The ISIS Caliphate and the Churches

By: Alberto M. Fernandez*\MEMRI


The destruction by the entity known as the Islamic State (ISIS) in August 2015, of the over-1,500-year-old Syrian Catholic Monastery of Mar Elian, in Qaryatain, Syria – and of the even older ruins of the Temple of Ba’al Shameen at Palmyra – attracted worldwide condemnation and, as ISIS probably intended, considerable media attention.[1]
Churches, monasteries, and synagogues existed from the very first caliphate of Abu Bakr in 632 all the way through to the abolishment of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924. Sometimes favored, often persecuted, Christian communities existed and even flourished all throughout that period from the time of the Righteously Guided Caliphs[2] that ISIS claims to follow and revere.
The relationship between Salafi jihadists groups and local Christian populations has been a complicated one. While Al-Qaeda has always exhorted jihadis to keep their focus on their main enemy in the U.S., local groups have often targeted religious minorities. Some of the Egyptian jihadist groups of the 1970s which eventually became part of Al-Qaeda focused particularly on killing and robbing Coptic Christians, and gave justifications for doing so that were very similar to those that ISIS would later use.[3]
Still, as recently as September 2013, Al-Qaeda’s Al-Sahab Media issued a document titled “General Guidelines for Jihad,” in English, Arabic, and Urdu, which called for focusing on terrorism against the Crusader West but also for avoiding “meddling with Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities living in Muslim lands.”[4] Interestingly, it also called for avoiding “fighting the deviant sects such as Rawafidh [pejorative term for Shi’a], Ismailis, Qadianis, and deviant Sufis, except if they fight the Ahl Al-Sunnah.” Of course, these guidelines were often ignored by Al-Qaeda franchises, and by September 2013, Al-Qaeda and ISIS had broken off relations and gone their separate ways.
Islamic State “Abolishes” Pact of Omar
Al-Qaeda in Iraq and its successor the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) directed most of their sectarian focus on the Shi’a; however, as early as March 2007, the State’s proto-caliph, “Commander of the Faithful” Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi (Hamid Al-Zawi) described Christians as fair game:
“We find that the sects of the People of the Book and others from the Sabians and so in the State of Islam today are people of war who qualify for no protection, for they have transgressed against whatever they agreed to in many countless ways, and if they want peace and security then they must start a new era with the State of Islam according to (Caliph) Omar’s stipulations [the historic “Covenant” of Caliph Omar with Christians] that they have annulled.”[5]
As Iraq scholar Nibras Kazimi has noted, this first Al-Baghdadi laid claim to authority based on the implementation of an aggressive Salafi agenda which claimed to have transformed Iraq, in 2007, into “one of the greatest nations on the face of the earth in maintaining monotheism, for there is no polytheistic Sufism being propagated, or shrines being visited, or innovated festivals being celebrated, or candles being lit, or a pilgrimage being made to a pagan totem, for the people of Iraq have destroyed these shrines with their own hands so that Allah will be worshiped alone.”[6] Here then is the vividly illustrated Salafi agenda that ISIS would implement in Syria and Iraq as it took advantage of anarchy and dysfunction in large parts of both states.
Islamic State statements also blamed Arab Christians for promoting the concept of Arabism at the expense of Islam, an ironic charge given the claims about the role of Iraqi Baathists in the organization.[7] Arab nationalism is, of course, a principle tenet of Ba’athism. Some months after that announcement, gunmen killed Chaldean Catholic priest Ragheed Aziz Ghanni and three of his deacons in Mosul after they refused to either close their church or convert to Islam. In February 2008, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Msgr. Paulos Faraj Rahho was kidnapped and killed by Islamic State gunmen.[8]
The general atmosphere of violence and insecurity in Iraq after the 2003 invasion meant that individuals of all faiths were kidnapped and killed, sometimes for motives that seemed less than clear. But Iraqi Christian sites were targeted early on, with six churches in Baghdad and Mosul attacked with car bombs in August 2004.[9]
ISI suffered major personnel losses in April 2010, which led to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (Ibrahim Al-Badri) taking over in May 2010. The new leader had an even more extensive Salafi pedigree than his predecessor, with an extended family with deep regional Salafi ties extending into Saudi Arabia’s own Salafi religious elite.[10]
On October 31, 2010, the Islamic State of Iraq launched its bloodiest, highest-profile attack on a Christian target to date, killing at least 50 worshippers during a Mass at the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of Sayyidat Al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) in Baghdad. According to eyewitnesses, the gunmen made at least four claims for the killings, two general and two specific: all of the Christians were infidels; it is permitted to kill them; the killing was in retaliation for the burning of a Koran by an American pastor, and was also in retaliation for the alleged imprisonment of two supposed Muslim women converts in Egypt.[11]
The ISI statement issued a few days later by the Ansar Al-Mujahideen forum, in the name of ISI’s Al-Furqan Media Foundation, tied the attack, which may have been intended initially to be a hostage taking, not to the U.S. military presence in Iraq, nor even to the Koran burning – but to an Islamist-generated controversy involving two Coptic women in Egypt, Kamilia Shahada and Wafaa Constantine.[12] ISI promised death to Christians in Iraq, Egypt, and Syria and throughout the region in return for this perceived wrong. Why Iraqi Uniate Catholics should deserve death for the actions of Egyptian Coptic Orthodox – actions which did not result in death of anyone – is never explained.
In the Egyptian Islamist narrative, these two were women who left Christianity for Islam, and who were then forcibly handed back to the Coptic Orthodox Church and their Christian husbands. The fact that both women eventually made public statements noting that they had never converted to Islam and that they wished to remain Christians seemed immaterial to an Egyptian and regional Islamist blogosphere that bitterly thought otherwise.[13] The narrative feeds into a long-standing rich vein of anti-Coptic hysteria among Islamists, often involving women and sex, that has frequently led to violence in Egypt.[14] With advances in media outreach, such hatred has gone viral.
Raqqa and Mosul as Test Cases
The Islamic State of Iraq now went through of period of seeming eclipse and startling revival, which saw it gain strength through Iraq and eventually expand into Syria, taking the major city of Raqqa from other Syrian rebel factions and its rivals in Al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Al-Nusra (JN) in May 2013. Raqqa traditionally had a small Christian community and they had been cowed by the rebel presence. While churches had been closed, Nusra and company had essentially left the remaining Christians alone. This changed, with the much more rigorous ISIS (the “S” having been added in 2013) defacing churches and burning Bibles.[15] Long-term Syria resident Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, the Jesuit priest associated with Mar Musa al-Habashi Monastery in Eastern Homs, was also kidnapped in ISIS-ruled Raqqa and remains missing to this day.[16]
After burning Christian books, destroying churches, and kidnapping priests in Raqqa in 2013, ISIS then publicized, in February 2014, a new dhimmi pact with Christians in Raqqa State. The announcement received considerable attention in international media, but there is little evidence that there was much of a Christian community to form the pact with. Although the agreement includes the standard language of “not building a church, monastery or monk’s hermitage,” there is no evidence that any existing churches actually remained open or in Christian hands, much less that anyone would want to build any. Indeed, there are no images whatsoever of what could be described as normal Christian life in ISIS-controlled territory – no functioning churches, no monasteries or working priests, and no Christian families or Christian schools – all of which had existed throughout Islamic history.
The pact seems more aspirational, and more about preparing the stage for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s assuming the mantle of the Caliph, which happened only four months later, than a real document regulating the life of an actual community.[17] Just as the Caliph Omar in the 7th century produced an agreement to regulate the life of a protected minority, so would the Caliph-in-Waiting do the same. The only thing missing were actual Christians.
The next milestone in ISIS-Christian relations is a well-known one: the extinction of the ancient Christian presence in the city of Mosul after its fall in June 2014. In what ISIS supporters would portray as an act of great mercy, the remaining Christian population was graciously allowed to depart with only the clothes on their backs, on July 19, 2014. Although Saudi ISIS cleric Abu Malik Anas Al-Nashwan would contrast the foolish actions of the Mosul Christians to the right choice of those of Raqqa, any reasonable observer would say that subsequent events have proved the Mosulis right. The extinguishing of Christian Mosul would be followed by an ISIS military advance in early August 2014 against the historic Christian villages of the Nineveh plain, with the entire population fleeing deeper into Kurdish-held territory.[18] As in Mosul and Raqqa, churches and Christian symbols in this area, some of them dating back to before the rise of Islam, were defaced or destroyed as representations of polytheism (shirk).
Improvising in Libya, Taking Hostages in Syria
The anarchy in still another Arab state, Libya, would give ISIS a new front for actions against Christians and, again, with justifications that seem to be only loosely tied to those usually drawn by ISIS Salafis from the formative period of Islam. Twenty-one hostages, 20 of them Coptic Christians, are beheaded on a Libyan beach in a highly orchestrated media production. As far as religious reasoning, there seemed to be none. It was done “in revenge for Kamilia and her sisters,” without explaining how killing 21 unconnected men is revenge for a woman who is still alive.[19]
The ISIS spokesman in the video also reminds viewers that “recently you’ve seen us on the hills of Al-Sham [Greater Syria] and on Dabeq’s Plain, chopping off the heads that had been carrying the cross delusion for a long time.” This would seem to be a reference to a series of much-publicized beheadings from August 2014 to January 2015, of three Americans, two Britons, and two Japanese, many of whom if not all, according to ISIS supporters, had converted to Islam in captivity. Certainly, none of these foreigners were presented as being beheaded because they had remained Christians and refused to convert to Islam.
Certainly ISIS has killed many Muslims, even beheaded them, but the Salafi justification for beheading Western captives who convert seems to be missing.[20] The standard narrative would be that if they converted, they would be seen as joining the ranks of Islam and their lives would have been spared. In terms of coverage, certainly, ISIS media is rife with Western converts to Islam and their stories. Middle East Christian captives who convert seem to be far rarer.[21] One could say that in the eyes of ISIS there are different types of “unbelief” and the rules, if there are any, that apply to some local Christians do not apply to some citizens of the “Crusader” countries.
An ISIS offensive in neighboring Syria added a new dimension to ISIS’s confessional relations, when some 230 Assyrian Christian civilians were taken hostage in late February 2015, when several of their villages on the Khabour River in Al-Hasakeh were overrun. Over the next six months, a handful of the hostages, all elderly or sick, were released in dribs and drabs. About 190 are still being held, many of them women and children. Given the ISIS propensity for media coverage, this particular issue has been surprisingly muted, being treated more like a traditional hostage-taking for money than another triumph of jihad.
The next ISIS action was very much a media operation intended to attract attention. On March 19, 2015, ISIS released images showing them blowing up the ancient Syrian Catholic Monastery of Mar Behnam, near Mosul. The destruction of Mar Behnam and, in August 2015, of Mar Elian Monastery in Syria show how ISIS glibly adjusts its rhetoric to suit its goals. Both monasteries were so old and established as to have been in place before the arrival of the first Muslims, which means that they had been spared by every Caliph who had ever ruled over these lands. Both monasteries had been in use. The Mar Behnam monks were expelled at gunpoint.[22] The two at Mar Elian were kidnapped in May 2015 and are still unaccounted for.[23]
The history of Islam’s interaction with Christian monks is a complex one, from the Koran on, but it is certainly not one of unrelieved hostility.[24] It would have been easy for ISIS to spare the monasteries and even the monks, thereby emulating traditions dating back to the Salaf and the Sahaba. But they chose to follow a more recent Salafi tradition, one especially put into practice by the Wahhabis of the late 18th and early 19th century, who zealously went about demolishing any semblance of shirk, such as the shrines of Sufi saints, or destroying the Islamic holy sites and indeed, many of the inhabitants, of the city of Kerbala.[25]
Sincerely Salafi But Looking for Clickbait
The next ISIS action involving Christians is perhaps the clearest demonstration of the essential nature of the organization: deeply and self-consciously Salafi in orientation but also ready to ruthlessly innovate for the sake of its own internal logic and for the sake of publicity. On April 19, 2015, ISIS released a video showing the killing of 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya. While media outlets focused on the final two minutes which showed the killings, most of the video was a detailed exposition by a senior ISIS cleric, the Saudi Abu Malik Al-Tamimi, on how Christians are to be treated – jizya poll tax, conversion to Islam, or death – and the detailed rules for paying the jizya.[26] The video also fleetingly shows a handful of old men, supposedly in Raqqa, supposedly living as dhimmis, “protected” Christians who pay the jizya as part of a pact with the Islamic State.
The dissonance comes in with the killings at the end. Given the subject matter of most of the video and ISIS’s own internal logic, did the Ethiopians actually refuse to pay jizya? Wouldn’t they, as poor people, actually be exempt from paying, as traditionally women, children, slaves, the blind, the insane, monks and the destitute were exempt?[27] And why were they killed, except that they belong to the “hostile Ethiopian Church?” And given the historic practice of jizya, aren’t the ISIS actions themselves an abhorrent innovation (bid’ah) of the practice rather than a slavish Salafi following of early Islamic tradition?
The idea that ISIS are takfiri Salafi jihadists who are also making things up as they go along was underscored by their actions in an early August 2015 offensive in Eastern Homs, Syria. Overrunning the town of Al-Qaryatain, the organization seems to have taken hundreds of hostages with at least 60 Christians.[28] The Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese suggested the number of Christian hostages could be as high as 227.[29] In contrast to the very public expulsion and despoiling of the Mosul Christians, ISIS now seems to have decided, as in the case of the Khabour hostages, that there is value in holding on to these people as hostages and perhaps using them as bargaining chips or sources of income. Again, as in the case of the Khabour Christians, the ISIS media is surprisingly silent on the matter to date.
This overview of ISIS relations with local Christians from the time of the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq to today shows a variety of public stances by the group. The specious justifications of ISI, the 2006-2010 Iraqi terrorist group, have given way to a more expansive vision, as the group truly became a terrorist “state.” ISIS is not the first entity to declare itself a Caliphate, but it seems to be the first Salafi Caliphate, and most of its actions fall within the scope of that worldview. This is why some of its actions – such as the destruction of churches and monasteries, and for that matter destroying surviving ruins from antiquity – make perfect sense within the Salafi context, even if they are actually not consistent with actual practice during the formative period of Islam.[30]
The same is true with the imposing of the jizya, which seems more a Salafi Caliphate publicity stunt than a careful recreation of jizya as practiced by the early Caliphs. There is no evidence of one open church or monastery in ISIS-controlled territory or of any sort of normal life by any religious minority within its boundaries. This reality underscores how similar the ISIS state is not to the sprawling pluralistic caliphates of history but to the monochrome, expansionist idol-breaking Emirate of Diriyah (1744-1818), the so-called first Saudi state, that was eventually destroyed by the Ottoman Empire and its surrogate in Khedival Egypt.
Any perceived differences from early Islam are examples of how ISIS “modifies its religious and political doctrines when they get in the way” of its principal aim which is establishing this “ultra-conservative Islamic state at all costs.”[31] The Al-Baghdadi Caliphate is reading from a Salafi manual drawn from early Islam, but is also busily writing emendations in the margins. So ISIS is many things, but is also a modern gloss on a Salafi interpretation of the formative period of Islam. As Edgar Allen Poe might say, it is a “dream within a dream.” For anyone not like them, it is a nightmare.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of MEMRI.

