x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Kuwait's terror alarm goes off

The arrest of six alleged bomb plotters indicates that the country's and the Gulf's effort to curb terrorism is far from over.

George W Bush, the US president, addresses military personnel at the  camp.
George W Bush, the US president, addresses military personnel at the camp.

If things had gone according to plan, the attacks would have reduced parts of a large US military base, the state security building and "other important facilities" to piles of smouldering rubble. Instead, according to a vaguely worded ministry of interior statement, the al Qa'eda-inspired plot was thwarted and six of the would-be assailants were arrested. This aside, the Kuwaiti authorities have released scant details of what could have been this staunchly US-allied nation's first serious brush with terrorism in nearly four years, leading local media to speculate on how it could have happened.

What has emerged since the announcement of the arrests on Tuesday has also raised alarm that Kuwait's - and possibly the Gulf's - battle to stamp out Islamist militancy is far from over. All six suspects are Kuwaiti nationals, while five had previously been arrested, but later fined and released from prison, for taking part in a 2002 attack that killed one US soldier and wounded another. "Before the revelations of the plot, we had been saying that al Qa'eda and its reach was dwindling, especially in Iraq," said Abdullah al Shayji, a professor of international relations and political science at Kuwait University. "But, apparently, there are those who still ascribe to it here.

"This is opening up a lot of questions," he said. Five of the accused are cousins from the influential Kandari family, who were working as physicians or studying at prestigious institutions such as Kuwait University. One suspect's father, Jamal Kandari, is a prominent former parliamentarian and Muslim Brotherhood member. The lawyer representing the Kandari cousins, Adel Abdul Hadi, told The National that his clients had been charged with three counts of criminal intent, unauthorised training with illegal weapons and intent to inflict harm on friendly nations.

He has received little information about the case, in part because he has only been given access to one of the suspects. "Until now, the only substantiated evidence I have that links the defendants is that they are of the same family, but that doesn't mean they harbour terrorist aspirations." According to the ministry of interior, though, their intentions were clear: bomb America's largest military base in the region outside Iraq, Camp Arifjan, about 60 kilometres south of Kuwait City.

Local media reported that the smallest of Kuwait's three oil refineries, the Shuaiba plant, producing roughly 200,000 barrels a day, was also on their list of targets. Some of the attacks were to be fuelled by locally acquired chemical fertilisers, the English-language daily Kuwait Times reported on Thursday. Quoting anonymous officials, it said an "investigation revealed that a lorry loaded with explosives was to break into the camp while five other members of the cell would follow with an attack using machine guns and hand grenades in order to fight any military resistance".

What tipped authorities off were links discovered between a group of Bahraini, Syrian and Palestinians, one of whom, before the group's arrest by Bahraini authorities, had visited one of the six men, the paper said. "[Officials] said Bahrain's announcement about the arrest of the Bahraini and the break-up of the terror cell prompted the six Kuwaiti suspects to hide their weapons and documents," the newspaper reported.

It was too early to say whether the alleged plot was the result of foreign jihadis infiltrating the country, but there were indications it was more likely inspired by al Qa'eda than orchestrated by it, said Prof James Forest, the director of terrorism studies at the United States Military Academy. "This possibly signifies the strength of al Qa'eda's ideology, at least the anti-western/anti-US elements of it, more so than the strength of AQ as an organisation," he said.

"It's too early to tell whether this is a sleeper cell directly tied to AQ central, or if they are following more of a 'band of ideological brothers' model like we saw in Madrid, and to a lesser extent London." Given the setbacks that al Qa'eda have experienced in Afghanistan, Iraq and, most recently, Pakistan, it was possible that militants were looking for other locations from which to launch attacks.

"My hunch ? is that there might be some linkage between this cell and the bleed-out phenomenon we are seeing among foreign fighters leaving Iraq," said Prof Forest. "Either way, though, AQ would likely take credit for any attack that this cell was able to pull off. AQ members and followers are certainly in need of a morale boost these days." Mr Abdul Hadi declined to comment on when and where the five Kandari cousins were arrested, or whether they had confessed to the plot, as local media reported. But he described the client he had visited in prison as in "good condition".

