National Security & Defense

ISIS Attacks Shia Shrine of Mohammed’s Granddaughter

Aftermath of the bombing in Sayyida Zeinab, January 31, 2016. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty)

‘You can still smell a very strange mixture, I think perhaps of blood and fruit, on the site of the explosion.” So said Rami Ruhayem, a BBC correspondent at the scene of Saturday’s attack near Damascus.

Yesterday, ISIS attacked Shia worshippers near the Zaynab bint Ali shrine in a Damascus suburb. At least 60 people in a market and adjacent military office were killed. But this attack has special significance because the shrine pays respect to Zaynab bint Ali, one of Mohammed’s granddaughters. Zaynab bint Ali is revered by Shia Muslims for her role in the seventh-century battle of Karbala, where she courageously saved her nephew’s life and thus preserved Mohammed’s bloodline. Zaynab bint Ali’s shrine was always a prime ISIS target — it marked the Shia suffering at Karbala and encouraged Sunni Muslims to view Shia Muslims as parasitical usurpers of Islam. But the shrine was also a strategic target. Hatred of Shia Muslims is one of the motivations of ISIS’s escalating global war of purification.

This attack holds special strategic importance because of the special reverence that Shia Muslims give to Zaynab bint Ali and because the area is home to Shia militia bases. Personal sacrifice and pious martyrdom are defining tenets of Shia theology. While ISIS has long been obsessed with anti-Shia rhetoric and violence, its escalating action here suggests they wish to further inflame sectarian conflict.

RELATED: ISIS Attacks Jakarta, Again Proving Its Reach

Lebanon is right in the middle of ISIS’s crosshairs. The Islamists have long wanted to destabilize the Mediterranean state, and they understand that Lebanon has long been politically volatile. With the Lebanese Hezbollah under major pressure owing to its support for Assad, ISIS senses an opportunity to send Lebanon into a new civil war. Remember, ISIS aims to destroy civil society globally and plant its nihilism in the ashes of human despair.

#share#But ISIS also has another motivation here: Iran. As Twitter analyst Beyond the Levant has pointed out, Iran “will become a larger target for ISIS the more [ISIS] get squeezed.” If ISIS molests Shia civilians and their faith in physical and symbolic ways — thereby attacking Iranian interests — Iran may well retaliate by further terrorizing Sunni civilians across the Middle East. Or so ISIS hopes. Such terror might force hedging Sunnis to abandon political moderation and instead pledge fealty to ISIS.

RELATED: Iraq: Beyond Shia vs. Sunni

While ISIS has been devoted to committing violence against Shia Muslims, the ultimate inspiration for Saturday’s attack was probably al-Qaeda in Iraq’s 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq. After all, that incident helped push Iraq into an abyss of sectarian bloodletting.

#related#This attack comes at a terrible time. With the Geneva peace talks (focused on resolving the Syrian Civil War) now defined by American impotence against Russia, moderate Sunni-rebel groups face an increasing risk of being absorbed by ISIS. The Obama administration needs to recognize that the Middle East is teetering on the precipice of regional war. More specifically, President Obama must embrace untapped opportunities — such as providing food to Syrians being deliberately starved by ISIS — to strengthen the anti-ISIS coalition and force Iran and Russia into serious compromises. Only that path — military pressure and serious compromise — will bring Syria back from the extremists and into the hands of a messy, but salvageable peace. Absent that course, Syria will collapse under the self-propelling chaos of Sunni–Shia political sectarianism. And chaos, as proved by Paris, has no frontier.

— Tom Rogan writes for National Review Online and Opportunity Lives. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRtweets. His homepage is

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


The Latest