[1] See MEMRI JTTM report ISIS Destroys Ancient Monastery In Homs, August 20, 2015.
[2] “Al-Rashidun,” the first four Caliphs – Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman, and Ali Ibn Abi Talib – who ruled from 632 to 661 A.D., the formative period of Islam after the death of Muhammad.
[3] Gilles Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt, The Prophet and Pharaoh (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
[4], accessed August 27, 2015.
[5], March 14, 2007.
[6], April 17, 2007.
[7], July 1, 2008.
[8], May 18, 2008.
[9], August 1, 2004.
[10], March 13, 2015.
[11], November 1, 2010.
[13] February 16, 2015.
[14] Alberto M. Fernandez, “In the Year of the Martyrs: Anti-Coptic Violence in Egypt, 1988-1993,” paper presented at the Middle East Studies Association Annual Meeting, San Francisco, California, November 18-20, 2001.
[15], December 8, 2013.
[16], June 10, 2014.
[17], February 26, 2014.
[18], August 7, 2014.
[19] Ahramonline, February 15, 2015.
[20], February 21, 2015. .
[21] MEMRI TV Clip No. 4842, ISIS Presents Conversion to Islam of Christian Captured in Syria, March 23, 2015.
[22], July 21, 2014.
[23], May 22, 2015.
[24], Bulletin of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies
6, no. 2 (Autumn/Winter 2004).
[25], August 2014.
[26] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.5872, Senior Saudi Salafi Cleric: ‘ISIS Is A True Product Of Salafism’, November 4, 2014.
[27] The classic work is Abu Yusuf’s Kitab al-Kharaj. Abu Yusuf was chief Qadi under the Caliph Harun al-Rashid.
[28], August 25, 2015,
[29] 2207520000.1440515529./453479498164857/?type=3&theater.
[30] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.5872, Senior Saudi Salafi Cleric: ‘ISIS Is A True Product Of Salafism’, November 4, 2014.
[31], August 19, 2015.

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How The 2016 Candidates Are Getting Their Money, In 1 Infographic


Jeb Bush is getting all the millionaires, and Bernie Sanders is getting the small donors — those have been two prominent storylines in the 2016 money race for the presidency.

But what about everyone in between? The Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Finance Institute released data on campaign fundraising, and it paints a fascinating picture — which we decided to make into a literal picture. Here’s how the different candidates’ donation patterns stack up to each other:

What we found is that in the era of looser rules, candidates seem to have adopted a variety of fundraising models (for more analysis, read how we broke these models down). Some, like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are more dependent on their superPACs — as indicated by their share of support from super-big donations — while others, like Martin O’Malley, Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders, are dependent on their campaigns, which limit contributions to $2,700.

And then, of course, there are the self-funded candidates. This data doesn’t reflect candidates’ donations or loans to themselves. Donald Trump is the main example of this among presidential candidates, with $1.8 million in self-funding, though Lincoln Chafee has likewise donated to his campaign the majority of its funds.

Campaign committees and superPACs are the main ways candidates are raising money this year — they are by far the most popular types of committees, and most candidates have both (and some have multiple superPACs). Many candidates’ superPACs are taking on traditional campaign roles this cycle, like rapid response, in addition to making big ad buys.

However, some are taking advantage of other fundraising avenues, but those have a variety of different restrictions. A handful have 527s — tax-exempt groups that can raise unlimited money but can’t specifically advocate for a candidate. A few also have 501(c)(4)s, nonprofit groups that can also raise unlimited funds and do not have to disclose where those funds came from. However, they also are tightly restricted in their political activities.

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Europe’s NGO Jihad Against Israel

by Susan Warner\ gatestoneinstitute

  • Beneath a vexing tangle of funding operations — most hiding under a pretense of “good works,” “humanitarian aid,” and “public interest” — there is at work a sophisticated, multi-faceted, well-oiled propaganda machine against Israel.
  • A chief concern in the Knesset is how to curb the influx of millions of foreign dollars used to fund anti-Israel hate-groups operating as NGOs. These organizations are accused of using their “human rights” designation to mask a deceptive advocacy agenda to undermine, and even to destroy, Israel.
  • When Israel works to build “bridges for peace,” such as SodaStream, where Arabs and Jews worked peacefully together, these organizations then knock them down.
  • Apparently, no one at World Vision asks the obvious question: Why are there even refugee camps in territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, such as Gaza, Jenin and Ramallah? Not only have those areas been under exclusive PA or Hamas civilian administration since 1994, but Israel totally evacuated the Gaza Strip in 2005.

There is a European “jihad” against Israel. A significant number of activist groups — presenting themselves as international humanitarian aid and charitable projects designed to benefit the Palestinian people — are actually “directly or indirectly active in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions(BDS) campaigns, lawfare, delegitimization and lobbying against Israel,” according to a detailed report by NGO Monitor.

Every year, European governments send hundreds of millions of dollars for humanitarian aid projects in Palestinian territories. Ostensibly, the money is intended for projects such as improving medical care, alleviating poverty, improving schools, or enhancing infrastructure.

But beneath the surface lurk more venomous political advocacy agendas apparently designed to undermine Israel as a nation-state.

Some of these European governments give money directly to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Others funnel it through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are present themselves as charitable groups.

These governments and European-funded NGOs, however, often seem more dedicated to propaganda, political activism and undermining Israel, and less aimed at helping the Palestinians. Between 2012 -2014, for instance, more than $27 million in foreign funds have flowed into the bank accounts of radical left-wing NGOs in Israel, all in some way involved in anti-Israel advocacy activities.

A 2008 conference on “Impunity and Prosecution of Israeli War Criminals,” held in Egypt in 2008, was sponsored by the European Union. (Image source: NGO Monitor)

Israeli leaders are finally beginning to raise serious doubts about the real motives behind some of these politically-motivated efforts.

Recently, for example, a controversial exhibit by “Breaking the Silence” (BtS) opened in Zurich, Switzerland. The BtS exhibit accuses the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of human rights violations. It incorporates anecdotal, unverifiable, anonymous testimonies of 60 soldiers who accuse the IDF of wrongdoing during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza last summer.

The exhibit, scheduled for a world tour, caused a stir in Switzerland when it became known that it was funded in part by the governments of Switzerland, the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark — as well as many private charitable foundations. Its main donors include: the European Union, Misereor (Germany), Broederlijk Delen (Belgium), Norway,AECID (Spain), Dan Church Aid (Denmark), ICCO (Netherlands), CCFD (France), Human Rights and International Law Secretariat (joint funding from Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands), Sigrid Rausing Trust (UK), SIVMO (Netherlands), Rockefeller Brothers Fund,Open Society Institute, and the New Israel Fund among others.

The BtS exhibit spins a narrative that seems deliberately distorted and lopsided against the IDF. The exhibit’s critics suggest that these soldiers may have been selected precisely because they had some axe to grind against the IDF.

It even turns out that funders of the exhibit demanded “a minimum number of negative testimonies,” according research by NGO Monitor.

The exhibit never mentions any context surrounding the Gaza operation: nothing about the rockets raining down on Israel from the terrorist groups in Gaza; nothing about Hamas-built tunnels that opened near schools and private homes inside Israel; nothing about Hamas’s common practice of hiding terrorists and weapons among its own women and children for propaganda purposes.

Israel’s government, understandably, cried foul. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked have been leading the charge to remedy this diplomatic jihad against the State of Israel at its source.

Hotovely alleged that the use of Swiss government money — to demonize, delegitimize, and basically to try to destroy Israel — is illegitimate. “We cannot,” Hotovely said, “accept a situation whereby an organization, whose entire purpose is to sully the names and reputations of IDF soldiers, is operating internationally in order to cause serious damage to the State of Israel’s image.”

Loyal IDF reservists, also outraged by the exhibit, have mounted their own campaign against what they claim is a false and unfair assault on the military and the nation.

According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, ten Swiss MPs from the Swiss-Israel Parliamentary Group issued a statement on June 2, opposing using taxpayer money to fund the exhibit:

“We condemn sharply the sponsorship of Breaking the Silence, with public monies through the EDA [Swiss Foreign Ministry] and the Zurich Finance Department, and expect in future a careful examination of projects and those organizations standing behind such projects before Swiss taxpayer money is misused.”

In the wake of the international stir over the legitimacy of the travelling exhibit, the mayor of Cologne, Germany, first cancelled, but then reinstated its scheduled appearance there.

Beyond this single inflammatory exhibit against the IDF, however, lies a much more complex and malignant problem — one that brings to the forefront some disturbing concerns and questions about the nature and purpose of foreign government funding of NGOs in Israel : What is their real agenda? How and where are they getting their money? Are they using their funds for purposes consistent with their stated goals?

According to a recent Reuters report, of the 30,000 NGOs operating in Israel, “the focus of frustration for [Justice Minister] Shaked and her supporters are around 70 whose work focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and which receive funds either from the European Union as a whole, or individual governments, including Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and Norway.”

A chief concern in Israel’s Knesset is how to curb the influx of millions of foreign dollars used to fund anti-Israel hate-groups operating as NGOs. These organizations are accused of using their “human rights” designation to mask a deceptive advocacy agenda to undermine, and even to destroy, Israel.

Beneath a vexing tangle of funding operations — most hiding under a pretense of “good works,” “humanitarian aid,” and “public interest” — there is at work a sophisticated, multi-faceted, well-oiled propaganda machine against Israel.

Breaking the Silence is one of the smallest. Founded in 2004, BtS is registered as “a company for the benefit of the public” with a budget of roughly 3 million shekels ($770,000 USD), according to 2015 figures.

According to a recent report by the Israeli organization Im Tirtzu, partial funding for Breaking the Silence ($300,000), B’Tselem ($700,000) and other pro-Palestinian NGOs in Israel — totaling $11,000,000 in 2014 alone — comes from The Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Secretariat (HRIHL), an Arab foundation based in Ramallah and Gaza. HRIHL, in turn, is funded predominantly by the governments of four European countries: Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and The Netherlands.

Matan Peleg, the Chief Operating Officer of Im Tirtzu, has coined the word “Political Terrorism” to describe the murky mix of anti-Israel NGO activist groups, their destructive agendas and deceptive funding sources:

“When we use the concept ‘political terrorism’ we wish to indicate various actions which are not actually physically violent, but which are intended to spread terror and fear … for the achievement of political aims.

“The State of Israel and the IDF in particular are suffering from political terrorism because various political entities in Israel and abroad (such as states, organizations, foundations, etc.) are carrying out political actions with the aim of paralyzing Israel’s ability to defend itself.”

Two of the wealthiest international human rights NGOs at work in Israel are OXFAM and World Vision.

Oxfam, which operates an international confederation of networked organizations in 92 countries, had a total income in 2012-2013 of $955.9 million, of which $18.7 million was spent in “Occupied Palestinian Territory” in 2013.

OXFAM states clearly that it does not participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, yet affirmed its boycott of goods made in the “Israeli settlements in the West Bank”. We are clearly not hearing the truth.

Pressure from OXFAM and BDS groups contributed to a recent decision by SodaStream to close its factory in Mishor Adumim, where it had employed hundreds of Arabs and Israelis working peacefully side by side.

Arab wages and working conditions at SodaStream were reported to be significantly better than their equivalents in the neighboring Arab-controlled territories in Judea and Samaria. When the plant moved, hundreds of Arabs were thrown out of work — a result that apparently did not bother proponents of BDS such as OXFAM. When Israel works to build “bridges for peace,” such as SodaStream, where Arabs and Jews worked peacefully together, these organizations promptly knock them down.

World Vision International, a Christian charity that operates in approximately 100 countries, with a 2012 budget of $2.67 billion, defines the region it serves as Jerusalem/West Bank and Gaza.[1] World Vision makes no bones about its exclusive ministry in the area on behalf of poor Arab children. Conversely, it specifically does not serve the needs of poor Israeli-Jewish children. An estimated 14.1% of Jewish Israeli families live below the poverty line.

On the World Vision web site, there is a brief pro-Arab version of the “history, people and geography” of the region, which distorts or omits all history that might put the Arabs in a bad light. The web site mentions nothing of Hamas bombs, rockets or general Arab violence against Israel. The narrative singles out only the plight of “displaced Arab refugees.”

No one at World Vision asks the obvious question: Why are there even refugee camps in territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, such as Gaza, Jenin and Ramallah? Not only have those areas been under exclusive PA or Hamas civilian administration since 1994, but Israel totally evacuated the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Both OXFAM and World Vision receive large sums of money from the United Nations, various government and non-government sources, foundations and other institutions.

NGO Monitor issued a report calling attention to the public debate on massive foreigngovernment funding of highly political NGOs. Various media, government and legislative concerns about the manipulation of Israeli democracy by foreign governments through NGO activity triggered the debate that resulted in Israel’s NGO Transparency Law (February 2011).

In 2013, there were several failed attempts to pass bills in the Knesset to reduce the influx of foreign government money. Now in the wake of the Breaking the Silence exhibit, Hotovely, Shaked and others are mounting a renewed effort to remedy at least this one source of diplomatic jihad against the State of Israel.

Susan Warner is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of Gatestone Institute and co-founder of a Christian group, Olive Tree Ministries in Wilmington, DE, USA. She has been writing and teaching about Israel and the Middle East for over 15 years. Contact her at

[1] Through various partners, World Vision operates 14 programs in Bethlehem, West Ramallah, East and South Hebron, Northeast, West, and South Jenin, Southeast Salfit, East, Central, North, and South Nablus, as well as North and South Gaza.

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While Saudi Arabia Goes to War Abroad, It’s Simmering at Home

By Giorgio Cafiero and Daniel Wagner
July 4, 2015
An earlier version of this article was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus

To hear Saudi leaders tell it, the primary threat to the kingdom’s stability is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Worried over Washington and Tehran’s slowly improving relationship, Riyadh has projected an increasingly militarized and sectarian foreign policy aimed at countering Iran’s alleged hegemonic aims in the Middle East.

Yet tension with Iran is only one element of an increasingly complicated mosaic of threats to Saudi Arabia. In fact, the gravest dangers to the kingdom come from within.

Saudi Arabia is a classic rentier state. In exchange for the absolute acquiescence of its 29 million subjects, the ruling al-Saud family provides services such as housing, health care, education, and a variety of subsidies — all funded by the country’s substantial oil wealth. Combined with intolerance for dissent, control over these resources has historically served as the ruling family’s hedge against instability of all varieties.

In 2011, for example, the Saudi leadership responded to the Arab Spring revolts across the region by injecting $130 billion in the form of salary increases, public-sector job creation, and housing subsidies to minimize the potential for an uprising. Meanwhile, the kingdom’s appalling human rights record has deteriorated. Over the past four years, beheadings have skyrocketed and torture has flourished.

However, this authoritarian rentier state model is unsustainable. Oil revenues are down, local unrest is simmering, and extremists are taking aim at the kingdom from without and within. The roots of all these problems come not from Iran but from inside Saudi Arabia itself.

Feeling the Pinch

The global slide in oil prices has taken a toll on Saudi Arabia’s fossil-fueled economy. Foreign reserves dropped by $36 billion this spring, and are projected to fall another $300 billionwithin two years. The kingdom’s 2015 budget deficit — the first in seven years — is projected to reach $40 billion. With the kingdom waging a costly military campaign in Yemen, and the recently installed King Salman granting salary bonuses to public employees and military families, Saudi Arabia’s coffers are being drained at a rapid pace.

Demographic realities exacerbate these fiscal pressures. Unlike many Arab states that have declining or stable birth rates, Saudi Arabia’s population is growing. More half of the kingdom’s population is under the age of 25 and two-thirds are under 29. With a high youth unemployment rate and an estimated 25 percent of Saudis living in poverty, the economic grievances that drove Arabs in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria to revolt could spark similar forms of resistance among Saudi Arabians, constituting a major worry for the royal family.

The kingdom’s educational system is in dire need of reform. While many young Saudis are well-versed in the Koran as a result of their religious education, they often lack skills that are more practical and applicable to the global economy. The human capital of the country’s women is especially underdeveloped. Sixty percent of Saudis enrolled in higher education are women, yet the country’s female unemployment rate is 32.5 percent.

King Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah, pursued progressive reforms (by Saudi Arabian standards) on gender issues, but the kingdom’s conservative elements prevented much progress. The reality is that Saudi law still recognizes women as property of their male relatives. In Saudi Arabia, which remains the only country that bans female drivers, if a woman falls in public it’s even illegal for an ambulance to pick her up, according to Ali al-Ahmed founder of the Washington, DC-based Institute for Gulf Affairs.

Militant Jihadism

Since the 18th century, the Saudi ruling family has relied on an alliance with the ultra-conservative Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. Yet Saudi Arabia’s leadership has increasingly found this arrangement problematic, with several Wahhabi militant groups accusing the ruling al-Saud family of corruption and dedicating themselves to overthrowing it.

Scores of jihadist terrorist attacks in the kingdom, which peaked during the al-Qaedainsurgency of the mid-2000s, highlight the failure of Saudi Arabia’s rulers to maintain the loyalty of certain Wahhabi hardliners. Even as Saudi Arabia contributes to the U.S.-led military campaign against Daesh — another name for the self-styled “Islamic State” —thousands of Saudis have fled the kingdom to join Daesh’s ranks on the Iraqi and Syrian battlefields. Meanwhile, its supporters have launched a spate of “lone wolf” attacks against foreigners and Shiites in the kingdom.

The caliphate’s leaders have openly targeted Saudi Arabia’s leadership. In a statement last November, Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his intention to expand Daesh to the “lands of al-Haramein” — a reference to Mecca and Medina. He referred to the ruling family as “the serpent’s head” and the “stronghold of the disease,” likening them to the pre-Islamic pagan rulers of Mecca and calling on supporters in the kingdom to rise up against them.

A few months later, when King Abdullah died, the group’s supporters took to social media tocelebrate the death of the “thief of the two holy mosques,” further demonstrating Daesh’s vitriol for the monarchy.

Although Riyadh has made combatting Daesh a lower priority than fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, the kingdom is extremely vulnerable to the group and its quest to foment chaos in the Gulf region. Given Daesh’s rapid rise to power in large portions of Iraq and Syria, and the mushrooming of its affiliated groups from Libya to Pakistan, Riyadh has every reason to be concerned about implications for the kingdom’s security.

Rising Sectarian Temperatures

Ever since the Wahhabi conquest of the Arabian Peninsula, the Shiites of modern-day Saudi Arabia — roughly 15 percent of the total population — have endured state-sponsored discrimination, social marginalization, and campaigns of violence waged by anti-Shiite hardliners.

Particularly since the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province — home to a majority of the country’s Shiite minority and all of the kingdom’s oil reserves — has experienced growing sectarian unrest and heightened political tension. In response to increasingly vocal demands for political, economic, and social reforms from their Shiite subjects, Saudi authorities have waged a harsh crackdown in the Eastern Province, maintaining that Shiite dissent is a product of Iranian meddling.

Saudi Arabia’s actions in neighboring countries have further raised sectarian temperatures. Riyadh’s decision in 2011 to deploy security forces to neighboring Bahrain to help the Sunni rulers in Manama suppress a democratic revolt from Bahraini Shiites intensified tensions between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni rulers and their own Shiite subjects. Furthermore, while Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious establishment has called Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen a “holy war,” Shiites in the Eastern Province have vocally condemned the kingdom’s war against the Houthis. In early April, clashes erupted in Awamiyah between security forces and Shiite protestors demanding an end to Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen.

Last year, Sheik Nimr al-Nimr — a revered Shiite cleric in the Eastern Province — was sentenced to death for allegedly inciting violence against the kingdom. Saudi Arabian Shiites see his sentence as a political maneuver aimed at quelling dissent in the Eastern Province. If Nimr is actually executed, sectarian tensions in the kingdom, as well as in other Middle Eastern countries, can only rise. Documented attacks against security forces by armed Shiite factions in the Eastern Province represent a growing potential for militancy and violent unrest.

Some hardline Wahhabis complain that Saudi authorities are too soft on Shiite dissent. Daesh has exploited this tension by demanding that Gulf Arab backers of the group carry out violence directed at all Shiites of the Arabian Peninsula. Daesh claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings targeting Shiite mosques in the Eastern Province this May, following ashooting of Shiites in the district of al-Ahsa on November 3, which marked the Shiite holy day of Ashura.

The threat of more Daesh-orchestrated and inspired terrorism in the Eastern Province poses a difficult dilemma for Saudi Arabia’s leadership. Following May’s violence, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud immediately visited the Eastern Province in an effort to convince locals that their rulers are committed to the security of all Saudi Arabians. However, many Shiites hold the kingdom’s religious establishment responsible for the attacks and maintain that officials in Riyadh turn a blind eye to Daesh’s sectarian agenda in the kingdom.

Ultimately, it will be difficult for Riyadh to maintain a lid on Shiite dissent while Daesh openly inflames sectarian tensions. Daesh’s recent suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in Kuwait City, which killed 27 and injured 227, along with its calls for violence against Bahrain’s Shiites, underscores its commitment to exploiting the Gulf’s sectarian tensions as a means of spreading its violent campaign to the region’s monarchies — with Saudi Arabia being the group’s top prize.

This balancing act is further complicated by Saudi Arabia’s efforts to topple the Iranian-backed regime in Syria and the kingdom’s ongoing war against the Zaydi Shiite Houthis in Yemen, which will continue to fuel tension between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni leadership and Shiite subjects.

While the Saudi government relies on its petro-wealth to buy loyalty and crush all dissent, a plethora of domestic and regional developments make the need for genuine and serious reforms in the kingdom increasingly urgent. Failure to implement them can only result in the deepening of these grievances.

The prospects for political and social stability in the kingdom will depend on the new leadership’s ability to address these internal issues in a truly meaningful way. Changes in Saudi Arabia’s reactionary society and political system cannot be expected in a short period of time. But they won’t get underway at all until Saudi leaders stop blaming Iran for their problems and start looking within.

Giorgio Cafiero is the Founder of Gulf State Analytics. Daniel Wagner is the CEO of Country Risk Solutions.

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Adam Patterson

Despite the fact that al-Qaeda is responsible for the deadliest attack on U.S. soil, and that dismantling the terror apparatus was Washington’s primary motive for occupying Afghanistan, the burgeoning of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a development that has eluded much of the American public. Yet, since the Saudi Arabian-led military coalition launched “Operation Decisive Storm” on March 26 of this year, Osama bin Laden’s former cohorts in AQAP have effectively transformed their organization into an occupying militia. This development has largely escaped the U.S. mainstream media’s radar. Lacking significant oil reserves, Yemen has not experienced an influx of wealth as have neighboring Saudi Arabia and other nearby Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. As a result, it has become increasingly insular. Yemen has long attracted Sunni revivalists and assorted religious purists. The Yemeni strain of Arabic is believed to be the closest to that spoken during the times of the Prophet.17 Those with an especially austere, fundamentalist vision of Islam have flocked to Yemen believing that the area remains uncorrupted. The world’s most reactionary Sunni Muslims (frequently labeled Wahhabis or Salafists) share a special reverence for their vision of the early Muslim caliphate. Those who migrate to Yemen on these grounds do so to invoke the past and to promote a revival of their absolutist interpretation of Islam. AQAP’s strong presence in Yemen long predates the country’s 2011 breakdown of civil authority, when the group constituted more of a hostile nuisance than a martial threat. According to reports, the al-Qaeda branch began germinating in the Arabian Peninsula during the 1990s and gradually rose to prominence as a regular instigator of violence following the escalation of Washington’s war on terror during the 2000s.18

Fertile Land for Global Jihadists This unique situation drew Anwar al-Awlaki, the influential preacher and al-Qaeda recruiter, to Yemen in 2004. Hardline jihadists view the impoverished country as fertile ground in an ideological sense, while petroleum speculators have long regarded Yemen as barren. American-born Anwar al-Awlaki was a gifted agitator for Sunni jihadism, speaking English fluently in addition to commanding a poetic grasp of Arabic. He ultimately chose Yemen in which to exhibit his disreputable talents, which included the skill of attracting Anglophone recruits. Al-Awlaki’s relocation to Yemen was part of a greater tide, one that has been met with increasing retaliation from both U.S. intelligence and Yemen’s local authorities. Drone strikes in Yemen became common early in the Obama administration, one of which killed al-Awlaki in 2011.19 Certain analysts suggested that the al-Qaeda recruiter became a regional commander within AQAP and was instrumental in overseeing the logistics of terror attacks, including the failed explosion aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253.20 Despite his ignominious death, al-Awlaki’s presence still lingers in the jihadist psyche. Yemen’s collapse into civil war was a catalyst for AQAP’s regional ambitions, plans that would have likely remained unrealized had the country not splintered itself into mutually antagonistic pieces. Evidence suggests that hundreds of foreign jihadists have filtered into Yemen since unified rule collapsed in 2011, drawn by the opportunities presented by a fractured central government in a failed state awash with arms caches.21 In a series of decisive skirmishes, AQAP began rapidly claiming territory outside of major cities and overcoming government forces. As of July 2015, AQAP holds terrain in the northern hinterlands of the Hadramaut Governorate (situated along the Saudi Arabian border) and in much of the Abyan Governorate (situated along Yemen’s southern coast).22,23 Al-Qaeda’s growing control in Yemen can be compared to the rise of AQAP’s Syrian counterpart, Jabhat al-Nusra, and of Daesh (“Islamic State”), which followed the rebellion against the Damascus regime in 2011. One of the interesting components of the jihadists’ shift in priorities is the diminished emphasis on attacking the West. The previous generation of terror organizations have transformed from sleeper cells and shadow elements into openly declared militias. The focus of their aggression has been capturing and occupying contested territories in failed states. As a result, violence against the West is often waived off to copycats and supporters in Europe and North America determined to execute improvised lone wolf attacks. In recent weeks, AQAP has doubled down on this tactic, issuing two proclamations in early August that praised lone-wolf style attacks and exhorted aspiring jihadists to “strike America in its own home and beyond.”24 In an extension of this doctrine, the organization has prioritized planned terror attacks in areas they hope to directly influence. AQAP’s bombings appear localized and often symbolic with an August 6 attack obliterating a 700-year old Sufi mosque in the Yemeni province of Lahj.25 In this case the perceived enemy is close both in terms of geography and religion with the target being a mystical order of Islam that is heretical according to AQAP’s worldview. In contrast to the more reckless jihadi groups claiming territory in Syria and Iraq, AQAP’s style of operations appears more measured and procedural. They are less prone to the abrupt gains and losses that have characterized Daesh’s campaigns. Keeping in mind that Yemen is a different theater than the Levant, AQAP’s expansion in the area has been one of gradual encroachment. Yet, like Daesh, AQAP is comprised of opportunists, though they seem much more astute at calibrating logistical boundaries. In contrast to the recent blindsiding of Daesh at the hands of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, AQAP appears less likely to overextend itself. AQAP’s Prospects in Yemen The return of a unified civil authority in Yemen would serve as the most effective counter to AQAP’s expansion. Unfortunately, all signs point to this being unlikely in the immediate future. Terror organizations by definition function in the least observable fringes, generally being unable to expose themselves in the face of disciplined martial and policing oversight. AQAP appears to have picked up steam in Yemen because their status as marginal figures has enabled them to bide their time and emerge only when more powerful factions with governmental roots began engaging one another. Corralling al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has become less of a priority for locals now that Sunni and Shi’ite/Zaydi factions have turned their guns upon each other. Saudi Arabia’s military incursion into Yemen bodes poorly for the defeat of AQAP. Riyadh’s aggression breaks down largely along sectarian lines, with their hostility focused primarily on the Houthi rebels. Recent evidence suggests that AQAP has become an ally of convenience for the House of Al Saud, with terrorist militants fighting alongside Saudi-backed militias during open skirmishes.26 As long as al-Qaeda remains antagonistic toward the local Shi’ite/Zaydi Muslims of Yemen, AQAP will remain well out of Saudi Arabia’s line of fire. Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the president of Yemen’s ousted government, currently rules in exile from Riyadh. His ongoing protection under the Saudi banner practically guarantees that the Houthis will have to contend with AQAP as a tactical ally of the kingdom. Unless the Houthis and their Sunni enemies reach a détente, or one side scores a decisive victory on the ground, AQAP is well poised to continue asserting control over portions of territory in Yemeni hinterlands by simple virtue of exploiting the martial chaos. Peace by any means would constitute the clearest threat to AQAP’s power because this would force local Sunnis to contend with pressure from Washington to either suppress or eliminate the al-Qaeda branch. Considering that the crisis in Yemen is escalating by the day, however, al-Qaeda is likely to sustain its position as a major power in the war-torn country, a thorn in the side of Houthi rebels, and a beacon for militant jihadists.

