Officials from over sixty countries gathered in Kuwait City yesterday for a United Nations donor conference, raising $1.4 billion in new humanitarian assistance for Syria. Yet Kuwait was arguably the wrong venue for this event, since the country seems to be backsliding on its commitments to fight terrorism finance and the exportation of violent extremism from its territory.
Indeed, as Kuwait seeks to position itself as a benefactor of the Syrian people, its willful negligence on these issues is starting to make the tiny Gulf emirate look responsible for some of Syria’s problems in the first place.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen has said that Kuwait “unfortunately continues to be a permissive environment for terrorist fundraising”. Reporting by the New York Times and Washington Post describes Kuwait as “a virtual Western Union” and “the Arab world’s main clearinghouse” for donations to fundamentalist Syrian rebels.
And in the latest sign of problems on this front, by royal decree Kuwait just appointed a religious hardliner to head two important ministries whose name should be setting off alarm bells abroad. The individual in question, a Salafist former MP named Nayef al-Ajmi, was sworn in by the Amir as Kuwait’s justice minister and minister of Islamic affairs and endowments on Tuesday, January 7.
Dr. Al-Ajmi is a polished young preacher who had been serving as an assistant dean at Kuwait University’s College of Sharia and Islamic Studies, and he has sat on the Sharia supervisory boards of numerous investment corporations based in the country. However, Al-Ajmi’s case also sits at the nexus of perhaps the worst irritant in Kuwait’s foreign relations: its exportation of violent religious extremism.
The problem is a longstanding one. A 2009 memo signed by Hillary Clinton described Kuwait as a “source of funds and a key transit point” for Al Qaeda but that the government in Kuwait City was “less inclined to take action against Kuwait-based financiers and facilitators” provided their plotting was focused abroad. The Kuwaiti government has refused to take action against a Kuwait-based relief organization called the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society since it was blacklisted by the UN over a decade ago for giving material support to Al Qaeda.
Which is where Kuwait’s new minister comes in. For one thing, he has propagated anti-Semitic hate speech on national television. In a sermon documented by the Middle East Media Research Institute, Al-Ajmi instructed his congregants that “our struggle with the Jews is one of faith, identity, and existence” since “the Jews of the past were evil, and the Jews of today are even worse. He proceeded to call the Jewish people “the scum of mankind... whom Allah transformed into pigs and apes”.
In addition, Al-Ajmi brings to his new offices a clear record of embracing jihadism in Syria. On Twitter, he has answered theological questions from the general public by ruling that “without a doubt” the struggle in Syria is “a legitimate jihad”.
Even since his political appointment, Al-Ajmi has remained listed as the official spokesperson for a Kuwaiti preachers’ organization, for whom he has apparently helped raise Syria funds. When several of the most extreme battalions in Syria united during November to form an Islamic Front that rejects human legislation in favor of divine law and advocates ethnic cleansing, this association announced its “complete support for this blessed union for the mujahid factions”.
Nayef al-Ajmi also seems to have been associated with a more virulent fundraising network operated by a fellow member of his clan, Shafi al-Ajmi. The latter al-Ajmi has implied that he supports slaughtering captured Shi’ite fighters, women, and children in Syria and had his preacher’s license suspended in August for radical invective on Syria and Egypt.
Human Rights Watch cited reports that Shafi al-Ajmi was a key donor to an operation on Syria’s western coast by Islamist members of the opposition (including Al Qaeda) that led to the mass execution of Alawite villagers, a probable war crime. Fliers for this fundraising effort featured Nayef al-Ajmi’s image as a prominent backer.
After Human Rights Watch’s report stirred up an international controversy, Nayef said he dissociated himself from the donor network, but Shafi has since continued to promote fundraising material featuring Nayef’s image without obvious consequences. Journalist Elizabeth Dickinson has written that Nayef himself made comments at the time suggesting he embraced the sectarian nature and aims of the coastal operation.
Subsequently, Nayef al-Ajmi claimed he exclusively endorsed another Kuwait-based fundraising network called the Council of Supporters for the Syrian Revolution, run by a firebrand former MP named Mohammed Hayef al-Mutairy. Mutairy is famous for seeking a fatwa to murder Syria’s ambassador to Kuwait back in 2011, and in 2013 he suggested kidnapping U.S. soldiers to trade for Kuwait’s remaining detainees at Guantanamo. As the country’s new justice minister, al-Ajmi could be responsible for handling judicial proceedings against these jihadists and evaluating their risk of recidivism should they be repatriated.
The Syrian groups funded by Mutairy’s network have included Ahrar al-Sham, which has intimately coordinated operations with Al Qaeda’s recognized affiliates in Syria. Further, it is now emerging that Ahrar’s own senior ranks are packed with longtime Qaeda operatives, including an influential founding member of Ahrar who answers to Ayman al-Zawahiri and was once Bin Laden’s trusted courier. A recent feature on the Syria conflict by Politico not only described Ahrar al-Sham as “ideologically close to Al Qaeda” but also “heavily financed by Kuwaiti clerics and sheikhs”.
Yet Al-Ajmi seems to project confidence in the work of Mutairy’s group. In September he announced that “I have limited my support for Syria to the Council of Supporters,” making it “the only actor through which I gather funds”. He justified this action “because of my knowledge about all its aspects of exchanging money and because of my confidence in the parties which the Council funds”.
As recently as last month, fundraising fliers for the group boasted of Nayef’s involvement as one of seven “Members of the Council”. Similarly, his relative Shafi’s network has reportedly raised money not just
Nayef Al-Ajmi’s appointment is a problem for Syria, for his homeland, and for the world at large. Within Syria’s rebellion, the trends he represents have undermined moderates in favor of religious radicals and fed a burgeoning foreign fighter problem that intelligence officials believe is setting the stage for extensive terrorist blowback in America and Europe, as well as the Gulf.
The sectarian hatred fueled by Al-Ajmi’s activities threatens to ignite Kuwait’s own fraught Sunni-Shi’ite divide and tarnish the country’s external reputation. Dickinson points out Kuwait only just criminalized terror finance last year; now putting Al-Ajmi in a position of authority for implementation saps the gesture of its credibility.
The country’s latest cabinet shuffle is likely to convince skeptics that Kuwait is still not serious about terror finance – that the regime itself is actually complicit in Syria’s trials and tribulations, not part of this tragic civil war’s ultimate resolution.
With the Kuwait City donor summit finally out of the way, world leaders can now focus on other critical issues in their relations with Kuwait. Their first order of business should be pressing the Amir and his new government to explain how exactly they intend to staunch the flow of violent extremism to Syria and beyond.
David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidAWeinberg.