Jihadi terrorism, from Iraq to KuwaitIraq continues to be the main hub of jihadi activity, with a very high level of suicide terrorism indicating that there has been no weakening in the morale and motivation of the terrorists and resistance fighters. Nor has there been any noticeable improvement in the intelligence-collection capabilities of the US-led coalition, despite periodic claims of the capture of terrorists of various hues. In an insurgency-cum-terrorism affected situation, captured suspects are generally an important source of preventive intelligence, but apparently, despite such claimed captures, the US intelligence continues to grope in the dark about the plans and preparations of the terrorists and resistance fighters.
There are two striking aspects of the ground situation in Iraq. On the one hand, there has been a seemingly inexhaustible flow of volunteers from inside Iraq as well as from other countries - mainly Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Jordan and Pakistan - for suicide missions. On the other hand, despite the repeated attacks of the terrorists and resistance fighters on the newly-raised Iraqi police and other security forces, resulting in a very large number of casualties, there does not seem to be any shortage of volunteers joining these forces either.
One does not know how many of these volunteers joining the police and other security forces come from the Shi'ite and Kurdish areas, and how many from the Sunni triangle. Even assuming that the majority of the volunteers must be Shi'ites and Kurdish Sunnis, the fact that they have not let themselves be intimidated by the suicide attacks against the security forces is a positive factor in an otherwise bleak situation.
The terrorists owing allegiance to al-Qaeda of Iraq, Ansar-al-Sunnah and other organizations, who were focussing their attacks on the security forces and other public servants before the elections of January 30, have since turned their attention to the Shi'ites, particularly in Baghdad, killing over 60 of them in various suicide attacks since January 30.
Strict checks of motor vehicles by security forces has led the suicide bombers to resort to other means, such as carrying explosives on cycles or on their person. This is not the first time that there have been concentrated attacks on Shi'ite targets. Last year, too, there were such attacks, particularly around the day of observance of the Ashura by Shi'ites.
In Pakistan, which has had a long history with the Sunni-Shi'ite divide extending over 20 years, the rift gets sharpened around Ashura, with an increase in the number of attacks on Shi'ites by Sunni terrorists. Iraq, which had remained free of Shi'ite-Sunni violence under Saddam Hussein, who used to suppress the observance in public of Shi'ite as well as Sunni religious occasions with equal ruthlessness, has overtaken Pakistan in the sharpness of the sectarian divide.
In a message issued in the beginning of 2003, Osama bin Laden stressed the importance of the Shi'ites and the Sunnis of Iraq forgetting their sectarian differences and fighting jointly against the invading US forces. Subsequently, in their psychological warfare, the Americans had sought to project Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda of Iraq, as anti-Shi'ite. They even circulated a written message of dubious reliability purported to have been issued by him calling for attacks on Shi'ites. The leaders of the Shi'ite community themselves did not take the US allegations seriously, despite some targeted attacks on Shi'ites by terrorists of unknown origin, and did not allow the casualties suffered by the Shi'ites to lead to any acts of reprisals against Sunni Arabs.
It was announced last year that Zarqawi had accepted bin Laden's leadership, which, one imagined, meant that he would refrain from targeted attacks on Shi'ites. Do the post-January 30 attacks on the Shi'ites indicate any change in the policy of al-Qaeda? Are these merely ephemeral manifestations of anti-Shi'ite anger from the Sunnis, which one sees in Muslim countries such as Pakistan around Ashura? If so, will they die down once Ashura is over? Or are these deliberately planned acts of reprisals against Shi'ites for participating in large numbers in the elections? If so, will they continue even after Ashura? If that happens, will it lead to a parting of the ways between Shi'ites and Sunnis?
Available evidence does not permit clear-cut answers to these questions. While analyzing the growing political assertiveness of Shi'ites and the emergence of the United Iraqi Alliance of the Shi'ites as a party with a small absolute majority in the elections, it would be premature to view these trends as likely to lead to a growth in Iran's influence in Iraq. This need not necessarily happen.
