Kuwait’s Al-Qabas newspaper reported this week that the government of Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah has rejected a request from the militant Islamic organization Hamas to open an office in Kuwait. While Kuwait has been a steadfast ally of the United States since the Gulf War, the fact that Hamas even filed such a public request is indicative of a changing political climate in the tiny, oil-rich emirate, a change that does not bode well for U.S. interests in the Gulf region.

What makes the Hamas request even more ominous, according to U.S. intelligence sources, is that Hamas is not the first of the Islamic organizations linked to terrorism to try for a foothold in Kuwait. Kuwait Hezbollah has been a going concern for some four years, despite the U.S. government’s refusal to acknowledge its existence.

Hezbollah, a militant Shia’a Muslim organization first established in Lebanon, said last month that being on a U.S. blacklist of organizations linked to terrorism was “a badge of honor.”

As early as 1997, U.S. intelligence agencies in Kuwait were monitoring the activities of a group of men considered to be the leaders of Kuwait Hezbollah. Among those leaders are Dr. Hassan Johar, an outspoken critic of the United States and a former member of the Kuwaiti parliament, and Abdulmohsen Jamal, a current member of parliament and a respected newspaper columnist given high marks by the U.S. Information Agency (USIA).

Johar was the subject of a diplomatic flap in the summer of 1997 when he traveled to Washington with a group of Kuwaiti legislators. Because of his connections to “terrorist” organizations, Johar, who teaches political science at Kuwait University, was banned from attending certain briefings conducted by the State Department and Department of Defense. While the story received little play in the U.S., the snub to Johar was followed closely by the Kuwaiti press. Upon his return, Johar made several speeches against the U.S. and was hosted by the Iranian ambassador, who also heavily criticized the U.S. The Kuwaiti government, which had been quietly supportive of Johar, was forced to jump into the fray and issued a statement denouncing the Iranian ambassador for “meddling” in internal Kuwaiti affairs.

During that fracas, American diplomats were instructed not to have contact with Johar and the other members of Kuwait Hezbollah’s inner circle. American civilians, who were already familiar with Johar and Jamal, were encouraged to step up their contacts and report any information gathered back to the embassy. As one embassy official said at the time, “We need to know what they’re thinking, but we can’t use our regular channels.”

Abdulmohsen Jamal is considered the “political leader” of the Hezbollah movement in Kuwait. A quiet, soft-spoken man, Jamal served one term in the legislature, sat out a term, and was re-elected in 1999 when Sheikh Jaber dissolved parliament and called for new elections. During his absence from political office, Jamal became a political columnist, writing for Al-Qabas and Al-Watan, another Arabic daily newspaper, and was frequently praised as a voice of moderation.

However, one CIA officer said that Jamal “wouldn’t go out and plant a bomb himself, but he wouldn’t blink an eye at a thousand dead Americans blown all over the desert.” That same officer also admitted that the U.S. government refuses to publicly acknowledge Kuwait Hezbollah’s existence. “It’s a public relations thing,” he said. “You can’t keep U.S. support for Kuwait high by tying Kuwaitis to terrorist organizations.” He also noted that the bulk of Kuwait Hezbollah members were of Iranian heritage or had strong ties to Iran. So well has Kuwait Hezbollah been hidden that other than a passing reference in a 1999 article in the Middle East Review of International Affairs, it has escaped notice in print media.

Jamal’s re-election is indicative of the rise of fundamentalists in Kuwait. While there has always been a significant percentage of Shia’a Muslims in Kuwait, the moderates held political control for many years, until the Gulf War.

But Kuwait’s ties to fundamentalism and terrorist organizations long predate the Gulf War. During the 1970s, when terrorist kingpin Osama bin Laden was a freedom fighter in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupiers, Kuwait provided a number of recruits and, it has been widely reported, the Kuwait office of Mercy International, a philanthropic, rescue/relief organization served as a funnel for arms and as a virtual travel agency for Arabs heading to Afghanistan, a role it also allegedly played later in Bosnia. Mercy International has had long-term ties to bin Laden.

Many of the so-called “Arab Afghans,” veterans of the Afghani war against the Soviets, returned to Kuwait and gravitated to the city of Al-Jahra, a short distance west of Kuwait City, effectively turning that area into a fundamentalist bastion.

When Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait, it was these same Kuwaitis who largely comprised the Kuwaiti Resistance. Their exploits during the occupation turned into victories at the ballot box as each successive parliament elected since the Gulf War has been more and more fundamentalist.

Kuwaiti enthusiasm for the Palestine Liberation Organization waned in the aftermath of the Gulf War (Arafat sided with Iraq). PLO headquarters in the Kuwait City suburb of Jabriya was systematically trashed and left vacant for years. As late as 1997, the building still showed signs of Kuwaiti wrath against the Palestinians, particularly Arafat, whose photographs on posters were defaced and trampled on the floors.

But in recent years the diplomatic freeze has thawed considerably, and with the renewal of Kuwaiti support for Palestinians and the increasing influence of fundamentalists, corresponding violence in Kuwait has risen accordingly. During 1997 and 1998, the Arab Times, an English language daily newspaper, reported on a series of flogging incidents in Kuwait, where Third Worlders were taken out into the desert by unidentified bands of fundamentalists and beaten for violations of Islamic law. Three other incidents are also worthy of note.

In early 1998, several off-duty police officers attacked the offices of a Kuwaiti Arabic-language newspaper. They objected to a cartoon that they said portrayed Islam in a negative manner.

According to Rachel Bronson, an Olin Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in November 2000, “two members of the Kuwaiti security apparatus were arrested for associating with elements close to Osama bin Laden and abetting a foiled attack on U.S. military assets in northern Kuwait, an incident that generally went unreported in the U.S.”

As recently as March 2001, Hidaya Sultan Al-Salem, the female editor of Al-Majales, one of the oldest political and social magazines in Kuwait, was shot by a lieutenant colonel from the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry. Although the officer claimed that he shot Al-Salem because she wrote defamatory stories about his family, the Associated Press reported that al-Salem had recently written “an open letter to the emir complaining that the police have been biased against her and claiming that they have either released or failed to take action against employees who had embezzled money from the magazine, attacked her in person, or sabotaged printing equipment.”

Disturbing though these incidents are by their sheer nature, the fact that Kuwaiti police and security officers are repeatedly involved deepens concerns about the societal changes occurring in our strongest Gulf ally. And with active Hezbollah members like Abdulmohsen Jamal sitting in the Kuwaiti parliament, calling fundamentalists to account for their excesses seems less and less a probability.

No one with experience in the Gulf region would argue that support of the Kuwaitis is not in the United States’ best interest. But, despite the U.S. government’s attempts to paint the public’s perception differently, when viewed in the greater middle Eastern context – the rise in fundamentalism in Kuwait and a commensurate rise in violence in the emirate, a growing rapprochement with the Palestinian community, the existence of Kuwait Hezbollah, and Hamas’ boldly public request for an official presence in Kuwait – the future of Kuwait-American relations does not seem as bright as it once did.

An experienced print journalist, Tony Hays lived in Kuwait for more than 3 years. In 1997-1998, he served as founding chairperson of the Overseas Security Advisory Council, Kuwait, a State Department-sponsored organization designed to bring together the various elements of the American expatriate community to assist the U.S. embassy with security-related issues.

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