For Canadians living in the Persian Gulf, something about this story felt horribly familiar: Last Monday, someone wearing a niqab and flowing abaya walked into Abu Dhabi's Boutik Mall. The person walked into a public bathroom and waited. About an hour later, Ibolya Ryan, a 47-year-old American kindergarten teacher, walked into the same bathroom while her 11-year-old twin sons, Aidan and Adam, waited for her in a nearby coffee shop. Inside the bathroom, Ms. Ryan was stabbed to death.
On one level the attack seemed entirely random. The attacker apparently waited for more than an hour for the "right" victim to enter the washroom. On another, it was specific. According to Emirati authorities, Ms. Ryan was targeted based "on nationality alone."
In the United Arab Emirates, a country where such types of violent crime are exceedingly rare, her murder was especially chilling. For thousands of Canadians who live and work in the region, her killing held echoes of the recent deadly attacks on Canadian soldiers in Ottawa and St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. The Abu Dhabi incident also occurred just days after a group of supporters of Islamic State released a video claiming its members shot a Danish national in Saudi Arabia and less than two months after an American was shot dead at a petrol station in Jeddah.
The worry, of course, is that the attack on Ms. Ryan was somehow inspired by Islamic State, which issued a statement in September calling on its supporters to kill Westerners, especially citizens of countries that are part of the coalition fighting against it: "Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him," the statement by Abu Mohammed Al Adnani, the group's spokesman, said.
The UAE is a wealthy, oil-rich country with close military ties to Western powers. The United States recently issued a security warning against terrorist attacks on Western schools in the Middle East, citing an "anonymous" post on a jihadist website, which it said "encouraged attacks against American and other international schools in the Middle East, including Western teachers employed at these schools." Ms. Ryan, according to reports, was a teacher at a school near the mall where she was killed.
Emirati authorities were quick to act. Within two days, they arrested an Emirati woman and charged her with Ms. Ryan's murder. Investigators say the attacker they have in custody was motivated by "terrorist ideology" gleaned from the Internet. A security official said she acted alone. An Emirati government minister suggested the woman sought to create chaos and terrify the country's residents.
On that count, she appears to have succeeded. The UAE's booming, tax-free economies have lured hundreds of thousands of expats to the point that they outnumber Emiratis, who account for just 9 per cent of the population.
The crime rate in the UAE is extremely low. For residents, the country feels relatively safe, an island of calm in a conflict-ridden region. For years, the UAE has sought to project itself as a tolerant, modern Muslim country – a business and tourist destination for all Westerners. Ms. Ryan's murder is of particular concern to rulers because it shatters that image.
The truth is, the UAE is particularly vulnerable to an attack by Islamic State. The country has played a high-profile role in coalition air strikes against the terrorist group. Major Mariam Al-Mansouri, the UAE's first fighter pilot, led the Gulf state's bombing raids against targets in Syria. Its large population of Western expats also makes it a target for attacks.
Abu Dhabi's Interior Ministry went to great lengths to publicize its take-down of the murder suspect by releasing a professionally produced video that shows a group of heavily armed Emirati police raiding a villa, arresting the alleged attacker and confiscating materials the video suggests were for bomb-making. The entire video is set to the soundtrack of the Batman movie, The Dark Knight. The UAE wanted to send the message it was acting quickly and decisively in the face of terror.
Emirati authorities Saif Bin Sayed, the UAE's minister of interior called the murder "a slap to every noble human value that the UAE cherishes – which are derived from the teachings of Islam and the genuine Arab heritage."
All of this comes just a week before the six member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are due to meet in Doha for their annual summit. Five out of six GCC countries – the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait – are part of the military coalition fighting IS. (Oman, the other member of the GCC, is not). At the summit, they are expected to announce the launch of a joint military command based in Saudi Arabia to counter threats from Iran, Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
Bahrain's Foreign Minister, Sheik Khalid Al-Khalifa, told the Financial Times earlier this month that the new command would oversee defensive operations and co-ordinate with the GCC's naval command based in Bahrain and its air command in Saudi Arabia. Eventually, it would have several hundred thousand soldiers under its control.
The creation of the new joint command is politically symbolic: It shows the GCC has moved beyond a recent rift among member states that stemmed from Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region and resulted in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar for eight months.
But more importantly, it meant to project an image of unified military strength at a time when regional instability is threatening to pierce the GCC's peaceful image. Countries in the region are also taking other measures to bolster their military capabilities. The UAE and Qatar both recently introduced military conscription. Kuwait is pondering a similar move.
It's unclear whether any of that will be enough to assuage emerging fears among Westerners about their safety in this region. For Western expats living in the Persian Gulf, who've felt relatively insulated from the instability swirling at their doorstep, the threat of danger suddenly feels a little closer to home. As close, in fact, as their neighbourhood shopping mall.