Asim Qureshi, from human rights organisation ‘CAGE’, speaks during a news conference’ in central London, February 26, 2015. Toby Melville/Reuters
KUWAIT (Reuters) – Reports that Islamic State’s most notorious executioner was born on their soil have stirred deep unease among Kuwaitis about the vulnerability of their country to wars in nearby Iraq and Syria in which some of their Arab allies have become combatants.
People within the government and beyond are quick to point out that Mohammed Emwazi appears to have been radicalized in Britain, the country’s former colonial protector where he grew up as a citizen.
But he is not the first high profile anti-Western militant from Kuwait: Bin Laden’s al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was a citizen, the architect of the 9/11 attacks Khaled Sheikh Mohammed is believed by many to have been born there as was top Al Qaeda commander in Syria, Muhsin al-Fadhli.
“It’s always shocking to see revelations like this, and it’s unfortunately something no state can totally control. It tarnishes the reputation of the countries in which people like this were born,” Sheikh Mohammed al-Mubarak al-Sabah, a Kuwaiti government minister, told Reuters.
“But we could also logically flip the question around: does a person like (Emwazi) represent the true ideals of Britain as a whole? The answer is of course not,” he added.
Security officials acknowledge that youths from Gulf Arab states have trekked in their hundreds to fight for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a sign of the potency of the militant group’s declaration of a caliphate.
The identification of Emwazi as the masked man wielding a knife over Western hostages gives potential recruits a high profile personality with whom to identify and Kuwait’s role supporting the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State only increases the appeal for those who feel alienated at home.
The U.S. treasury last year described its ally Kuwait as an “epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria.”
Kuwaiti financiers—especially those following the strict Saudi-style Islam which some say has been on the rise in the country—sent funds openly to hardline factions for years. Officials and an international watchdog say the state has now tightened curbs on such financing, but Western concern lingers.
Scarred by Iraq’s 1990-91 occupation, and by a ringside seat at the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the state of 3.5 million, only 1.2 million of them Kuwaiti, is fixated on stability and survival and well aware of its dependence on outside powers.
An oil and investment power but a strategic minnow, Kuwait is hemmed in by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq – three big neighbors central to the security of the energy-rich region.
The country normally strives to adopt a conciliatory approach in foreign affairs, but is a willing supporter of U.S.-backed efforts to fight Islamic State, a position the Emwazi disclosures will likely reinforce.
Government officials say Kuwait has provided intelligence, funding and the use of airfields for attacks by some members of a Western-Arab coalition fighting Islamic State. Kuwaiti allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have gone further, actually taking part in air raids, using their own airfields.
The threat to Kuwaiti stability may come as much from within as from without, security officials worry, pointing to Islamic State’s ability to exploit sectarian and tribal faultlines in Arab society and its ambition to topple Gulf ruling dynasties.
Officials this week strove to distance Kuwait, the most politically open Gulf Arab society, from the extremist group.
“This family has no sympathy for (Islamic State) and they are like any other family living in Kuwait. Islamic State has nothing to do with Kuwait and Kuwait has nothing to do with them,” Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Khaled al-Jarallah said.
The struggle for ideas and power at stake in the war against Islamic State is vented in rare full view here, where pluralistic traditions include a lively parliament, outspoken press and a busy intellectual life.
One of the chief criticisms is the view the war ignores, and even helps, the rise of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria, fuelling the appeal of radical groups like Islamic State among Gulf Sunnis.
Prominent Kuwaitis say the experience of Iraqi occupation in 1990-91 and the country’s U.S.-led liberation mean that there are limits to how anti-Western their fellow-citizens could be.
“I believe there is kind of a popular consensus on the role of outside powers in the defense of this country. Nobody wants a recurrence of 1990, when we found ourselves alone,” said Sami al-Faraj, an advisor to the Gulf Cooperation Council said.
But not everyone agrees fighting Islamic State on foreign battlefields is the right thing to do.
Osama al-Munawer, a former member of parliament who follows Sunni Islam’s conservative Salafi school, scrolled through lurid pictures on his smart phone of children slain in fighting outside the Syrian capital by, he said, Iranian-backed militias.
“Kuwait’s participation in the war (against Islamic State) is a mistake,” he said. “We should help the moderate opposition, and not ignore our greatest danger: Iran’s aggression.”