By Geoffrey Martin
Rai Insights Contributor
Kuwait: The liberation of Mosul by Iraqi coalition forces in June and the fifth and final phase for the battle of Raqqa spell the end of the Islamic State as a truly conventional force on the battlefield with territorial integrity around populated areas. Rising from the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq to becoming the ruler of much of northern Iraq and Eastern Syria, this rags to riches story ended in defeat as it often does. In many ways, it is not surprising that they failed. To rape and pillage the very population they were claiming they were “saving” clearly shows that this group had little real interest other than sowing chaos and reaping short term gains.
Now that Daesh is spent as a traditional army, it has quickly gone back to the insurgent and asymmetrical warfare tactics that made it such a cunning and elusive foe on the battlefield. Let’s make no mistakes here. Daesh fighters took on the most modern conventional military forces in the world and held on to territory for over five years. The lessons learned from their exploits will be talked about and dissected by aspiring jihadi groups and their foes for years to come.
Similar to the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the fallout from the return of jihadis to their home countries is always something to be concerned about. The chain of events that led to jihadi groups turning to Western targets instead of communist ones, the utter and complete incompetence of American responses to these groups and complete ignorance of their aims, and the post-September 11 nightmare of interventions in the Arab world required our continued vigilance and understanding to avoid more failures in the future.
The horrendous bombing of a mosque in downtown Kuwait in 2015 which claimed the lives of many innocent victims brought the conflict home to Kuwait and shocked all sects, nationals, and non-nationals. The response to the bombing was an outpouring of support and condemnation of an attack that was clearly against the peaceful stance of Islam, which decries all such violent acts.
Such attacks are very rare in Kuwait. The vigilance of the security forces in preventing further attacks, from both Sunni and Shia extremists is a demonstration of the capabilities of the government, which at times has not been given the credit that is due for maintaining a safe social environment in the midst of such turmoil in the region.
Heavy security around the Shia Ashura events has been very successful in ensuring attacks against the sectarian minority do not create retaliatory attacks, as we have seen in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province around Qatif in the last year.
There have also been near misses. In October 2016, a Daesh supporter rammed a U.S. army vehicle with a garbage truck loaded with explosives, although the military personnel ending up rescuing the would-be attacker from his burning vehicle before he was detained. Later that summer Kuwaiti security authorities reported breaking up three ISIS cells plotting attacks.
In April 2017, suspected member of ISIS confessed to planning attacks in Kuwait on U.S. military and Shia targets. Recently a cell of pro-Hezbollah supporters were in court to receive their sentences, after being caught planning attacks.
Kuwaiti courts have convicted numerous nationals and non-nationals in the country on charges of ISIS membership or financing of designated terrorist organizations.
The goals of these attacks, to destabilize the government and incite violence go against hundreds of years of history in which Kuwait was a safe (or at least stable place) for people from all religions, sects, and nationalities.
Just as important as a pro-active government policy has been the wider support among all communities to report and dampen the extremist sentiments that exist in all societies. Aside from a few notable characters, religious figures and important business and community leaders have all ensured that any word of potential radicalism is reported to the relevant authority. Many potential converts have been approached before they have made a decision to join a jihadi group and been convinced otherwise.
Daesh also undid itself in its recruitment campaigns for young Kuwaiti men. The amount of social media, YouTube videos, and Twitter accounts supporting Daesh was a boon for the group when it was making large gains in Syria and Iraq. Overtime this very public focus has been a double-edged sword as news of the slavery, drug and alcohol use, and un-Islamic behaviour has filtered back to the public community in Kuwait. Many potential members of these groups actually went to Iraq or Syria, only to find that the very movements that they were told were supposedly spreading Islamic values, were the very ones undermining it, and returned disillusioned and more likely to convince like-minded individuals not to be recruited.
Much of Kuwaiti society’s involvement has been in funding for Sunni groups in Syria and Iraq, among them is Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham, both fierce opponents of Daesh. In 2013 Kuwait was awash in fundraising efforts as it appeared that the Assad regime’s days were numbered. TV stations, websites, and social media were used to solicit publicly money for weapons and recruits for rebel groups. Many members of parliament were involved on both sides of the conflict. As the savagery of Daesh and other groups became apparent the wider community and the government cracked down, sacking the minister of Justice, Nayef Al-Ajmi (who was a sympathizer of Sunni rebels), and removed the citizenship of a number of well-known funders, most notably Nabil Al-Awadhi.
I would argue that the biggest change and lesson we should focus on after the defeat of Daesh will be how to deal with the root of the ideology behind the organization. Ideologies can survive, regardless of the destruction of any organization. Bringing order to the political arena, and strengthening broader representation of all faiths, and viewpoints, as is generally permitted in Kuwait is a key way to achieve this goal and neighbouring countries should follow their lessons.
* Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and currently is a visiting researcher at the American University in Kuwait. He currently resides in Kuwait.