Around October 10, 680, following his defeat at the Battle of Karbala, Husayn ibn Ali was beheaded by the Umayyad caliphate, and his followers and family were killed or enslaved. Husayn’s execution is central to Shia Islamist theology. Each year, his death is recalled in a ceremony of mourning on the Day of Ashura (the tenth day of the month of Muharram, which this year falls on November 3).
While the majority of Muslims, Shia and Sunni alike, regard Husayn as a bold leader who suffered grave injustice, for adherents of the extremist veins of Salafi Islam, Husayn is a scourge against the ordained order. Believing Shias are apostates who must be subjugated, Takfiri groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda regard Husayn’s death as an everlasting call to arms: a reminder that their mission to purify the earth has not yet been completed.
And so, as we approach November 3, the Islamic State is looking toward Karbala. Home to one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites, the Shrine of Husayn, Karbala represents a mouthwatering target for an Islamic State that revels in its destruction of Shia holy sites. As I noted recently, the Islamic State’s battlefield strategy is evolving. Desperate for a regional sectarian war between Sunnis and Shia, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a.k.a. Caliph Ibrahim, is using car-bomb terrorism against Iraq’s Shia population. Karbala is a major target of these attacks. The self-declared caliph is focusing on these attacks for two simple reasons. First, with millions of Shia pilgrims traveling to Karbala for the run-up to Ashura and the 40 days of mourning that follow it, culminating in the Arbaeen, al-Baghdadi knows the highways leading to Karbala will be packed with potential corpses. Second, Iran is providing a complicating factor by sending troops to defend some Shia cities. Aware that he can’t overwhelm these cities with military force, al-Baghdadi seeks to repeat in Karbala what al-Qaeda in Iraq perpetrated in 2006, when it attacked the Shia al-Askari shrine in Samarra. That incident ignited sectarian bloodletting that cost thousands of lives while forcing Iraqis into a death choice of Shia vs. Sunni identity.
As if that weren’t bad enough, with Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, recently appearing on the ground in Karbala, Iran is clearly displacing the U.S.-led coalition as a shield against the Islamic State. Unfortunately, Iran carries a sword along with its shield. In short, Iran is using the growing Islamic State threat to blackmail and coerce Iraqi politicians into its corner: an ideologically anti-Sunni corner. In turn, recognizing Iran’s growing strength, its great Sunni adversary, Saudi Arabia, is intensifying its own anti-Shia sectarian agenda. The cycle of fear and violence is escalating.
If the Islamic State succeeds in launching a significant attack against Karbala in the coming days, the consequences will likely be severe. If such an attack occurs, Iran will probably unleash its own sectarian death squads against Sunnis. In turn, Iraq’s new government will find itself in the midst of a perfect storm, locked between the fanatics of al-Baghdadi and the fanatics of Ayatollah Khamenei.
And it isn’t just Iraq at stake. With sectarian tensions already exploding in Lebanon, there’s no telling where this storm might end.
— Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute, and tweets @TomRtweets.