The suicide attack carried out in a packed Shia mosque in the Sawaber area of Kuwait City during Ramadan (26 June 2015) shocked Kuwaiti society. A man, alleged by the Kuwaiti ministry of Interior to be a Saudi national who had arrived in Kuwait on the day of the attack, blew himself up, taking the lives of 26 worshippers.
Kuwaiti citizens and officials widely condemned the attack, describing it as a criminal, terrorist deed, threatening not only the Shia part of the population (about 30 percent) but also the national unity of Kuwait. Although tensions between Sunnis and Shiites have been rising in the region, Kuwaitis of the two sects have been living together in peace, and both sects are represented in government and parliament.
Responsibility for the attack was quickly claimed by al-Najd Province, an IS-affiliated group in Saudi Arabia. The suicide bomber, ‘Abu Sulaiman al-Muwahhad’, denounced the Shia of Kuwait as rawafid (people who reject legitimate religious authority) in a voice message posted on YouTube.
The group was also responsible for two attacks on Shia mosques in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in May 2015.
This recent attack, like the earlier ones, clearly targeted Shia Muslims, whom the extremist Islamic State regards as infidels. Kuwait’s large Shia minority was an easy target for the suicide bomber, so it is not surprising that the attack took place in Kuwait.
Authorities reportedly arrested those who assisted the perpetrator, including three bidoon (stateless persons) and one Kuwaiti, who, according to Kuwaiti authorities, subscribed to an “extremist and deviant ideology.” This indicates that a local network was in place to help the suicide bomber. Although the bomber was reportedly a Saudi national, supporting the claim that the attack came from ‘outside’, there are also local factors at play; among other things, Saudis and Kuwaitis share tribal and religious links.
Susceptible to unrest
The fact that three of the accomplices were bidoon indicates that part of the deprived bidoon population of Kuwait might be willing to carry out or at least support actions more serious than demonstrations.
The bombing has drawn attention to the problems faced by Kuwaiti society.
Lacking the rights to residence in Kuwait and to employment and other rights and benefits enjoyed by Kuwaiti citizens, bidoon have been protesting since 2011. Kuwait’s stateless population numbers at least 120,000, according to the web site Bedoon Rights. The government, which does not recognize the right of these residents to Kuwaiti nationality, claims that they lack the proper documents and that they have hidden their original identity documents issued by Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Iraq. Authorities have failed to grant rights to bidoon, even to those with legitimate demands. Protests by bidoon have been suppressed in the past.
The issue of the bidoon is therefore a lingering problem for the Kuwaiti authorities, leaving a frustrated part of the population susceptible to extremist ideologies.
The political opposition has been silenced. Its leader Musallam al-Barrak is in jail, and the government has failed to meet the demands of the opposition. This creates an atmosphere in which those on the fringes of society (both bidoon and Kuwaitis of tribal descent), in addition to dissatisfied youth, can fuel unrest and threaten stability, according to a Kuwaiti academic. The only way to avoid turmoil and protect Kuwait’s stability, he thinks, is to strengthen political rights and meet the opposition’s demands. The bombing has brought Kuwaitis together and might provide an opportunity for reconciliation.
The government has, however, so far failed to move towards such an understanding. In an attempt to safeguard Kuwait’s stability and security, authorities vowed to prosecute those responsible and strengthen counter-terrorism laws and give the security services more freedom to prosecute extremists in the country.
Wealthy individuals from Kuwait have reportedly been financing extremist groups in Syria. In May 2014, Kuwait’s justice minister Nayef al-Ajmi resigned after an undersecretary of the US Treasury accused him of calling for (violent) jihad in Syria and promoting the funding of terrorism. Al-Ajmi admitted he had taken part in fundraising campaigns for Syria but denied that they benefited terrorist groups.
Kuwait is one of the biggest donors to Syrian refugees but has struggled to control unofficial funding of Syrian opposition groups by private individuals. A number of Kuwaitis have joined al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (71, according to the Kuwaiti daily al-Qabas, citing a report by the Washington Post).
Kuwait had already toughened its counter-terrorism laws in order to curb financiers of extremism, under pressure from the United States, but this has led also to a crackdown on those calling for political reform and expressing their views on social media. Twitter users have been prosecuted for discussing issues such as local politics and Sunni/Shiite issues and for criticizing foreign leaders.
Verbal attacks on Kuwait’s Shiites were tolerated in the past, but voices countering these attacks have been suppressed. Hours after the attack, however, the Ministry of Information closed down the local al-Wesal TV channel for fuelling sectarian conflict. The channel had reportedly sent out tweets calling on Sunnis to attack Shia mosques.
If the new, tougher laws further limit the freedom of expression and other freedoms protected in the Kuwaiti constitution, it will be a cause of serious concern.