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Has Kuwait reached the sectarian tipping point?

Key points in this Outlook:

  • Religious divisions and changing demographics have increased political instability in Kuwait, opening the door for Iranian influence and, in turn, greater sectarian violence.
  • Iranian influence has ebbed and flowed in Kuwait, but Kuwaiti Shi’ites have traditionally rejected Iranian excesses because of Kuwaiti rulers’ efforts to treat them as full members of society.
  • Kuwait represents an important US ally in the Middle East, and the United States should recognize that its stability depends upon outreach to Kuwaiti moderates, both Sunni and Shi’ite.

Kuwait has a population of perhaps 2.7 million, half of whom are citizens. Of these, between a quarter and a third are Shi’ites.[1] Kuwait’s Shi’ites are diverse in terms of ethnicity—Arab, Persian, and Indian—and time spent in country. Kuwaitis differentiate between the “old settlers,” who have been in Kuwait for centuries, and “new settlers,” who may have called Kuwait home for only three or four generations.

In addition, every Shi’ite theoretically follows a single source of emulation, a living ayatollah to whom he pays khums, or religious taxes. But Kuwaiti Shi’ites follow several different sources of emulation and also differ in political orientation, generally falling into five groups:

  • TheAjam, ethnic Persian Shi’ites who migrated to Kuwait from Iran in the second half of the 18th century and constitute Kuwait’s largest Shi’ite community.
  • TheHassawi, Shi’ites who arrived in Kuwait from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province following the Saudi conquest of eastern Arabia in the second half of the 18th century.
  • TheBahrani or Qalalif, who hail from Bahrain and migrated to Kuwait in several waves beginning in the mid-17th century. They tend not to be too political.
  • Some Iraqi Shi’ites who migrated from Basra or the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala and remain in Kuwait. Many who lacked formal Kuwaiti citizenship have returned to Iraq since Saddam’s fall.
  • Lebanese and South Asian Shi’ite workers, including some Ismaili Shi’ites, who have recently settled in Kuwait.[2] In addition, 45,000 Iranians live and work in Kuwait.[3]

The vast majority, however, consider themselves Kuwaitis first and foremost. The Kuwaiti state, for its part, has fully integrated Shi’ites into the economic, social, and political fabric of society. Indeed, Shi’ite ­families are among the wealthiest Kuwaitis: the Marafi Behbahani family from the Iranian province of Khuzistan,[4] the Matruk family from Bahrain, and businessman Mahdi Mahmoud Haji Haidar each reflect the opportunities Kuwaiti society provides to its citizens regardless of sect. According even to Shi’ite sectarian sources, Kuwaiti Shi’ites are better off than other Arab
brethren. Affluence amplifies cultural and religious presence. Rich Kuwaiti Shi’ites sponsor mosques and seminaries.6 As of 2007, there were over 30 official Shi’ite mosques in the country and just as many unofficial ones. In ­addition, there are 60 Husayniyat—Shi’ite commemoration halls—and hundreds of other facilities.[7]

Although some Shi’ite clerics are on the government payroll, the government generally does not interfere and allows the Shi’ite community to appoint its own prayer leaders.[8] Independent religious endowments ­handle finances.[9] Shi’ites face little discrimination in university admissions, with the exception of Kuwait University’s Theological Faculty, which trains only ­Sunnis.[10] However, three major Shi’ite seminaries are in Kuwait, and Kuwaiti students frequent seminaries in both Iran and Iraq.

Shi’ite Political Activity in Kuwait

Sectarianism in the Middle East has grown steadily since Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Kuwaiti Shi’ites, however, solidified their identity as Kuwaitis almost 60 years before the revolution. During the 1920 border war between Kuwait and the Sultanate of Nejd, Shi’ites fought successfully to protect Kuwait from Bedouin encroachment.[12]

Kuwaiti Shi’ites have long been active, but it was the country’s emergence as a major oil exporter that transformed Kuwait from religious backwater to a significant center of Shi’ite activity. As oil wealth improved living standards, Shi’ite sources of emulation recognized the potential khums windfall they could collect from Kuwait.[13] Major ayatollahs dispatched representatives to collect the khums from within the newly rich emirate, which they could then utilize to bolster their religious and—for some—political influence inside Kuwait.

Kuwaiti Shi’ites have also gained influence in Kuwait’s parliament, where they are well, though not proportionately, represented. In the 1963 elections, the 50-member National Assembly included 5 Shi’ites. Representation increased to 8 after the 1967 elections, 10 after 1971, and 13 in 1975. That same year, the emir appointed Abdul Mutalib al-Kadhimi, a Shi’ite, to be oil minister, one of the most important posts in the cabinet.[14]

Kuwait’s relatively liberal political atmosphere attracted Shi’ite activists, including Muhammad al-Hussaini al-Shirazi. Shirazi long waged a two-front struggle against both the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad and the Najaf clergy who feared he would divert lucrative pilgrimage traffic from Najaf to his home town, Karbala. Shirazi added an ideological dimension to the competition when he welcomed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Iraq in 1965, a move that the Najaf clergy feared would antagonize the Iranian shah, whose opposition to Ba’athism they encouraged.[15] Shirazi’s nephews Hadi and Mohammed-Taqi al-Modarresi soon joined Shirazi, transforming Kuwait temporarily into an independent base of Shi’ite scholarship.Events in Iraq and Iran would soon shake Kuwait’s relative sectarian tranquility. As Ba’athist repression in Iraq grew, many Shi’ite activists—particularly members of the Islamic Da’wa Party—moved to Kuwait.[17] With one exception, all major Da’wa figures in Kuwait at the time were Iraqis.[18]

The Da’wa and Shirazi rivalry in Kuwait dominated local Shi’ite politics. Both groups established themselves in rival mosques, and their competition soon spread to Kuwait University, where they established rival student organizations.

The Najaf establishment was not aloof to Shirazi’s activities: Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, at the time perhaps the most prominent Shi’ite scholar, sought to dismiss Shirazi’s status as a scholar. Shirazi responded by obtaining a fatwa from Hassan al-Ihqaqi, perhaps the top cleric resident in Kuwait, attesting to his scholarship.[20]

The 1976 dissolution of parliament bolstered both Da’wa and Shirazi’s followers, who argued that their more radical approach rather than old-guard Shi’ite movements could better represent Kuwaiti Shi’ites. Before Kuwait held new elections, the new Shi’ite movements also primed the Kuwaiti Shi’ite community to be more receptive to Khomeini’s propaganda.

The Iranian Revolution Rocks Kuwait

Iran’s successful Islamic Revolution reverberated throughout the region and sent shockwaves across Kuwait. Kuwaitis were well acquainted with Khomeini. In 1969, Khomeini dispatched Ali al-Mohri, son-in-law of Ayatollah Abbas al-Mohri, to be his first ­representative to Kuwait.[22] Initially, Khomeini limited his activities in Kuwait to collecting khums, even though some of his radical students subsequently came to Kuwait to preach and agitate.[23] Shirazi’s followers also distributed Khomeini’s speeches in pamphlets and on audio cassettes to Kuwaiti Shi’ites.[24]

A year before Khomeini ousted the shah, Mohammad Montazeri, son of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s postrevolution deputy, came to Kuwait to organize Shi’ite recruits to train with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Lebanese Amal. Many of these recruits subsequently joined the Office of Liberation Movements, the predecessor to today’s Quds Force, the elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps charged with export of revolution (an Iranian euphemism for terrorism).[25] Montazeri also asked Kuwaiti authorities to allow Khomeini, whose residence in Iraq was becoming untenable, to come to Kuwait.[26] The Kuwaitis initially granted Khomeini a visa but later canceled it, forcing the cleric to flee instead to France.[27] Khomeini harbored a grudge against Kuwait for the rest of his life.

