The bombings, which hit a car park near the sprawling mosque complex, were the latest in a run of attacks in the kingdom on Monday . They took place a day before the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
In the early hours of the day, Saudi officers foiled an attempted bombing near the US consulate in Jeddah, while a suicide bomber struck a mosque in the Shia-majority province of Qatif shortly before sunset.
Images circulated online showed smoke near the mosque, while a video showed two police officers lying near a car park with flames billowing nearby. Five people were wounded.
Every year millions of Muslim pilgrims from around the world visit the mosque, which was founded by Muhammad in the 7th century and contains his tomb as well as those of the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Omar. The adjacent grounds of al-Baqi’ contain the remains of many of the prophet’s companions, who were buried in Medina. The mosque complex is second only to the Grand Mosque in Mecca in its reverence by Sunnis and Shias.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but the bombings in Qatif and Jeddah were consistent with the modus operandi of Islamic State in its targeting of Shia Muslims and US representatives, as well as Saudi interests.
Altayeb Osama, a 25-year old Sudanese visitor to Medina and resident of Abu Dhabi, said he heard two large booms about a minute apart as he was heading toward the mosque for sunset prayers. “It was very shocking that such a thing happens in such a holy place for Muslims, the second holiest place in the world. That’s not an act that represents Islam.”
Local media say the attacker was intending to strike the mosque when it was crowded with thousands of worshippers gathered for the sunset prayer.
Over the past week, Isis has claimed responsibility for significant attacks in Baghdad, Istanbul and Dhaka, apparently looking beyond its strongholds in northern Iraq and Syria following repeated defeats on the battlefield. The group has urged attacks against the Saudi government on many occasions.
But the attack near one of the holiest sites in Islam is a major escalation in its campaign.
Iran on Tuesday condemned three suicide bombings that rocked its regional rival. “There are no more red lines left for terrorists to cross. Sunnis, Shias will both remain victims unless we stand united as one,” its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Twitter.