Follow the Money: Kuwaiti donors funding extremist rebels in Syria

Published November 20th, 2013 - 05:41 GMT
Private Gulf money has been a major source of funding for extremist rebel groups like the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (File Archive/AFP)
Private Gulf money has been a major source of funding for extremist rebel groups like the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (File Archive/AFP)

Officials here disputed a news report alleging that donors in Kuwait are funding extremist Syrian rebels, but experts said the findings were unsurprising due to lax controls and steadily rising sentiment over the uprising.

Last week, The New York Times reported on the funding of rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad by private Kuwaiti donors, saying the transfer of millions of dollars in cash was contributing to the fracturing of the country and to the propping up of extremist elements.

“The report was unfair,” a senior official source in Kuwait told The Daily Star in response to a question on the report. “Kuwait will not allow itself to be used in a destabilization role.”

The source said that the Times’ report focused on the realm of private donations, which have posed a challenge throughout the world and are difficult to scrutinize, since individuals are allowed to travel with thousands of dollars in cash in their pockets.

He added that Kuwait had strict laws on donations by organizations, with intense scrutiny on foreign transfers to ensure that donations “go in the right direction.”

“We don’t accept that charity work is exploited for other reasons,” he said.

But he acknowledged the protracted conflict in Syria had inflamed the emotions of many people, prompting them to donate their own money to have an impact on the conflict, which has raged since 2011.

The source said that Kuwait respected freedom of speech but would issue a response to the Times story.

Kuwaiti news outlets reported on the story, with Kuwait Times, an English-language daily, republishing the Times’ article Thursday on its front page.

Annahar, another local daily, carried remarks by Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry undersecretary, Khaled al-Jarallah, who stressed that his country was cooperating with the US and the United Nations on the issue of regulating charities, saying that charity work in Kuwait was “above suspicion.”

While some donated funds might go to legitimate humanitarian causes, analysts and experts said the problem of terrorism financing in Kuwait had persisted despite measures passed in recent years to control money transfers. The country’s formidable Islamist current and the challenges of clamping down on smaller-scale private donors both play a role in the phenomenon.

“Kuwait has long been a problem,” said Matthew Levitt, a former U.S. Treasury Department official who worked on terrorism and financial intelligence and senior fellow and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In 2008, Levitt co-wrote a report on terrorism financing, which noted that Kuwait had made clear progress in tightening controls on religious donation drives.

But the report said that the prevalence of Islamist ideology in Kuwait led to official tolerance of some preaching and fundraising on behalf of jihadist causes abroad. Another problem, Levitt said, is that Kuwait does not require currency reporting when individuals exit the country, “making it easy to smuggle cash to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.”

In June 2008, the Treasury Department designated a Kuwait-based charity, the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, for its support to terrorist groups including Al-Qaeda.

The US and the UN have also increasingly been targeting Kuwaiti individuals for sanctions.

In January 2008, the UN added three Kuwaiti men to its list of individuals and entities tied to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, for offenses ranging from fatwas condoning 9/11 and suicide bombings to providing financial and logistical support to Al-Qaeda in Iraq and raising funds for terrorist organizations including Ansar al-Islam in Iraq and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, according to Levitt’s report.

Reports that donated funds are helping to finance extremists are “consistent with mounting signs that Kuwait is one of the major fundraising hubs for both Sunni and Shiite supporters of, respectively, the rebels and the Assad regime,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a Baker Institute fellow for Kuwait who has written extensively about Gulf politics.

“The fact that prominent public figures in Kuwait have been so outspoken in support of groups across the Syrian spectrum has itself strained sectarian relations within Kuwait.”

Ulrichsen said that Kuwait emerged as a hub for coordinating financial flows to rebel groups in Syria since it has more lax controls on transactions and charity work than Saudi Arabia or the UAE, which tightened their surveillance after the 9/11 attacks.

He said that it was difficult for Kuwait to stop citizens from providing cash to rebels through third parties, adding that the private nature of fund-raising, which takes place through tribal networks and other means, poses a challenge in Kuwait as well as the rest of the world.

Aymenn al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum who has written extensively on sectarianism and Syria’s rebels, also said the findings were not a surprise.

“Private Gulf money in general has long been suspected as a source of funding for groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Sham [Greater Syria],” he said, referring to the powerful Al-Qaeda-linked insurgent group known as ISIS.

Al-Tamimi has documented many of the expressions of solidarity with ISIS in the form of declarations of support in Saudi Arabia and other locations in the Gulf.

Al-Tamimi said that Kuwait in particular appeared to be a problem due to the prevalence of Islamist ideology among the wealthy. In addition, some Arab governments “turn a blind eye to an extent” to private donations as they try to prop up a Syrian rebellion that few states are willing to actively fund.

The impact in Syria, he continued, has meant greater financial influence for extremist groups such as ISIS, allowing them to establish urgently needed social services in towns and villages they control.

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