With the victory of the Islamic revolution, Iran replaced Iraq as the main external influence on Kuwaiti Shi’ite politics. Three weeks after Khomeini’s victory, Ayatollah Abbas al-Mohri led a large delegation from Kuwait to Khomeini’s headquarters in Tehran.[28] ­Khomeini subsequently appointed al-Mohri to be his Friday prayer leader in Kuwait.[29]

Encouraged by his success and foreign delegations, Khomeini began attacking Kuwait. He called for transnational unity of Muslims in “a great Islamic ­government,” essentially dismissing Kuwait’s sovereignty.[30] On June 9, 1979, Khomeini warned the Kuwaiti government against “aiding the opponents of Islam and deviant individuals.”[31] Three months later, Khomeini discussed the potential to “export the revolution to Kuwait.”[32] Khomeini’s Kuwaiti followers formed the “Hezbollah of Kuwait.”

As Khomeini’s influence increased, Sheikh Jabar, Kuwait’s emir, purged Shi’ites from sensitive positions in the oil sector, police, and security services.[33] Kuwaiti Shi’ites resented the Kuwaiti government’s measures, but they had essentially become political footballs.

In the face of Iranian aggression, Kuwaitis were just as provocative. The two governments clashed after Kuwaiti media began to refer to the Iranian province of Khuzi-stan as “Arabistan,” or “Land of the Arabs,” implicitly endorsing Iraq’s desire to annex the province.[35] Mutual charges of interference in each other’s internal affairs followed. As tensions increased, Kuwaiti authorities first limited al-Mohri’s movement, then prevented him from preaching, and finally deported him and his family and stripped them of Kuwaiti citizenship.[36]

The Iran-Iraq War further strained relations. Few Kuwaiti Shi’ites fought for Iran, but Kuwait helped Iraq financially.[37] Tehran also accused Kuwait of allowing Iraq to use its ports to import supplies and export oil. Iran apparently responded by sabotaging Kuwaiti oil installations.

A 1983 series of bombings had Iranian fingerprints.[38] Targets included the US and French embassies, a US military contractor’s compound, the international airport, an industrial center, and the Ministry of Electricity and Water. Three Kuwaitis were among the perpetrators. The other perpetrators included 17 Iraqis, three Lebanese, and two bedouns—stateless individuals living in Kuwait.[39] Some of the suspects were teachers at ­Iranian schools in Kuwait City.[40] Tensions increased as Iranian forces began to target Kuwaiti oil tankers in 1984, and the following year after Iranian-backed terrorists attempted to assassinate the Kuwaiti emir.

Within Kuwait, the Islamic Revolution precipitated years of Da’wa fissures, often leading to an alphabet soup of new, short-lived spinoffs. Al-Mohri attracted younger, more radical Kuwaiti activists, but as the Kuwaiti government cracked down, some of his followers joined other organizations, including the Social Cultural Association or the National Islamic Accord Movement.[41]

Another split occurred toward the end of the 1980s after Kurani disputed Khomeini’s governance theories. Ayatollah Muhammad Mahdi Asefi, who regarded Khomeini as the highest source of emulation and would later rise to head the Ahlul Bayt World Assembly—an Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite umbrella group that promotes Iranian revolutionary principles worldwide—highlighted ethnic divisions when he suggested Kurani’s opposition to Khomeini was rooted in racism against non-Arabs.

If, during the 1970s and 1980s, sectarianism threatened to drive Shi’ites and Sunnis apart in Kuwait, the 1990s was a decade of healing rifts. Because so many Kuwaiti Sunnis were abroad when Iraq invaded, Kuwaiti Shi’ites disproportionately suffered occupation. Their resistance to the Iraqis earned them renewed respect among Sunnis.[43] Meanwhile, Khomeini’s dismissal of Montazeri led Shirazi’s followers to sever relations with Tehran. After Khomeini’s death, Tehran also sought to ease tensions.

Kuwaiti authorities took full advantage of the Shirazi schism and sought to co-opt former radicals to offset Iranian influence. The Kuwaiti Ministry of Information permitted Shirazi’s followers to publish newspapers and magazines and establish their own television network. Kuwait also allowed the Islamic National Alliance to work to organize Shi’ite candidates prior to the 1992 parliamentary elections. Five Shi’ites joined the postliberation parliament.

During Kuwait’s 2003 parliamentary elections, Shirazi’s followers aligned themselves with a handful of people who had remained faithful to the initial Da’wa line and defeated candidates of the pro-Iranian Islamic National Coalition. After their defeat, the coalition fractured and gave rise to the Islamic National Understanding, politically oriented toward the reform movement in Iran. That same year, to unify their existence following Shirazi’s passing, his followers established the Assembly for Justice and Peace. In 2004, Shirazi’s followers formed the Front for Justice and Peace to counter Kuwaiti Hezbollah, and in 2005, original Da’wa members formed a group called simply the Pact, which also opposed Kuwaiti Hezbollah. Shortly before the 2006 elections, Shirazi’s followers formed the Coalition of the National Assemblies, a group that excluded the Islamic National Alliance because, according to Abdul Hussain as-Sultan, secretary-general of the Front for Justice and Peace, “They are too close to Iran and want to dominate the Shi’ite scene.”[51]

In 2006, the Shaykhis, a Shi’ite offshoot sect, formed the Assembly of the Human Message. While the Shaykhis traditionally eschew politics, the need for self-defense in the context of Iraqi sectarian violence led them to form organizations to protect communal interests, a structure they adopted not only in Basra but also in Kuwait.

Kuwait’s Political Maelstrom

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq changed regional dynamics. Many Western analysts suggest that Saddam’s ouster empowered Iran and, more broadly, Shi’ites.[52] Warnings about the so-called Shi’ite crescent reflect ­traditional Arab Sunni bias that Shi’ites represent a fifth column. Still, as Kuwait has moved to liberalize, extremists have used sectarian tensions to undercut political stability.

At its core, the problem is changing demography. Kuwait’s population is aging. Outside the cosmopolitan Kuwait City, half of Kuwait’s population now comes from the more conservative countryside, and many of the so-called Bedouin have roots in Saudi Arabia’s tribal and religiously conservative interior.[53] Because of their higher birth rate and males’ tendency to marry multiple times, the Bedouin population is growing.

To preserve the Kuwaiti elite’s more tolerant culture, Kuwaiti authorities have moved to reduce Bedouin influence by cracking down on Saudis acquiring Kuwaiti citizenship, sometimes stripping Kuwaiti citizenship from those also holding Saudi passports.[54] The issue is also intricately linked with the issue of the Bidoon, stateless people whose ancestors Kuwaiti authorities suspect destroyed their original, non-Kuwaiti passports to claim statelessness fraudulently.[55]

As the Bedouin population has increased, they have sought to flex their muscle. The result has been deadlock, if not political chaos. Between 2006 and 2012, the Kuwaiti emir dissolved parliament three times and suspended it a fourth. Not every issue was sectarian—civil service pay and inflation have also been key issues. The parliamentary dissolutions and suspension may have averted crises in the short term, but long-term difficulties remain unresolved. Against the backdrop of deadlock, sectarianism has become a potent tool.

On February 7, 2006, Kuwaiti Emir Sabah IV appointed his nephew Nasir al-Muhammad al-Sabah to be prime minister. Nasir had broad experience: he had worked at both the foreign ministry and United Nations before serving as Kuwait’s ambassador to Iran and Afghanistan and then as minister of information, minister of labor and social affairs, minister of state for foreign affairs, and chief of the emir’s office. As political reform continued—in May 2005, women won both the right to vote and serve in the National Assembly—parliamentarians became more vocal. A key opposition demand was to reduce the number of electoral districts from 25 to 5 to, theoretically, reduce tribal influence.[56]When Nasir refused, the parliament demanded he submit to questioning. To avoid that ­questioning, the emir suspended parliament.

In June 2006, Kuwait held new elections. Four Shi’ites won seats, no women won seats, and the emir subsequently agreed to consolidate districts. That parliament would not serve out its term. In March 2008, against the backdrop of the government’s refusal to accede to parliamentary demands to raise civil servant pay, the cabinet resigned and the emir dissolved the National Assembly.

Again, on May 17, 2008, Kuwaitis went to the polls. Rather than curtailing tribal and Bedouin influence, the reconfigured districts amplified it. Sunni Islamists, tribal leaders, and their allies won 27 seats; Shi’ites won 5. The conservative forces soon seized on sectarian issues as a means to weaken the government. On November 16, 2008, three Salafist members of parliament announced their intention to question Nasir after he allowed Muhammad Baqir al-Fali, an Iran-based Shi’ite preacher whom a Kuwaiti court had charged with insulting the first two caliphs, to enter Kuwait. Fali was deported, but when that did not satiate the Salafi parliamentarians, the cabinet resigned.[57] Their resignation enabled the government again to bypass a political show that could only exacerbate conflict.

The emir may have believed he had sidestepped the issue. He reappointed Nasir, who could begin with a blank slate. But the maneuver did not satiate the opposition, who had learned just how powerful sectarian arguments could be. Ahmad Lari, a Shi’ite deputy elected in 2006, condemned the conservative factions’ embrace of sectarian issues for political ends. “It is necessary that we be alert—whether we are Shiites, Sunnis, Bedouin, or town dwellers—in order to protect Kuwait from this sedition,” he declared.[58]

This outcome was not to be. With Fali gone, Sunni extremists seized upon Husayn al-Fuhayd as their next target. Fuhayd was a Shi’ite preacher whom they accused of being “the most extremist Shiite cleric, and most ­abusive against the Prophet’s companions, whose presence in the country will lead to a huge sedition.”[59]

After the 2009 elections—which saw nine Shi’ites win seats—the emir again asked Nasir to form a government. It was not an easy tenure, as Salafis fanned sectarian flames to incite communal discord and weaken the government. A preacher at one prominent mosque, for example, disparaged Shi’ites as heathens. Another imam used his pulpit to condemn Shi’ites during Friday prayers.[60] On some occasions, Shi’ite parliamentarians demanded that the minister of endowments and Islamic affairs crack down on Sunni incitement.[61]

Both Sunnis and Shi’ites have had grievances. Shi’ite leaders alleged that the secondary school curriculum depicted Shi’ites as infidels and polytheists and that a royal Qu’ran recitation competition discriminated against Shi’ites.[62] Shi’ite parliamentarians have also complained that Shi’ite clerics receive more intrusive interrogation than their Sunni counterparts at Kuwait International Airport.[63]

Officials did not deny the pernicious influence of Sunni extremists. Shortly after his retirement, former interior minister Jabir al-Khalid, accused the Muslim Brotherhood of trying to brainwash youth.64 The government has cracked down on hate speech across the sectarian divide,[65] and prominent Sunnis have also rallied to the defense of Shi’ites after repeated vandalism against a Shi’ite mosque.[66]

Most recently, sectarianism has been seen with regard to blasphemy laws that, as written, might make insulting those revered by Sunnis to be a capital offense while leaving amorphous the criminality of insulting those revered by Shi’ites.[67]

Rather than simply extinguishing sectarian fires, the Kuwaiti government has become increasingly proactive. It has provided medical care on the Shi’ite commemoration of Ashura. Kuwait University likewise postponed exams scheduled on the holiday.[68] And when tensions peaked amidst the 2010 Twitter blasphemy scandal, Kuwaiti authorities briefly banned public gatherings until tempers had cooled.[69] The government has used laws against undermining national unity to prosecute sectarian instigators.[70]

Shi’ite leaders also worked to calm tensions. Shi’ite cleric Mohammad Baqir al-Mohri, for example, offered the Salafis an olive branch. “In the interest of Islam first and then in the interest of the national unity of Kuwait,” he declared, “I am fully prepared to sit down with the brother Salafis to look for points of agreement on disputed issues between us,” an invitation he offered repeatedly.[71] After several hundred people protesting corruption stormed the National Assembly in November 2011, al-Mohri came to the government’s defense.[72]

But external events exacerbated tension. On February 14, 2011, sectarian tension erupted in Bahrain, leading to its worst violence in over 15 years. The Gulf Cooperation Council dispatched a joint military force to Bahrain to help quell the Shi’ite protestors. Suddenly, the Kuwaiti government found itself in sectarian crosshairs.

