Syria. Two Kuwaitis were sanctioned as terrorist supporters by the U.S. last year for collecting funds for the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria.
But a history of Sunni-Shiite cooperation and the shared experience of living through the Iraqi invasion help temper sectarian passions at home, said Sami al-Faraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies.
"We will always identify with the victims of attacks," he said. "We can feel for our Sunni or Shiite brothers (abroad) but we should not be torn inside Kuwait."
Kholoud al-Feeli, who lost her uncle in Friday's attack, is the daughter of a Shiite father and Sunni mother who were married decades ago at the home of the current emir, who was minister of foreign affairs at the time and knew the family.
She recalled being raised not to see sectarian differences, and hopes her country hangs on to the newfound spirit of unity.
"There is a realization that we are in danger. I hope this isn't a temporary honeymoon between Shiites and Sunnis," she said.
Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
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