Since the 1970s, Kuwait has felt the strain of the struggle between the politically strong religious bloc and weak liberals. The resultant extremist pressure and influence has reigned amid an environment of tacit government support and limited resistance from moderates. The positive side of such extremism, however, was that it kept militancy at bay and spared Kuwait from terror attacks. Among the negative aspects was fact that the Kuwaiti government did not address the deeper roots of Islamic radicalism in their country.
Though there were militant attacks on U.S. soldiers during the build-up to the war in Iraq during late 2002 and early 2003, the government became proactive only after three teenagers were sent home from Damascus in July 2004 for trying to enter Iraq illegally, followed by the arrest of 14 extremists.  It was the first official acknowledgement that some Kuwaitis were ready to fight against foreign troops in Iraq – one that triggered an open debate on the degree of al-Qaeda’s ideological influence on Kuwaiti extremists and their social consequences.
Some argue that a part of the problem in Kuwait is the government’s own making. In encouraging radical movements to counter liberals clamoring for democracy, the government gave teeth to extremism.  The extremists are now demanding the implementation of Shari’ah as the only source of legislation by amending the Constitution, having already ensured gender segregation in university classrooms, banned public entertainment and denied political rights for women, despite deriving most of the support from them.  Equally important is the possible role of al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith, formerly a Kuwaiti who lost his citizenship in 2001 – a telephone recording of a conversation between Abu Ghaith and one of the detained suspects was reportedly seized during a raid in January. 
The militant side of extremism and al-Qaeda’s influence became more evident after the U.S.-led attack on Iraq in 2003 and Osama bin Laden’s call in December 2004 to target American interests in the region and regional oil installations. It reached a crisis after several pre-emptive raids on militant hideouts (which sparked at least five gun battles) during January-February this year revealed plans to target Kuwaiti security agency headquarters, U.S. installations and oil facilities. The ensuing battles resulted in the death of at least eight suspects and four police officers; at least 32 suspects – 17 of them Kuwaitis, including two women – are in detention, according to the justice minister. 
Based on the information provided by Amer Khlaif Al-Enezi, Kuwaitis launched a search for two more terror leaders – Khaled Al-Dousari and Mohsen Al-Fahdli. Al-Enezi, a preacher at a mosque in Jahra area, was arrested on January 31 and died in custody on February 8 due to “heart failure”. He was an active member of the Peninsula Lions terror cell and member of Takfir wal-Hijra (a radical movement founded in 1971 by former Muslim Brotherhood member Shukri Mustafa). Two other groups directly linked to Kuwait were identified as Mujahideen of Kuwait headed by Fahdli and an unnamed group commanded by Dousari and Ahmad Al-Mutairi. Among the other active organizations named were The Brigade of the Two Shrines, the Sharia Falcons Squadron, the Peninsula Lions Brigade and the Martyr Abdul Aziz Al-Muqrin Brigade, named after the al-Qaeda leader killed by Saudi forces in June 2004. 
Al-Enezi reportedly confessed that the group’s ultimate aim was to set up an “Islamic Emirate,” in Kuwait and he had enough explosives to wire 10 cars and explode them minutes apart to confuse authorities, and the priority was American targets. The group – including Al-Enezi’s brother Nasser Al-Enezi, who was killed in a clash on January 30 – trained on wiring cars in Iraq and made explosives in the Kuwaiti desert. Al-Enezi claimed that his group supported bin Laden in “expelling Americans from the (Arabian) peninsula,” and resigned from the Ministry of Awqaf (endowment) and Islamic Affairs in June 2004 to protest against the government’s objections to his sermon on the U.S.-led operations in Fallujah, Iraq. 
Nasser Al-Enezi’s alleged mission was “to kidnap U.S. soldiers and Western civilians and execute them and film the process.” He received instructions from “armed terrorist groups” in Iraq to plan the use of ice-cream trucks packed with explosives to attack U.S. military convoys on their way to Iraq from Kuwait. 
Mohsen Al-Fahdli – a Kuwaiti al-Qaeda suspect accused of enlisting youths to attack U.S. forces in Iraq – was arrested in January. He was being hunted since August 2004 for allegedly supporting bin Laden. Soon after, at least 10 suspects – whom the Commander of Kuwait’s National Guard identified as al-Qaeda members – were arrested. 
Fahdli and three other Kuwaitis – Maqboul Al-Maqboul, Mohammad Al-Mutairi and Adel Bou Haimed – will reappear before an appeals court to face accusations of belonging to al-Qaeda. They were first convicted for providing funds for jihadist activity in Iraq and undergoing military training in Afghanistan, but were cleared of the charges and their sentences for five-year jail terms overturned in April 2004. 
The move to appeal followed Fadhli’s designation as a supporter of terrorism by the U.S. Treasury Department in February 2005 and the freezing of his assets for providing financial and material support to the Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi network in Iraq and al-Qaeda. Fadhli and Dosari were seen as the leaders of two sleeper cells in the country. Fadhli served as a bodyguard and second in command to an al-Qaeda leader, as well as fighting against Russian forces in Chechnya where he trained in the use of firearms, anti-aircraft guns and explosives.  He was instrumental in raising funds in Kuwait to attack the French oil tanker the Limburg off the coast of Yemen in October 2002. Fadhli was also linked to an attack during the same time against U.S. Marines on the Kuwaiti Island of Failaka. 