First, Salafist members of parliament demanded Kuwait send troops to Bahrain to fight the Shi’ites. Then, after Kuwait sent naval forces to assist in Bahrain, Shi’ite deputy Saleh Ashur insisted the government explain itself. The next day, on April 1, 2011, the cabinet resigned to extricate itself from the impasse.[73]

The procedural maneuver to dismiss governments rather than answer parliament had outlived its utility, however. Nasir formed a new government on May 8 but served only a half year before the emir replaced him with Defense Minister Jaber al-Sabah against the backdrop of a corruption scandal.

Al-Sabah called new elections for February 2, 2012. Seven Shi’ites won seats, but anti-government Salafi, Muslim Brotherhood, and tribal forces gained further ground. Political paralysis continued as the opposition forces continued to battle the central government. Again, external events exacerbated political disputes. A February 29, 2012, decision to recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate Syrian government fell largely along sectarian lines.[74] In a subsequent debate, a shouting match erupted after a Sunni parliamentarian accused a Shi’ite counterpart of being the “servant of the Syrian president.”[75] On June 18, 2012, the emir suspended parliament.

Two days later, the Constitutional Court voided the February elections and reinstated the 2009 parliament. The emir scheduled new elections for December 2012. After the court voided his efforts to reverse electoral ­district consolidation, the emir decreed that voters could select only one candidate rather than follow a complicated system in which they could cast four votes. Tension grew as elections approached and turned uncharacteristically violent. The elections proceeded despite a boycott by many who had won seats in the voided February polls. Shi’ites won 17 seats, their ­highest representation ever. However, Shi’ites lost half their seats in the subsequent July 2013 elections.

Stepping Back from the Brink

Although sectarian tension increased during the heady years of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and during the last several years of political paralysis, the vast majority of Kuwaiti Shi’ites have consistently proven their loyalty to Kuwait and rebuffed Iranian attempts to leverage them in pursuit of Iranian policy goals.

Unable to leverage Kuwaiti Shi’ites to its cause, the Iranian regime has become increasingly aggressive. In April 2010, a Kuwaiti paper alleged that Kuwaiti security was on high alert against an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) plot against flights at Kuwait International Airport.[76] The following month, Kuwaiti authorities disrupted an IRGC cell.

The plot came against the backdrop of a Kuwaiti ­initiative to better relations with Iran.[77] The cell was reportedly monitoring American movements and activity in Kuwait’s oil fields. Most worrisome were indications that the cell had recruited both Kuwaiti military officers and Shi’ites from old families.[78]Sunni extremists seized upon the plot’s unraveling to incite further against Kuwaiti Shi’ites.[79] Kuwait subsequently expelled three Iranian diplomats.

No sooner had Kuwaiti security officials foiled that plot than another surfaced involving an alleged Iranian plot to provoke sectarian tension by assassinating Shi’ite religious figures in Kuwait and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf.[80] Although the IRGC coordinated the first plot, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence ran the second cell. Curiously, the two cells were not in communication with each other and appeared not to be aware of each other’s activities.[81]

The Islamic Republic dismissed Kuwait’s claims as illogical. “Iran does not actually have a need for a spy network in a small country like Kuwait,” former IRGC commander Hussein Alai quipped, adding, “The entire Kuwaiti army is smaller than one Iranian division.”[82]

It was against this backdrop that 90 percent of Kuwaitis—including many Shi’ites—called for the deportation of any expatriate Shi’ites linked to Hezbollah or the IRGC.[83] Perhaps because of these Iranian plots and popular sentiment, Kuwait was quicker than the European Union to designate Hezbollah a terror group.[84] Tensions increased after an Iranian parliamentarian allegedly threatened military action against Kuwait.[85]

The rise of Da’wa and other Shi’ite groups in post-Saddam Iraq has also contributed to sectarian tension in Kuwait. In 2005, a suspect in the 1983 Kuwait bombing campaign won election to parliament.[86] Kuwaiti security officials have also carefully monitored sectarian indoctrination and illegal weapons training conducted, respectively, by Saudi and Iraqi extremists in Kuwait’s western desert.[87]

Although Prime Minister Jabir denied a media report regarding the presence of thousands of Iraqi radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militiamen among the Bidoon in Kuwait,[88] Kuwaiti authorities did refuse entry to Murtada al-Quzwayni, a radical Iraqi Shi’ite cleric.[89] Even when banned, some more radical Iraqi Shi’ites have turned to YouTube and radio to broadcast sectarian incitement into their smaller neighbor.[90]

Will Kuwait witness sectarian violence similar to that which afflicts Iraq, Bahrain, or eastern Saudi ­Arabia? Kuwait is a religiously diverse country in a region where diversity often breeds instability. Political paralysis and frequent elections have also increased ­tension. Sectarianism can be a useful tool for populist politicians, however corrosive it can be to society. Kuwait’s relatively free press and social media ironically can exacerbate tension, especially for those seeking to publish religious incitement.

Although the Iranian recruitment of Kuwaiti military officers and those from old families should raise alarms, recruitment can be a complicated business that reflects not simply ideological affinity or financial greed, but also other circumstances such as blackmail or extortion. Through periods of strain, Kuwait’s cohesive national identity has always triumphed. Unlike Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, where Sunni leaders actively discriminate against their Shi’ite citizens, the Kuwaiti monarchy’s willingness not only to embrace but also to defend their Shi’ite subjects strengthens the Kuwaiti state and ­immunizes it from the internal turmoil that afflicts other states in the region.

Iran, Hezbollah, and perhaps some Iraqi Shi’ite ­elements have sought to extend their battle to Kuwait, but Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Sunni radicals can also play just as corrosive a role. Kuwaiti authorities have worked to counter Shi’ite radicalism, but balancing democratization with changing demography may pose an insurmountable challenge.

Kuwait’s liberal elite—those interested in the good of all Kuwaitis regardless of sectarian preference—are increasingly becoming a minority against the backdrop of higher tribal and Bedouin birth rates. Kuwait could preserve sectarian peace or continue its relatively ­democratic political culture, but it may soon be forced to choose between the two.

This choice creates a conundrum for US policymakers whose natural inclination is to encourage democracy and liberalization but who do not want to endanger a regime that has proven itself a reliable partner for Washington. The best approach for the United States is to embrace a more nuanced understanding of regional sectarianism and to recognize that sometimes the most corrosive sectarianism comes not from Shi’ites, who often reject Iranian influence, but from younger Sunnis who look to Saudi society as a model.

Indeed, embracing and engaging Kuwait’s moderate Shi’ites might be the best anecdote to Iranian influence because, against the backdrop of tribal animosity, a strong US partnership that spans both Sunnis and Shi’ites in Kuwait would undercut Iranian efforts to depict Tehran as the protector Kuwaiti Shi’ites need.

At the same time, as Kuwait’s leadership faces a demographic challenge from Sunni Bedouin, forging a pan-sectarian coalition is the key to preserving Kuwait’s traditional tolerance and relative liberalism.


