Kuwait and the Islamic State

by Alex Stout and Giorgio Cafiero

Throughout the twenty-first century, the oil-rich Persian Gulf nation of Kuwait has enjoyed relative stability and security. This tranquility is largely attributable to the harmonious coexistence of Kuwait’s Sunnis and Shi’ites and the ruling monarchy’s accommodation of the latter. Indeed, the relatively positive relationship between the Al Sabah family and Kuwait’s 400,000 Shi’ite citizens contrasts significantly with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where sectarian problems have led to much violent unrest and harsh regime-led crackdowns in recent years.

However, Kuwait’s Sunni and Shi’ite citizens have not always been on the best terms. Throughout the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, many Kuwaiti Sunnis questioned the Shi’ite minority’s loyalty to the ruling monarchy. Security forces spied on and arrested a number of Kuwaiti Shi’ites for seemingly baseless reasons. Kuwait’s sectarian tensions eased significantly following Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The Persian Gulf nation’s Sunnis and Shi’ites—in abstractly viewing themselves as “one country/people”—maintained peaceful relations within Kuwait as sectarian temperatures rose steadily in many other Arab nations following Saddam’s fall from power and the subsequent expansion of Iran’s regional influence.

Today, Kuwait finds its own stability under threat, however, from the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in neighboring Iraq and Syria and its affiliates in the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As underscored by the June 26 suicide bombing, which killed 27 and injured 227 during Friday prayers in an historic Shi’ite mosque in Kuwait City, IS has demonstrated its ability to recruit Gulf Arabs to advance the group’s sectarian agenda in Kuwait and beyond. Ultimately, further terrorism against Kuwaiti Shi’ites has the potential to transform the Persian Gulf nation into a new sectarian flashpoint in the region.

IS in Kuwait

Following the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Salafists or Wahhabists (adherents to an ultra-orthodox branch of Sunni Islam) established a foothold in Kuwait and other Middle Eastern nations, filling the ideological vacuum left by the decline of secular and left-wing doctrines such as Arab nationalism and Nasserism. By the 1970s, Salafists had gained greater influence among Kuwait’s economic elite. Prominent merchant families adopted Salafist teachings. As these Salafists were reaping the economic rewards of the oil boom and becoming wealthy members of society, the perceived threats to the ruling Al Sabah family posed by the Iranian Revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood prompted the family to back Salafists in a divide-and-conquer strategy.

Over the years a broad range of Kuwaiti Salafists established vast networks of financial support for jihadist causes around the world. Kuwait’s role as a source of funding for certain terrorist networks has created tension with Washington, which has criticized Kuwait’s leadership for failing to crack down on such sponsorships. In May 2014, Kuwait’s former Justice and Islamic Affairs Minister Nayef al-Ajmi resigned from his position after U.S. Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen accused him of fundraising on behalf of al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra.

Although in September 2014 Kuwait joined the Washington-led military coalition against IS, making a rather logistical and mainly symbolic contribution, the group has nevertheless received substantial support from a number of wealthy Kuwaiti Salafists who support IS’s ideology and/or course of action fighting the Iraqi and Syrian regimes. That said, it would be inaccurate to describe Kuwaiti Salafist at large as IS supporters or overlook the fact that many Kuwaiti Salafists are non-violent and reject the self-proclaimed legitimacy of the “caliphate” across the border in Iraq.

The internal dynamics of Salafism in Kuwait are shaped by numerous divisions, especially between the “purist” and “activist” camps. The purists are basically apolitical and focus on the peaceful practice of religion on a daily basis. Activists (haraki), on the other hand, seek greater influence in political spheres. Some view violence as a legitimate means to this end. Some of these militant Salafist jihadists in Kuwait have fought in lands far beyond their nation’s borders such as Afghanistan and the Balkans, and more recently in Iraq and Syria. Although it’s not clear if any, or how many, of these extremists from Kuwait have played a role in the July 26 attack or other failed terrorist plots within the state of Kuwait, IS is certainly eyeing their potential.

Last November, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared in an audio recording that the “caliphate” had set its sights on the Gulf Arab monarchies and called on locals to rise up against their “apostate” and Western-backed monarchs. IS had previously released a map encompassing Kuwaiti territory in the so-called “Islamic State.” On June 26, the group made clear its intention to wreak havoc across Kuwait when a militant detonated his explosives-laden vest in an historic Shi’ite mosque in the capital, killing 27 and injuring 227. The attack, which marked the first act of Islamist-orchestrated violence in Kuwait since 1995, was carried out by a Saudi national from Najd Province (a Saudi Arabia-based IS unit), which immediately took to social media to claim responsibility for the suicide bombing.

The deadly attack served to expose cracks not only in Kuwait’s security apparatus, but also in that of the entire GCC. The suicide bomber flew out of Saudi Arabia, had a brief layover in Bahrain, and arrived in Kuwait City hours before detonating his vest in the Shi’ite mosque. That he was capable of flying under the radar of both Saudi and Bahraini authorities underscored IS’s ability to crack GCC security via its local networks. Most troublesome from Kuwait City’s perspective was the conclusion that, given the timing of the attack the terrorist must have had on-the-ground logistical support from locals. Experts contend that the number of IS affiliates in Kuwait is higher than previously thought. According to reports from GCC interlocutors, they utilize a wide array of social media platforms to report on the movement of security, police, and U.S. military forces and personnel within the country.

Will the Sectarian Balance Tip in Kuwait?

Ongoing armed conflicts and sectarian/ethnic strife continue to escalate across the Middle East, creating new threats for the Arab monarchies of the Western Persian Gulf. The June 26 attack demonstrated the fragility of Kuwait’s peace and its vulnerability to outside forces. Aside from the Shi’ite mosque suicide bombing attack, sectarian tension fueled by regional developments is growing in Kuwait’s political arena. The ongoing conflict in Yemen and the Shi’ite uprising in Bahrain have recently polarized members of Kuwait’s parliament. Shi’ite politicians are voicing opposition to their government’s role in “Operation Decisive Storm” and Kuwait’s alliance with Bahrain’s ruling monarchy. At the same time, certain Kuwaitis welcomed IS’s takeover of Mosul in 2014 as an act of “liberation,” which alarmed many Shi’ites.

IS’s meteoric rise to power in Iraq and Syria last year was a major game-changer in the region’s geopolitical order with all states, including Kuwait, facing new security dilemmas. The strategic shifts resulting from the watershed nuclear agreement that global powers and Tehran signed in Vienna over the summer will also impact Kuwait, situated between arch political rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. Like Oman, Kuwait eyes the opening of Iran’s economy as an opportunity to secure natural gas imports. The kingdom must be careful to balance an evolving relationship with Tehran against Kuwait City’s alignment with Riyadh on a host of regional issues, while protecting its Shi’ite citizens from IS’s agenda of spreading terror and destruction within the Gulf monarchies. Failure to achieve this balance may further divide Kuwaitis along sectarian lines, making the nation a ripe target for the extremist groups that thrive on such tensions.

As a close ally of the West, a partner in the U.S.-led military coalition against IS, and a home to nearly half a million Shi’ite Muslims, Kuwait is a logical destination for future IS plots, particularly in light of the group’s leaders issuing direct threats against the Arab monarchy. Kuwait prides itself on the peaceful coexistence of its Sunni and Shi’ite citizens. Yet, at this critical juncture in history Kuwait’s rulers are tasked with the challenge of protecting the country’s national fabric and the security of its citizens from IS and other extremist groups, which have demonstrated their commitment to exporting bigotry and bloodshed to new destinations.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.