SNAPSHOT: Increased cultural awareness and heightened terrorism risk during Ramadan

On 6 May, over a billion Muslims are set to fast during the month of Ramadan. The month is set to bring heightened travel and security risks. 

KEY POINTS

  • Ramadan begins on 5 May and ends 4 June – although the dates vary slightly in some countries. Considered the most holy month in Islam, during Ramadan Muslims abstain from food, drink and sexual intercourse from sunrise until sunset.
  • The start and end of Ramadan may vary by one-two days depending on the country or sect due to the month being based on the lunar calendar and the sighting of a new moon. The start and end of the month is usually announced by an official religious body in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. In some instances, Muslims from other countries, such as Morocco, may not have the same start date and follow their own religious institutions instead. In Iran, where most Muslims tend to be of the Shia sect of Islam, the start of the month is determined by an official announcement by the Iranian government.
  • Muslims observing Ramadan are vulnerable to terrorist attacks when they gather in large numbers after sunset for street iftars – the meal to break their fast – and attend taraweeh night prayers.
  • In most MENA countries, the religious act of fasting is enforced publicly. Everyone, regardless of their faith, is expected to show respect and not to eat in public in daylight hours during Ramadan.
  • Businesses and services in Muslim-majority countries tend to scale back operations during Ramadan, with staff working fewer hours due to fatigue caused by fasting.

ANALYSIS

  • According to the Global Terrorism Database, the number of terrorist attacks in Muslim-majority countries tends to increase by seven per cent during the holy month. In 2017, the Islamic State extremist Islamist militant group (IS) targeted Iraqi government buildings and an ice-cream parlour in the capital Baghdad in improvised explosive device attacks, killing 31 worshippers. That year, attacks by Islamic State during Ramadan resulted in the deaths of more than 100 civilians in countries including Iran, Philippines, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
  • This year the threat has been heightened by the reappearance of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a video on 29 April – his first video appearance since 2014. With the loss of Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, al-Baghdadi used his pre-Ramadan address to urge followers worldwide to conduct terrorist attacks. According to Islamic teaching good deeds such as charity and prayer are amplified extolled during Ramadan, which Islamic State manipulates to fit its own perverted interpretation of Islam, exhorting followers to conduct attacks as ‘good deeds’.
  • Ramadan can also be a focal point for attacks on Muslims by right-wing extremists. In 2017, a far-right extremist drove a vehicle at worshippers leaving night prayers at Finsbury Park mosque in London, killing one person and injuring several others. This year, the risk is heightened. The gun attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, in which 50 people were killed, has raised the risk of copycat incidents.
  • Another factor driving the terrorism risk upward is the Easter Sunday suicide improvised explosive device attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, in which more than 250 people died. These attacks have been attributed to a local Islamist militant group and Islamic State, heightening the risk of reprisal attacks.
  • Over a recent six-week period in 2019, religious places of worship have become optimal terrorist targets for mass casualty attacks. Churches, mosques and synagogues have been targeted in terrorist, including in New Zealand (March), Sri Lanka (April) and US (April). In the US, the attack on the Chabad of Poway in San Diego was the second on a synagogue since the October 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
  • It is evident that places of worship are ideal soft target locations for religious terrorism. Several countries have already taken additional security precautions to protect places of worships and Islamic centres, which will last during the duration of the holy month.

RESPONSE

  • A2 Global advises business personnel attending mosques during Ramadan, and other individuals in the vicinity of mosques, to practise heightened situational awareness and report anything suspicious to the authorities.
  • Anticipate limited operating and business hours in the public and private sectors, and implement business continuity plans to minimise disruption.
  • Non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries are also advised to practice good cultural awareness and respect local customs and societal norms as best as possible.
  • Non-Muslim personnel are advised to eat behind closed doors during daylight hours. In many countries, including the United Arab Emirates, non-Muslims are permitted to eat during daylight hours in screened areas.
  • Personnel should expect all restaurants and other food dispensaries to be closed during daylight hours, so should ensure they have sufficient stocks.
  • Travellers in cities at night should expect traffic disruptions due to main roads being closed for the iftar evening meal, and large numbers of worshippers attending night prayers.
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