Dousari, who is still at large, was a Corporal in the Kuwaiti Air Force. He had applied to join the Kuwaiti Armed Forces in 1991 and participated in the Al-Aghrar training program for three months before graduating and joining the Air Force as Lance Corporal. 
The Iraq factor
The proximity of the war zone has also had a telling impact on the spread of al-Qaeda’s influence in Kuwait. While the authorities admit to the death of two Kuwaitis in Iraq, some reports suggest that the number could be as high as 11 dead in suicide missions. When the U.S. launched air strikes on al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in Afghanistan, there were about 150 Kuwaitis in the training camps. While about 50 were killed, the remaining Kuwaiti mujahideen melted into the neighboring countries or found their way back into Kuwait. 
Zarqawi also instructed some Iraqi terrorist cells to move their operations to Kuwait and attack U.S. forces, their supply lines, and Kuwaiti government officials. 
Repercussions from the attack on the insurgents’ stronghold in Fallujah reverberated in Kuwait. Four Islamic groups – the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, the Scientific Salafis, and the pro-Iran Popular Islamic Alliance – issued a communiqué condemning the attack on Fallujah and calling for parliamentary condemnation of it. At the same time, tapes containing Zarqawi’s call to fight back were distributed anonymously in car parks during Friday prayers in some areas. 
Islamic websites were also flooded with reports on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. guards in Abu Ghraib, with many calling for revenge against the “new Crusaders”. A message on www.qal3ah.net by Kuwaiti Salafist leader Sheikh Hamed bin Abdallah al-Ali in May 2004 read: “The new conservatives, and particularly the gang of [U.S. President George W.] Bush, are enjoying the humiliation of the Muslims.”
The government used the January violence to enforce a series of legislative changes. A 1984 law banning women drivers from wearing a veil covering their faces was reactivated on the grounds that terrorists could use it to disguise themselves. Unlicensed mosques built without planning permission were demolished to root out hiding places for militants on the run and new laws were passed to search private homes for unlicensed arms. Extremist websites were shut down and strict vigil kept on mobile communications. Charity organizations were also warned to stick to the regulations or face legal action. 
In an effort to rid the education system of extremism, Kuwait – which took some precautionary measures in 2003 by removing a number of schoolteachers suspected of propagating extremist ideology – is also likely to see modified school textbooks and a new secondary grade system as early as 2005/06.
Extremism and militancy is likely to be more contained in Kuwait because the country has a wider degree of political openness. The political-religious groups could influence the militants to ease off because of the fear of losing their political base among the middle class, which doesn’t support violence as a means to achieve ends.  In fact, three Salafists have voiced plans to promote a multi-party state and establish their own political party called the Ummah (The Islamic Nation) Party to encourage elections as the legitimate means of power. The present crisis – with no overt attack by militants – may also strengthen the liberals, who won just three seats in the 2003 elections, and may force the government to rethink its political alignments.
Dr. N. Janardhan is the editor of Gulf in the Media at the Gulf Research Center, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
1. Arab Times, Kuwait, September 8, 2004.
2. See interview of former Kuwaiti oil minister Ali Al-Baghli – Arab Times, Kuwait, August 9, 2004.
3. Given their institutional and social strength, they have opposed the presence of American troops in Kuwait and their role in Iraq. The Islamists justify their demands by highlighting their popularity – they won at least 17 parliamentary seats in the 2003 elections, and the group belonging to the Islamic Union swept the polls with 4,466 votes in the 2004 elections of the executive members of the National Union of Kuwaiti Students.
4. Arab Times, January 18, 2005.
5. Khaleej Times, UAE, March 10, 2005.
6. Gulf News, UAE, February 12, 2005.
7. Arab Times, February 5, 2005.
8. Khaleej Times, February 6, 2005.
9. Arab Times, January 8 and 19, 2005.
10. Gulf News, March 16, 2005.
11. Another Kuwaiti, Ahmad Nasser Eid Abdullah Fajri Al-Al-Azmi – also known as Abu Zeid – was killed in a shootout in Ingushetia near Chechnya in 2000.
12. Gulf News, February 17, 2005.
13. Arab Times, February 12, 2005.
14. B. Raman, “Jihadi terrorism, from Iraq to Kuwait,” Asia Times Online, February 24, 2005.
15. Arab Times, February 13, 2005.
16. (Former Kuwaiti information minister) Saad Al-Ajmi, “Echoes of Fallujah resound in the Gulf,” Gulf News, November 26, 2004.
17. Kuwait Times, February 20, 2005.
18. Ahmed Bishara, a liberal who heads the National Democratic Movement, said: “There is an underground movement of jihadists that is indoctrinating and recruiting people” and contends that Kuwaiti fundamentalists who previously condoned the existence of militant groups are at the root of the problem (Arab Times, February 12, 2005); conservative member of parliament Walid Al-Tabtabai, known as the “Taliban’s agent in Kuwait”, said Muslims must fight with words, not weapons (Khaleej Times, January 19, 2005).