The Arab identity of the Shi'ites, as well as the Sunnis, had remained strong in comparison to the Persian identity of Iranian Shi'ites, and during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s a large number of Iraqi Shi'ites, many of them occupying senior positions in the Iraqi armed forces, fought valiantly against the Iranian army and repulsed repeated efforts of Tehran to induce large-scale desertions. There is no reason to believe that the Arab identity of the Shi'ites has since been diluted and that they now think of themselves more as Shi'ites than Arabs. One should not be surprised if there is eventually a split among the Shi'ites themselves between those with a strong Persian identity following the guidance of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and those with a strong Arab identity following Muqtada al-Sadr.
Next to Iraq and Saudi Arabia, a country of growing concern in the so-called "war against terrorism" is Kuwait. Just as sections of Pakistani society became radicalized as a result of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, there are indications of a creeping radicalization of sections of Kuwaiti society as result of the jihad in Iraq, and there is every possibility of this spreading to Jordan.
Reports from reliable sources speak of dozens of Kuwaitis joining al-Qaeda in Iraq and fighting the US troops and the local security forces there. According to these sources, at least 11 Kuwaitis have died in suicide missions in Iraq, though the Kuwaiti authorities admit to the deaths of only two.
The growing concern of the Kuwaiti authorities over the emergence of religious and anti-American extremism in their society became evident last August when they set up a government committee to counter the spread of what they described as "deviant ideas". The Islamic Affairs minister, Abdullah al-Maatouk, announced the formation of the committee following the reported unearthing of a network that was recruiting volunteers to join al-Qaeda in Iraq. He stated at that time that extremist and deviant activities in Kuwait had reached a dangerous level. On February 6, he formed a panel of religious scholars and academics under the earlier committee to "strengthen moderate [Islamic] ideology and confront extremism". The Islamic news site Mufakkirat al-Islam reported on January 31 that about 17 religious clerics had been arrested for objectionable activities inside their mosques.
The formation of this panel followed a series of clashes and other incidents (at least five of them) between suspected terrorists and the local security forces in different parts of Kuwait since the beginning of this year. In these incidents, at least eight alleged terrorists were killed and 40 Kuwaiti, Saudi, Jordanian and other suspects arrested. Four police officers lost their lives. It has been reported that among those arrested three are women - two Kuwaitis and one non-Kuwaiti. One of the Kuwaitis is the wife of a cell leader and she was allegedly helping him prepare improvised explosive devices and the non-Kuwaiti was allegedly hiding a machine gun under her abaya, the traditional cloak for women.
Kuwaiti security forces killed five suspected al-Qaeda militants and captured three, including the group's leader, on January 31 following a gun battle, the fourth in January. A police officer died of injuries sustained in the clash. The terrorists were identified on the basis of information gathered during the interrogation of the captured terrorists, including Amer Khalef al-Enezi, the cell's suspected spiritual leader, who subsequently died in police custody allegedly due to a heart attack. The authorities were searching for two others - Kuwaitis Khaled al-Dosari and Mohsen al-Fadli.
Among others arrested for questioning was Osama al-Munawer, a Kuwaiti lawyer who represents Islamists in courts. On February 1, Kuwaiti parliament unanimously passed a law giving police wide powers to search and seize illegal weapons. The Interior Ministry banned veiled women from driving, to prevent terrorists from masquerading as women.
According to Agence France Press, the French news agency, Enezi had been a preacher at a mosque in Jahra, 40 kilometers northwest of Kuwait City, until he was dismissed a few months ago by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs because of his "extremist views". His younger brother and alleged right-hand man, Nasser, was reportedly killed on January 30 during another gun battle with security forces. According to Kuwaiti media reports, Enezi confessed during interrogation that his group had links with al- Qaeda and had planned to kidnap US soldiers and other Westerners and film their murders, and to attack US military convoys on their way to Iraq.
