The developments in Kuwait reported in the last issue of Terrorism Focus have accelerated. Following the arrest of high ranking officers in the Kuwaiti army on suspicion of planning terrorist acts against American targets, two policemen were shot dead in the Hawalli suburb of Kuwait City on January 10. This occurred during a pursuit of wanted terrorist Fawaz al-Otaibi, where a fugitive militant was also killed according to the authorities. This was followed five days later by a shootout at Umm al-Haiman near the border with Saudi Arabia, resulting in a suspected militant killed and another arrested. The dead militant turned out to be a Saudi national.
Details on the events not provided by the government were supplied by Islamist radicals on the jihadist website Muntada al-Ansar al-Islami. Here, according to the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Seyassah, a group calling itself the “Mujahideen of Kuwait” claimed responsibility for the January 15 incident, and detailed how it had followed a raid by the Fawaz al-Otaibi group on a military base. The operation had “resulted in the death of two Kuwaiti soldiers and three American soldiers.” The statement also claimed that the group had captured and killed a South Korean soldier, and had dragged his corpse around the military base, just before decamping to Umm al-Haiman where the confrontation with the security forces took place. However, both the Korean and U.S. embassies have so far denied that such an attack took place (www.alseyassah.com).
The implications for Westerners, particularly U.S. citizens, are clear enough. Kuwait is home to some 25,000 American soldiers and 12,500 U.S. citizens, alongside around 9,000 Europeans and 1,000 Australians. Since mid-December the U.S. embassy had been warning Americans in the emirate of rising sympathies among Kuwaiti youth (which did not experience the 1990 occupation by Saddam Hussein’s troops) for the aims of Bin Laden and the radical mujahideen. It also warned of developing plans for random attacks on Westerners, including a specific threat of drive-by shootings from a “black sedan car”. The latest incidents have confirmed that the threat has increased: at least six militants escaped the Umm al-Haiman gunfight, and there is no way of knowing what effect the arrests of suspects, which include Saudi nationals, will have.
The series of events, including the implication, for the first time, of Kuwaiti armed forces in attacks on U.S. military targets and the gun battles with mujahideen, give a wholly new dimension to security fears in the emirate. Former information and oil minister Sheikh Saud Nasser al-Sabah, was quoted in Al-Siyassah newspaper that “sleeping cells” of extremist groups existed in the country’s security agencies, and warned that “more of these cells in the future” would be uncovered. The presence, in particular, of a Saudi national among the militants, also gives the firmest indication yet of al-Qaeda’s efforts to expand its activities beyond Iraq and Saudi Arabia (on the al-Ma’sada jihadist forum a group signing itself “al-Qaeda'”posted on January 17 a eulogistic poem on the raid (www.alm2sda.net)). Kuwaitis have already been identified as participating in the Iraqi theatre, and latest reports from Kuwait identify the assailants as a combination of Saudi fugitives and returned Kuwaiti mujahideen from Fallujah. As in Saudi Arabia, and potentially for all the Gulf states, the specter of returning mujahideen carries with it particular anxieties, especially, as the January 15 attack showed, a new militant leadership and organizational structure already appear to have been formed in Kuwait.