In discussions with authorities on Thursday, though, Mr Abdul Hadi said he was told that the sixth suspect in the plot was apprehended about a week ago, interrogated, and then revealed the names of the five Kandari cousins as accomplices. The suspect, Abdul Aziz Qattam, born in 1987, is a former Kuwait University student who had recently transferred to study at a technical college. In his spare time he would hold social gatherings at his home, a popular form of networking in Kuwait known as a diwaniya, where he would host the Kandari cousins and people who Mr Abdul Hadi described as holding "extremist" views of Islam.

Asked why his clients were arrested, he said: "Qattam told authorities that they met in the same diwaniya and that they shared the same beliefs." It is these sort of gatherings that alarms Kuwaiti security services. In an interview with two officials at the ministry of information, who declined to be named because they were not authorised to discuss the issue, authorities had stepped up monitoring of "mukhayams", or camps, since the alleged plot was foiled.

Although typically associated with families who pitch tents in the desert to enjoy the balmy spring weather, radicals are also said to be holding similar gatherings to elude officials where they indoctrinate participants. "What to do? Big problem," said one ministry official as he mused over the influence of such groups. "They go out in the desert. They read the hadiths, the Quran. They don't let you listen to music," said Ali, 22, a western-dressed Kuwaiti who was studying history and political science at Kuwait University.

"You go to one of these camps and always you see a man leading it from Saudi [Arabia] or Egypt." Some extremists were discreetly recruiting students to the camps from the university, which already has a significant number of adherents to the more austere interpretations of salafism, he said: "They don't tell you out loud, they just text you - 'come to the desert today, meet us'." Meanwhile, in the court of public opinion, Mr Abdul Hadi expressed concern that his clients had already been pronounced guilty.

The Kandari cousins were arrested for their alleged part in an attack on US soldiers on Kuwait's Failaka island in October 2002. As well as killing a US marine, the shoot-out left two of the assailants dead, including a relative of the Kandari cousins, Anas Kandari. Mr Abdul Hadi was a member of the defence team that represented the Kandari cousins as well as the other 11 suspects, all of whom who he said were accused of providing indirect support in the attack.

"They were jailed for one year during the investigation," he said of the group of 16 suspects. "Technically they weren't directly involved. The charge against them was for being a member of a prohibited organisation." That particular charge was levied after it was discovered that some of the accused had travelled to Afghanistan, he said, leading authorities to believe they had trained at al Qa'eda camps before the US-led invasion in 2001.

While he did not deny that they travelled to Afghanistan before 2001, he said, "it's not proven that they trained with al Qa'eda". Until 2005, Kuwait was racked with Islamist-inspired violence. A group of Kuwaiti and Saudi radicals calling themselves the Peninsula Lions Brigades waged all-out street battles in 2005, killing scores of police and bystanders. At the time, there was concern authorities were not doing enough to address the issue of radicalism, particularly the firebrand style of Islam taught at religious schools. In 2007, four members of the Lions Brigade had their sentences commuted by a Kuwaiti court. All 16 of those arrested for the Failaka island attack were, after initially receiving sentences of between five and 10 years in prison, released, with some paying fines of 2,000 Kuwaiti Dinars (Dh25,420).

Since then, however, Kuwaiti authorities have launched programmes similar to those in Saudi Arabia that aim to de-radicalise militants. Saad al Ajmi, a former minister of information who heads an online publication, said the long standing allure of Islamist politics in Kuwait had begun to fade recently, noting the setbacks the two main Islamist groups suffered during the most recent parliamentary elections.

"The aura they had to attract people, the image that they were immune to criticism, that has changed because they've been doing politics for a long time and, now, people see them as who they are ? politicians," he said. "It's no longer taboo to criticise them anymore. There's a better understanding that carrying the banner of religious doesn't make you immune to criticism." But, he added, the recent incident "reminds us that terror is not over. We have to always be vigilant, on alert".