Kuwait’s role as a launch-pad and base for US-led troops operating in Iraq is coming to haunt the Gulf emirate. A string of gun-battles between government troops and militants planning to target American troops in the country, as well as oil facilities, has pushed Kuwait closer to the brink. It has also focused attention on the fact that the kind of violence that has plaguedSaudi Arabia recently could spread to neighbouring countries.
The confrontations have included fatal shoot-outs between government forces and Islamic militant cells, including Saudi citizens. Even more worrying for the authorities is the location of a shoot-out on January 15 in which one Saudi gunman was killed and two Kuwaiti police officers sustained injuries: it took place in Umm al-Haiman, an area south of Kuwait City, only a few kilometers from Arifjan, where the largest US military base in Kuwait is. The area is also a hub of Kuwait’s oil industry: it has refineries, petrochemical complexes, export terminals and pipeline networks. The shootout in Umm al-Haiman happened five days after another clash in Maydan Hawalli, a residential and shopping district of Kuwait City, which left a suspect, Fawaz al-’Utaybi, who belonged to a group called al-Takfir wal-Hijra (“excommunication and migration”), and two security officers dead.
Kuwaiti security forces have in the past few weeks carried out a series of raids to round up militants, who government sources say were planning to launch attacks against Western targets, including American troops stationed in the country. Some forty suspects have been taken into custody, and large amounts of weapons and bomb-making materials have been seized. The Kuwaiti authorities say that they have broken up at least three cells of Islamic militants.
On February 8 the Kuwaiti interior ministry announced that one cell-leader, ‘Amer Khlaif al-Enezi, 29, who was arrested with two other suspects after a nine-hour shoot-out in a raid on January 31 in the al-Qurain region south of Kuwait City, had died of “heart failure” in prison. Enezi was an imam at the Malik bin ‘Awf mosque in Jahra, some 30 kilometers to the north ofKuwait City, and headed a cell named “Peninsula Lions”. He attended the College of Shari’ah and Islamic Studies at Kuwait University from 1994 to 1998. He was dismissed by the ministry of awqaf and Islamic affairs from his post as khatib because of his inflammatory diatribes against the US, the Kuwaiti government and ulama who disagree with his views. In October Enezi resigned from the Dar al-Qur’an, an institution dedicated to teaching the Qur’an to youngsters, and disappeared. He is believed to have spent the next two or three months in Iraq, where he joined anti-US salafi insurgents. He reappeared in Kuwait last month, and soon thereafter was identified by the authorities as one of three ring-leaders planning attacks against US forces and government targets. Since his death, a number of legislators and politicians have insinuated, explicitly or by innuendo, that he died of torture. The Ummah Party called on legislators to form a committee to investigate the circumstances surrounding his death.
Thirteen of the detained suspects were referred to public prosecutors for questioning about alleged links to groups affiliated to al-Qa’ida in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Authorities say that Nasser al-Enezi, ‘Amer’s brother, who was killed in the raid on January 31, was plotting to carry out attacks similar to those conducted by some salafi factions of the Iraqi resistance, including the abduction and execution of US soldiers and other Westerners, videotaping and broadcasting their executions, which is a tactic Nasser learned while fighting with the resistance in Iraq. Government sources say that Enezi’s group was plotting to use trucks that sell ice-cream and snacks for car-bomb attacks against American convoys travelling to Iraq.
Security measures have been also stepped up around vital oil installations. About 10,000 national guardsmen have been deployed around installations and embassies to secure them against attack. Checkpoints manned by police and national-guard officers totting machine-guns have become a routine sight on Kuwait’s streets. Armored vehicles have also been places at intersections.
The country’s parliament has also swung into action, passing a number of bills, including a Weapons Search and Seizure Act, a National Terrorism Strategy, and other legislation to crack down on funds allegedly paying for “terrorism.” In addition, the authorities have moved to close down unlicensed mosques. They have also begun to monitor internet and mobile communications; several websites that were advocating jihad have been blocked. On February 7 Hamed Khaja, undersecretary of the communications ministry, said: “A few weeks ago, we started to make a list of these sites, and yesterday we began to actually block them.” Newspapers that publish information about investigations into suspects or any unauthorized security information have been threatened with closure and the suspension of licenses.
In many ways, these recent developments are not surprising. Kuwait has a number of characteristics that make such developments likely and plausible. The presence of some 30,000 UStroops on Kuwaiti soil has always been a source of discomfort to the country’s influential, albeit deeply divided, Islamic movement, especially its salafi strands. The Kuwaiti government gave full support to the US-led invasion of Iraq, and allowed its territory to be used as a launch-pad for the invading forces. Since the end of the war in Iraq, Kuwait has been an important hub for the US’s forces. Moreover, the country’s geographic proximity to Iraq and Saudi Arabia makes Kuwait vulnerable to the effect of developments in those neighbouring countries.
It is believed that Saudi salafis linked to al-Qa’ida, and fleeing tough security measures in the kingdom, have joined forces with local salafis who have returned from fighting American forces in Iraq. Anti-government Saudi salafis have in recent weeks been fleeing to neighbouring Gulf countries, especially Kuwait. Another possible link between Kuwaiti and Saudi salafis emerged after Enezi’s arrest, when a group calling itself the Brigades of ‘Abd al-’Aziz al-Muqrin issued a statement vowing to continue the fight against the Kuwaiti government and the US. Last year Muqrin was for a little while al-Qa’ida’s leader in Saudi Arabia, before he was shot dead in a clash with Saudi police.
Like their counterparts elsewhere, Kuwaiti salafis have not advocated a radical programme of social reforms; instead; they have been concerned mainly with ethical issues. In fact, Kuwaiti salafis did not engage in social or political activities until the early nineteen-eighties, when they started to field candidates in parliamentary elections. They have also shown a tendency to fragment into splinter groups. In general, they tend to be of the “reformist” (islahi) type of salafis, who do not count violence as one of their modes of action. But recent developments in the region, especially the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the emergence of salafi factions as significant components of the Iraqi resistance, have transformed some parts of the Kuwaiti salafi movement into the militant, jihadi type.
The intent on the part of Kuwait’s jihadi salafis to attack oil installations in the country indicates at least a commonality of method with al-Qa’ida. In a taped message in December, Usama bin Laden called on his followers to attack oil installations in the Gulf and Iraq. Members of Kuwaiti salafi groups have long maintained links to al-Qa’ida. After the events of September 2001, a Kuwaiti salafi named Sulayman Abu Ghayth appeared as a spokesman for the al-Qa’ida network. On October 7, 2001, Abu Ghayth appeared in a videotaped message sitting next to Bin Laden and claiming that at least 20 Kuwaitis were members of al-Qa’ida. He also stated that al-Qa’ida was getting funds from a number of Gulf states, including Kuwait, whose authorities stripped him of his nationality and accused him of betraying his country. Abu Ghayth was well known among Kuwaiti salafis for his anti-government speeches. In 1994 he had travelled to Bosnia for two months to fight alongside Bosnian Muslims.
Kuwait’s jihadi salafis have so far demonstrated an interest in attacking Western targets in the emirate, rather than in directing their activities against the state. Unlike their Saudi counterparts, who have concentrated on overthrowing the royal family, toppling the ruling al-Sabah family has not been mentioned in their political discourse. But the frequency and scope of the recent clashes with government troops have escalated the confrontation from an isolated byproduct of simmering anti-American sentiment. In fact, the clashes might already herald a radical shift in their agenda, towards directing their wrath against the ruling family and the state.