A contentious battle over Kuwait’s reported role in terrorism finance is currently playing out in public. Earlier this year, the Kuwaiti Amir appointed a highly questionable figure to run his country’s Ministries of Justice and Islamic Affairs. Dr. Nayef al-Ajmi came under particular fire for anti-Semitic hate speech on television and for a misogynistic job posting indicating that women need not apply for a legal researcher position in his Justice Ministry.
But the controversy that appears to be pushing al-Ajmi from office was documented here at TNI in January. Al-Ajmi’s image or affiliation was apparently used by at least three different fundraising networks for posters, websites or social media in collecting money for radical Syrian opposition fighters. News reports even suggested that one of these networks might have been fundraising for Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate the Nusra Front.
The episode became particularly acute after the U.S. Treasury Department’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, gave a speech on March 4 calling Nayef al-Ajmi’s appointment “a step in the wrong direction.” Cohen said that al-Ajmi “has a history of promoting jihad in Syria” and that “his image has been featured on fundraising posters for a prominent al-Nusra Front financier.”
These allegations by a senior U.S. official set Kuwait’s political scene into turmoil. Supporters of al-Ajmi launched a counteroffensive,
Al-Ajmi also went on Kuwaiti television last week to publicly rebut the allegations against him in a special half hour interview. The embattled minister claimed that he withdrew his support for fundraising groups using his image that had shifted from purely humanitarian efforts to also arming Syrian rebels as soon as this shift came to his attention. He pointed to Twitter remarks he posted in September indicating that he would restrict his Syria fundraising support to a group called the Council of Supporters for the Syrian Revolution.
But al-Ajmi was on shaky ground. For one, a fundraising network run by another Kuwaiti cleric had been using Nayef al-Ajmi’s image for campaigns explicitly aimed at the Syrian battlefield for over three months before this Twitter announcement. That preacher continued to repost old fundraising fliers featuring al-Ajmi’s image after September without evident penalties for it.
Second, Nayef al-Ajmi indicated in September that he endorsed the Council of Supporters because he had “knowledge about all its aspects of exchanging money” and “because of my confidence in the actors which the Council supports.” However, the Council likewise appears to have raised money for armed groups for months, using posters that featured Nayef’s image as one of a handful of “the Council’s members.” Later in September, the Council was even thanked on YouTube by Syrian Islamist Zahran Alloush on behalf of both his militia at the time and Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi faction with Al Qaeda ties.
Third, as late as January, Nayef was listed as the spokesperson for an association of Kuwaiti preachers that had pledged its full Syria fundraising support in November for the “blessed union” of the Islamic Front, a merger of Syrian Islamist battalions that includes both Ahrar al-Sham and Alloush’s group.
Unable to put these questions to rest, Nayef al-Ajmi announced late last week that he had submitted his resignation in writing, claiming medical reasons. For the time being he is continuing to serve in office, but it is reasonable to conclude that he is on his way out.
The Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida reports that the minister’s resignation is merely being postponed until travel for additional medical tests, presumably as a justification for his release. Another local outlet, al-Seyassa,
Whatever happens to Nayef al-Ajmi, Kuwait will need to answer additional questions about allegations of terrorism finance. In his TV interview, al-Ajmi said he was proud that Kuwait has become the “Qibla” of relief efforts for the Syrian people, a Quranic term encapsulating Mecca’s role as a religious center of prayer for Muslims. However, Under Secretary Cohen characterizes Kuwait as a virtual Mecca not just for humanitarian relief but also for jihadist financiers, calling it “the epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria”.
Kuwaiti bundlers use social media and other methods to tap into a transnational community of donors who seek to support radical Syrian causes. The Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, a Kuwait-based charity that is tolerated by local authorities but has been blacklisted by the U.S. and the UN for providing material support to Al Qaeda, was a favored destination for Syria relief by an influential group of Saudi clerics in 2012. A Saudi preacher in Syria linked to Al Qaeda, Abdullah al-Muhaysini, has called for waging “jihad with your money,” publicly soliciting donations for arms to be channeled through telephone numbers in Kuwait and Qatar. Journalist Elizabeth Dickinson indicated in a report for the Brookings Institution that several of the Kuwaiti fundraising networks for Syria were dispatching envoys to raise money inside of Qatar.
Cohen revealed in his March speech that Kuwait has become a permissive fundraising jurisdiction for both Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Further, Kuwaiti financiers reportedly provided much of the start-up money that helped members of Syria’s hardline Islamic Front marginalize the Free Syrian Army.
For example, the Atlantic reported that “the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham” was “established with grants” from an individual named by Dickinson as a top leader in one of Kuwait’s Syria fundraising networks. It has since emerged that many of Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders were also longtime Al Qaeda veterans, including a man who was once Osama bin Laden’s trusted courier. All three of the controversial Syria fundraising networks described as linked to al-Ajmi have been accused of fundraising for Ahrar.
Kuwait even appears to have a terrorism-finance problem involving its Shiite neighbor across the water, Iran. For years, the U.S. Treasury Department has been raising concerns about a small but influential network of Al Qaeda officials permitted to operate in Iran. The leader of this group is a Kuwaiti national named Muhsin al-Fadhli, whom the Treasury Department warned has been “leveraging his extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors to send money to Syria via Turkey.” Al-Fadhli has a multimillion dollar U.S. bounty on his head and is considered responsible for a 2002 terrorist attack in Kuwait that killed one American marine and seriously injured another.
For years, Kuwait was the only monarchy in the Gulf that had not passed a law criminalizing terrorism finance. This was partly because Kuwait has the region’s most empowered parliament, so it must contend with domestic opposition for hot-button legislation from fundamentalist MPs. But a 2009 U.S. memo signed by Hillary Clinton indicated that the other main reason for this delay was Kuwait’s rulers were not trying particularly hard to get the bill passed.
Kuwait took a step in the right direction by passing this legislation a year ago, but the gesture’s credibility evaporated when al-Ajmi was put in a position of authority over the law’s implementation. Viewed in this context, it is no wonder that American officials were also concerned when al-Ajmi’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs announced that Kuwaiti mosques would open their doors to decentralized fundraising for Syria relief.
The news that Kuwait’s controversial minister is taking steps to depart after barely three months in office is a positive development. But the move will only be meaningful if Kuwait addresses the growing list of other concerns.
David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.