On February 5, the security forces blasted their way into a concrete block home at Sulaibiyah, about 18 kilometers west of Kuwait city, and captured five suspected terrorists who had taken shelter inside and were resisting arrest. According to police, two of the arrested men are Saudi citizens and the remaining three are Jordanians. However, the newspaper al-Rai al-Aam, quoting informed sources, said the men were stateless Arabs who recently obtained Saudi and Jordanian citizenship. There are about 100,000 stateless Arabs living in Kuwait, down from 250,000 before the 1990 Iraqi invasion. The government has introduced a series of tough measures to force them to reveal their original identity.
The newspaper al-Qabas reported on February 7 that the interrogation of the arrested persons indicated that they had contacts with Zarqawi, who had asked them to attack US military convoys in Kuwait. The local media quoted an Interior Ministry official as saying that the arrested suspects had confessed that they had planned to use ice-cream trucks packed with explosives to attack US military convoys traveling to Iraq.
What has been of great concern to the Kuwaiti authorities is the fact that some of the arrested terrorists had accomplices inside the Kuwaiti security forces and the civilian departments of the government, thereby indicating an as of yet unquantifiable penetration of the security forces and these departments by the terrorists. Some of the arrested suspects reportedly had fought against the Americans in Fallujah in Iraq.
It has been reported in the media that not all of the arrested suspects belonged to a single organization. During the interrogation, the names of a number of cells emerged, which were apparently operating independently of each other as has been happening in Iraq. Among these are: the Mujahideen of Kuwait, The Brigade of the Two Shrines, the Sharia Falcons Squadron, the Peninsula Lion Brigade and the Martyr Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin Brigade, apparently named after a leader of al-Qaeda in Peninsula's group, who was killed by Saudi security forces last June.
However, according to Kuwaiti authorities, three cells of al-Qaeda operated in Kuwait. The first cell called itself the Peninsula Lions and was led by Nasser Khalif al-Enezi (killed on January 30 ) and his brother Amer (died in police custody). The second was named the Kuwaiti Mujahideen and was headed by Mohsen al-Fahdli. The third, which did not have any name, was commanded by Khaled al-Dousari and Ahmad al-Mutairi.
Apparently helped by intelligence from the Americans, the Kuwaiti authorities acted promptly and ruthlessly neutralized the groups and individuals planning attacks on US military convoys to Iraq. However, it is by no means certain that the Americans and the Kuwaiti authorities have been able to establish the full extent of the inroads made by pro-al Qaeda elements in the local civil society and their penetration into the government, including the security forces.
Talking to senior newspaper editors on February 7 on the recent incidents involving terrorists in Kuwait, Kuwait's Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah warned that the Islamist violence, which had rocked the emirate since the beginning of the year, could spread to other oil-rich Gulf Arab states. "The government and the security forces have planned for a worst-case scenario," he said.
The previous day, the al-Rai al-Aam daily quoted a Kuwaiti Islamic Affairs Ministry official as saying that copies of an unlicensed book about jihad had been confiscated from mosques. The official did not say how many copies were found.
Kuwaitis and Pakistanis with Kuwaiti links have long played an important role in bin Laden's al-Qaeda and the International Islamic Front (IIF) formed by him in February 1998. Pakistanis Ramzi Yousef, who played an active role in the New York World Trade Center explosion of February, 1993, and is presently in jail in the US, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged brain behind the September 11 terrorist strikes in the US, both had a Kuwaiti connection and had played a role in the recruitment of Kuwaitis for al-Qaeda and the IIF.
On October 7, 2001, when the US started its air strikes on al-Qaeda infrastructure in Afghanistan, there were about 150 Kuwaitis in the training camps of al-Qaeda and the IIF. While about 50 reportedly died in the air strikes, the remaining fled into either Pakistan or Iran. Some of them went to Iraq after March 2003, while others managed to sneak back into Kuwait.
The spread of the jihad to Kuwait comes in the wake of repeated calls from bin Laden and his No 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri during the past two years for the spread of the jihad to the states in the region allegedly cooperating with the US in Iraq and for the use of the oil weapon.
Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis with a Kuwaiti connection allegedly involved with al-Qaeda who have come to notice in the past (collated from media reports):
B Raman is additional secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, government of India, and currently director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and distinguished fellow and convenor, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter. E-mail: [email protected].
(Copyright B Raman, 2005)