The young man landed before dawn at Kuwait’s gleaming international airport, authorities said — and within hours had carried out one of the deadliest acts of domestic terrorism to strike the normally tranquil Persian Gulf emirate.
Kuwaiti officials said Sunday that the suicide bomber who killed at least 27 worshipers at a Shiite Muslim mosque on Friday was Saudi Arabian, bringing a new level of disquiet to an episode that has already shaken the tiny state.
With it, Kuwaitis saw devastating proof that Sunni-Shiite rivalries that have roiled the Persian Gulf region were spilling across their borders. There was fresh anxiety over the radicalization of thousands of young men in next-door Saudi Arabia, and their evident willingness to carry out attacks in neighboring states where they could move freely.
And it was the latest demonstration of the lengthening reach of the Sunni Muslim militants of Islamic State, who have declared war on the Saudi monarchy that is the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites.
Kuwait’s hereditary emirs are Sunni, but it has a long tradition of peaceful coexistence between Sunnis and a sizable Shiite minority. After the mosque attack, Sunni religious leaders joined in an outpouring of mourning for those killed.
The bomber was identified by Kuwait’s Interior Ministry as Fahad Suleiman Abdulmohsen al-Gabbaa, born in 1992, the official news agency reported Sunday.
Chilling security recordings that had surfaced on social media showed the white-robed assailant taking a moment to gaze out at a crowd of up to 2,000 men, nearly all of them prostrated in mid-prayer, before blowing himself up.
In addition to those killed, more than 250 were wounded, and the interior of the landmark Imam Sadiq mosque was strewn with bloody debris and broken bodies. The attack’s symbolic significance was magnified by its taking place during the holy month of Ramadan, and at Friday noon prayers, the most important of the Muslim week.
Kuwaiti authorities also said Sunday that they had detained the driver of the vehicle that brought the attacker to the mosque. He was identified as a member of the country’s large and downtrodden stateless population known as bidoon.
The Interior Ministry said it was still investigating the plot surrounding the bombing, but described a suspected accomplice arrested earlier as involved in “deviant ideology” — a term generally used to characterize Islamist militancy. A government-linked newspaper said seven suspects were in custody, with a wave of arrests having begun Friday, hours after the blast.
The bombing was claimed by an affiliate of Islamic State calling itself Najd Province, a historical reference to the region surrounding the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Offshoots of the group generally assign themselves names affiliated with their geographic base.
The Sunni extremists of Islamic State consider Shiites to be heretics and have repeatedly called on followers to target them. Similar attacks have taken place at mosques in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen, where a Saudi-led Sunni military coalition has carried out more than three months of airstrikes targeting Shiite Muslim rebels known as Houthis.
Islamic State has urged stepped-up attacks during Ramadan, which began last week. The militant group also claimed responsibility for an assault Friday on a beach resort in Tunisia that left at least 38 people dead, most of them European tourists.
Times staff writer King reported from Cairo and special correspondent Hassan from Berlin.