Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric and dozens of al-Qaida members on Saturday, signalling it would not tolerate attacks, whether committed by Sunni jihadists or minority Shiites, and stirring sectarian anger across the region.
Hundreds of Shiite Muslims marched through the Qatif district of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province in protest at the execution of cleric Nimr al-Nimr, an eyewitness said. They chanted “down with the Al Saud,” the name of the ruling Saudi royal family.
Nimr, the most vocal critic of the ruling Al Saud among the Shiite minority, had come to be seen as a leader of the sect’s younger activists, who rejected the quiet approach of older community leaders for failing to achieve equality with Sunnis.
Four of those executed, including Nimr, were Shiites accused of involvement in shooting policemen. But most of the 47 killed in the kingdom’s biggest mass execution for decades were Sunnis convicted of al-Qaida attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago.
The executions took place in 12 cities in Saudi Arabia, four prisons using firing squads and other methods. In December, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula threatened to retaliate against Saudi Arabia for any execution of its members.
Riyadh’s main regional rival Iran and its Shiite allies immediately reacted with vigorous condemnation of the execution of Nimr, threatening Saudi Arabia and the Al Saud with severe repercussions, in protests ranging as far afield as India.
However, the executions seemed mostly aimed at discouraging Saudis from jihadism after bombings and shootings by Sunni terrorists in Saudi Arabia over the past year killed dozens and Islamic State called on followers there to stage attacks.
Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family has grown increasingly nervous in recent years as Middle East turmoil, especially in Syria and Iraq, has empowered Sunni terrorists seeking to bring it down and given room to Shiite Iran to spread its influence.
The simultaneous execution of 47 people – 45 Saudis, one Egytian and a man from Chad – was the biggest mass execution for security offences in Saudi Arabia since the 1980 killing of 63 jihadist rebels who seized Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979.
The 43 Sunni jihadists executed on Saturday, including several prominent al-Qaida leaders and ideologues, were convicted for attacks on Western compounds, government buildings and diplomatic missions that killed hundreds from 2003-06.
The four Shiites were convicted of involvement in shootings and petrol bomb attacks that killed several police during anti-government protests from 2011-13 in which over 20 members of the minority sect were also shot dead by the authorities.
Under Saudi Arabia’s reading of Islamic Sharia law, such attacks are interpreted as “banditry”, carrying an automatic sentence of death followed by public display of bodies on gibbets.
Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s top religious authority, praised the executions as “just.”
Most jihadist groups follow a radical interpretation of the Salafi branch of Islam, the strict Sunni Muslim school that was developed in Saudi Arabia and is still followed by its clergy; but they have long regarded Riyadh as an enemy.
Government-appointed clerics have for years denounced al-Qaida and Islamic State as religious “deviants,” while the government has cracked down on jihadists at home, squeezed their funding streams abroad and stopped them travelling to fight.
However, critics of the Al Saud ruling family say it has not done enough to tackle sectarian intolerance, hatred of infidels and praise for the principles of violent jihad propagated by Saudi clerics, which they see as contributing to militancy.
Mustafa Alani, a security analyst close to the Interior Ministry, commented: “There is a huge popular pressure on the government to punish those people. It included all the leaders of al-Qaida, all the ones responsible for shedding blood. It sends a message.”
Analysts have speculated that the execution of the four Shiites was partly to demonstrate to Saudi Arabia’s majority Sunni Muslims that the government did not differentiate between political violence committed by members of the two sects.
Human rights groups have consistently attacked the kingdom’s judicial process as unfair, pointing to accusations that confessions have been secured under torture and that defendants in court have been denied access to lawyers.
Riyadh denies torture and says its judiciary is independent.
Family members of the executed Shiites have vigorously denied they were involved in attacks and said they were only peaceful protesters against sectarian discrimination in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
The cleric’s brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, said he hoped any response in Qatif would be peaceful, but activists said new protests were possible.
The executions are Saudi Arabia’s first in 2016. At least 157 people were put to death last year, a big increase from the 90 people killed in 2014.