Kuwait: Small Nation, Big Threat?

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By Akhil Shah
Washington DC –The terrorist bombing of the Imam Al-Sadiq Mosque in Kuwait City took the lives of at least twenty-six Kuwaiti worshipers. The Arabian Peninsula branch of ISIS has claimed responsibility, and has promised that more attacks are to come. This comes just weeks after scores of worshipers were killed in Saudi Arabia. There was no protection for the people and the attack should not come as a surprise. Last year, former Member of Parliament Khaled Al-Shatti wrote in the New York Times, that Kuwait was becoming a hot bed for the financing of terrorism. He asserted that, since 1990, Kuwait has been a center for the funding of, investment in, and key recruitment base of fundamentalist groups like Al Nusra Front, and more recently ISIS. This has been something the U.S. has recognized, designating several leading Kuwaiti citizens as leading financiers of terrorist activities. Despite this, Kuwait has continued to be a key state for extremist groups whose activities are allowed to flourish. Considering the U.S.-led coalition that helped liberate Kuwait in 1991 from Saddam Hussein’s army, the Kuwaiti government is fostering actions that hamper U.S. security interests. U.S. policy needs to be re-assessed to combat current Kuwaiti governmental behavior.

After he was elected to Parliament, Al-Shatti sought to push through an anti-terror financing law (2012) which, to this day, is yet to be implemented. Indeed, moderate voices like his are increasingly finding themselves imprisoned by the government, clearing the way for hardliners like Shafi Al-Ajmi to preach on behalf of terrorists. Al-Shatti is currently facing trial, with his crime being criticism of ISIS. In a number of tweets on May 25, he stated that the government had accused him of insulting a religious sect in ISIS. The decision from the Kuwaiti government legitimizes the Islamic State as a valid Islamic group, and paves the way for Kuwait, more than any GCC state, to be the leading center for terrorist financing and recruiting.

This is evidenced by the fact that men like Shafi Al-Ajmi are not imprisoned, but rather are free to live in society, in positions of importance. Al-Ajmi publicly stated that he wanted to personally slit the throats of Shi’a. Instead of sentencing this man for inciting hatred, and for threatening a religious group in the Shi’a, Kuwaiti officials are allowing this man to teach at Kuwait University. He is not alone. Kuwait has allowed funds to be raised publicly for terrorists fighting in Syria and Iraq. Despite this being public knowledge, Kuwaiti banks have not been investigated. They are seen as a critical source for financing terrorist operations. Recently the Wall Street Journal quoted a Western Diplomat (unnamed), who stated that state institutions had tightened things up considerably. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen. There are certainly high profile individuals who are funneling money to groups like IS and this has already been recognized within the United States government. At present, Kuwait has imprisoned more citizens for criticizing the government than for partaking in terrorist activities. Leading political activists such as Musallam Al-Barrak (former MP and opposition figure) and Rana Al-Sadoon (human rights activist) were prosecuted. Kuwait’s government has just arrested sixty men in connection with the attack on the mosque. The speed at which these men are put on trial will reflect the attitude of the government in tackling terrorism. If this attitude had been employed earlier, tragic events like the bombing may have been prevented.

Considering this, U.S. policy has to be re-evaluated in relation to Kuwait. American pressure successfully brought about the dismissal of Nayef Al-Ajmi, the former Minister of Endowment, in March 2014. He was the public face on posters used by Al Nusra Front, and had a clear history of promoting jihad in Syria. Outside of this singular example, current U.S. policy is not working. It is evident from the above example that the United States has the ability to take action against financiers of terrorism in Kuwait. It meets American interests to do so, not only to protect the troops stationed there, but also to prevent the U.S. becoming embroiled in another liberation of Kuwait. This is something that does not align with strategic interests, not to mention the fact that the U.S. will be fighting non-state actors whose level of violence outmatches that of any state.

Action must be taken now. The Kuwaiti government has clearly failed and cannot be relied upon to solve the issue. It is imperative to quash any movements to support terrorism in Kuwait. In order to do so, the United States should seek to cultivate relations with sources outside the government. By engaging with local Sunni and Shi’a scholars, tribal sheikhs and diwaniyas leaders (gatherings places for men), an opportunity may be created to help shape a narrative that is effective in helping Kuwait tackle terrorism. There also needs to be significant pressure applied upon the Kuwaiti government to force the implementation of a stronger anti-terror financing law. The United States must take action immediately to prevent Kuwait from sliding into an irreversible path. Protecting a key American investment is both logical and necessary.

Akhil Shah, Policy Analyst, Institute for Gulf Affairs

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