By Cinzia Bianco

On June 26, a suicide attack during Friday prayers in the historic Shi’ite Imam Sadiq mosque in Kuwait City killed 27 people and wounded 227. Hours after the suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vest, Daesh (“Islamic State”) took to social media and claimed responsibility. A Saudi Arabian national by the nom de guerre Abu Sulaiman al Muwahhidby—of Najd Province (a Saudi Arabia-based Daesh division)— was identified as the perpetrator. 1 The gruesome act caught many analysts by surprise, given that sectarian relations in Kuwait have been relatively positive compared to other Arab states. However, developments that unfolded in Kuwait prior to the June 26 attack highlight how sectarian issues in the region have negatively impacted Sunni-Shi’ite relations within the emirate. On April 2, Khaled al-Shatti, a prominent Kuwaiti Shi’ite lawyer and former parliamentarian, was arrested after posting tweets critical of the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s fight against the Houthis in Yemen.2 Shatti had suggested that Iran’s power was going to prevail in Yemen. He was charged with challenging the emir, demoralizing Kuwaiti soldiers, offending the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and threatening Kuwait City’s relations with Riyadh. Shatti was released four days later. Other Shi’ite parliamentarians (7 out of 10 in a body of 50) also criticized Kuwait’s participation in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen on the grounds that it violates Kuwait’s constitutional prohibition of offensive war. Kuwait’s sectarian orientation makes the emirate a palatable target for Daesh and other extremist groups that thrive on spreading sectarian strife. Indeed, the chaos in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen has offered Daesh fertile playgrounds, as such conflicts have triggered extreme polarization along sectarian lines throughout the greater Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two leaders of the Sunni and Shia blocks, exacerbate this polarization by backing opposite parties in each of the conflicts currently enflaming the region. Yemen is a case in point. The fact that Arab Sunni states have formed a historically unprecedented military coalition to fight the Houthis—a Shi’ite non-state actor in Yemen, allegedly backed by Iran—underscores the region’s growing Sunni-Shi’ite divide, a conflict that is clearly raising sectarian temperatures in Kuwait’s political sphere. The Unique Role of Kuwait’s Shi’ite Minority Such an outspoken protest is, to say the least, unusual in the Gulf. Indeed, Kuwait’s Shi’ite MPs are the only such group in the region allowed to take a stand against their government’s foreign policy on an official and institutional level.3 However, these political arrests are a real danger to Kuwait’s long-standing equilibrium. They threaten the Gulf state’s consolidated political system, one that was moving slowly toward a peculiar form of public involvement in the res publica. As a matter of fact, the highly mobilized Kuwaiti public can vote in free and fair parliamentary elections. The Kuwaiti parliament is the only one in the Gulf that can vote out individual ministers and even override the emir’s veto via majority vote, as happens in a semi-constitutional monarchy. At the same time, the cabinet, appointed by the emir, does not answer to the Parliament. Therefore, the ruling elite has been traditionally pushed to reason more in terms of averting political opposition than in terms of playing on sectarian dynamics.4 In turn, the opposition activity of Shi’ite MPs is carefully framed in constitutional terms, demonstrating their willingness to respect the norms of Kuwait’s political system rather than call for regime change. In the economic realm, Kuwaiti Shi’ites have equal access to sensitive positions in high-level defence and interior departments, and to the welfare benefits offered by its rentier structure, including free health care, education, and state subsidized fuel and housing.5 Some of the most powerful merchant families of the Gulf Arab nation are Shi’ite. This is mostly because Shi’ites in Kuwait, who represent 25 to 30 percent of the population, hold a unique place in Kuwait’s history. Since the inception of the State of Kuwait, the emirate’s Shi’ites have known their place in the landscape of Kuwaiti politics. From 1936 to 1979, the ruling Al Sabah family relied on them as a counterweight to the political challenges coming first from Sunni Arab notables and later from Arab nationalists. 6 This “unwritten contract” ended with the Iranian revolution, when a small group of Kuwaiti Shi’ites began to push for political reforms. Sometimes Kuwait’s authorities violently repressed these Shi’ite activists. However, these episodes were mostly isolated and, generally speaking, Kuwaiti Shi’ites have most often been nationalistic and loyal to the ruling monarchy. In many cases, the Al Sabah ruling family has even defended them against tribalism and sectarianism in the parliament and throughout society. When in 2011 Saudi Arabia and the UAE deployed troops to Bahrain to suppress its Shi’ite-led Arab Spring, the Kuwaiti government declined to send ground forces. Being highly sensitive to how Kuwait’s participation might impact sectarian divisions within the government, the emir ended up deploying a largely symbolic naval force. 7 Immediately after the June 26 attack, Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah visited the site. Footage on state-run Kuwait Television showed him visibly moved by the scenes of carnage. The leader also stressed the necessity for national unity in order to avoid falling into the polarizing trap of Daesh, as well as the need to confront head-on the threat of terrorism. 8 Hunting Down Whose Enemy? Kuwait’s authorities face grave risks in terms of reconciling rhetoric about national unity with counter-terrorism efforts. Such activities should not become a re-branding of the authoritarianism utilized to counter the uprisings that erupted across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in early 2011. Since “Arab Spring” protests were held in Kuwait back in 2011, the ruling family has been confronted by the cross-class Islamist-tribal-youth coalition, which has intensified its demands for political reform. In 2014, authorities responded to ongoing calls for change by stripping over 30 Kuwaitis of their citizenship and expelling them from the emirate for their alleged determination to undermine the Gulf state’s security.9 In March, authorities arrested human rights defender Nawaf al-Hendal and dozens of others at an anti-government protest.10 Kuwaitis who have criticized fellow GCC regimes have also been targeted. The Shi’ite MP Abdulhameed Dashti is on trial for condemning Bahrain’s Sunni rulers; the Shiite writer and academic Salah al-Fadhli was arrested for criticizing the war in Yemen; and former Sunni MP Mubarak al-Duweileh was questioned for criticizing officials in Abu Dhabi. 11 These cases underscore not only that there is a red line Kuwaitis must not cross when criticizing the emir, but also how speaking against Kuwait’s regional allies has become taboo. Although the arrest of Shi’ites who are particularly outspoken appears sectarian from the outside, the trend fits into the context of all GCC states tightening the screws on political dissent under the pretext of securing stability in the Council. When considered in this light, regime-Shi’ite relations have more to do with how organised the political opposition is becoming in the Gulf. Emboldened domestic constituencies are increasingly vocal in GCC states, including Kuwait, where calls for democratic reform of the last decade have not translated into meaningful reform.12 Indeed, by further criminalizing dissent, Kuwait is on track with its regional allies. The Gulf state is facilitated by the GCC’s Security Pact, which allows all six members to join forces in silencing opposition forces all over the Gulf by creating transnational controls and eliminating safe havens for dissidents of one country in another.13 As sectarian strife continues to intensify in the Gulf and greater Middle East, it remains to be seen how such tensions will play out in Kuwait’s parliament and in society at large. On one hand, Kuwait’s contribution to Saudi Arabia’s military coalition in Yemen certainly heightens the risk of a growing number of Shi’ites distancing themselves from their longstanding ally in the ruling Al Sabah family. On the other hand, the June 26 attack—in addition to the Kuwaiti tribal-Islamist opposition—may prompt more Shi’ites to move closer to the regime for protection, despite disagreement with the emirate’s foreign policy. Finally, the singing of a comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 on July 14 has the potential to provoke a powerful shock to the Middle East’s sectarian balance. The nuclear deal may lead to further engagement among different sects, or it may worsen tensions between Sunni Arab regimes and Shi’ite groups, including in Kuwait. Ultimately, the prospects for stability and cordial sectarian relations in Kuwait will largely depend on the ruling family’s ability to navigate the aforementioned regional and domestic challenges, particularly with respect to the most sensitive issue of all: Iran’s reintegration in the region and global economy.

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Mohammed Bin Salman: The Saudi Scapegoat?

By Akhil Shah

Saudi Arabia's Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Photo by Mazen AlDarrab, Wikipedia Commons.

Modern history has demonstrated that Middle Eastern rulers face high political risks in the aftermath of humiliating military defeats. This is particularly true when victory is expected. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military campaign in Yemen has fallen short of what Riyadh had in mind on March 26, when it launched “Operation Decisive Storm” (later named “Operation Restoring Hope”). That four months into the Saudi-led campaign there is still no end in sight is problematic for the kingdom’s image. Moreover, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud risks losing power as a result of a costly quagmire in Yemen, which would alter Saudi Arabia’s current line of succession.

For the Saudi leadership—and to various extents its fellow Arab statesmen in eight other capitals—the war in Yemen presented an opportunity to stamp their authority both regionally (against Iranian influence) and domestically (against democratic opposition movements). For Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the conflict was critical. As a young and inexperienced member of the ruling Al Saud family, he has most likely led efforts in Yemen to publically establish his leadership credentials. Yet, the less than fruitful results and deadly blowback have left him open to much criticism—internally and externally—and have provided more senior princes with a legitimate reason to remove him from the line of succession following the death of his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

H.E. Goemans, a professor of international relations at the University of Rochester, wrote that if a leader loses a war “disastrously…leaders are not only likely to lose power but also suffer additional punishment.” His study, which can be directly applied to the military losses of Middle Eastern states, concludes that repressive and exclusionary regimes such as Saudi Arabia build a repressive state apparatus to maintain power.

A critical example of this was the Iraqi Ba’athist Party in the aftermath of the military loss to Kuwait. Saddam Hussein faced a number of issues as his leadership was constantly challenged and questioned. Top Iraqi regime officials, including two of Hussein’s son-in-laws, defected and disassociated themselves from the party and its leadership. Saddam, due in part to the state apparatus, was able to pre-empt internal dissent. The Iraqi leader purged potential military and political opposition, executing thousands.

Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait is only one example. Others include Egypt and Syria’s wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973, and Libya’s intervention in Chad from 1977 to 1986.

Yet the key difference between the aforementioned military defeats and the ongoing Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is the group constituting the opposition. Riyadh’s expensive war against the Houthis will face scrutiny from a growing unemployed youth population. There will likely be international opposition as well as criticism from voices within the ruling family. Whereas Saddam Hussein’s regime relied on brutal and reprehensible tactics to maintain a firm grasp on power, Mohamed bin Salman is in no position to execute members of his extended family as a means to hold power. The Deputy Crown Prince faces a dire dilemma in terms of his next move. Goemans’ theory states that if a loss is severe enough, the leadership will seem weak and the power of the repressive state apparatus will diminish, encouraging domestic opposition. How Mohamed bin Salman reacts to this will certainly impact the prospects for him one day becoming the King of Saudi Arabia.

Public Image

For legitimacy, the Saudis have largely relied on their role as the “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques.” In particular, this self-declared role allowed the kingdom’s rulers to present a certain image of Saudi Arabia as the de facto leader of the Muslim world. However, as a consequence of the richest Arab country’s humiliation in the poorest Arab country, where it is fighting an opponent with far less military backing or training (certainly compared to Saudi Arabia with arms and training provided by Washington), this image of Saudi Arabia is weakening.

Mohamed bin Salman appears constantly in picture form throughout media coverage. Saudi Arabia’s public image has therefore become increasingly synonymous with that of the Deputy Crown Prince. The continuation of Riyadh’s failed campaign in Yemen can only diminish the kingdom’s ‘strongman’ image. As a result, Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Sunni Arab world is becoming increasingly relegated to the kingdom’s religious establishment. Mohammed bin Salman’s legitimacy and credentials to lead the kingdom are quickly fading. Given that Riyadh’s crisis unfolds under Mohammed bin Salman’s watch as Deputy Crown Prince, more opposition within the royal family to the idea of him serving as king may mount in due course.

A Convenient Scapegoat

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s lack of a presence in this conflict is particularly interesting. Publically, he is known as the father of the kingdom’s counter-terrorism program and is a favorite among Western allies. The Crown Prince is credited with defeating al-Qaeda’s efforts to topple the Al Saud family in the mid-2000s. Beyond this, Mohammed bin Nayef also serves as Chairman of the new Council for Political and Security Affairs. Considering this position, it is strange that Mohamed bin Nayef is not at the forefront of Riyadh’s war in Yemen.

Perhaps Mohammed bin Nayef, in knowing his cousin’s need to prove his leadership capabilities, is allowing the Deputy Crown Prince to serve as the face of the Yemen campaign so that he can take the political damage and potentially lose legitimacy as a successor to the throne. Given that Mohamed bin Salman is not well-liked, nor deeply respected within the ruling Saudi family this may well be the case.

The ruling Al Saud family’s size creates a general lack of trust, especially with the Sudairi Seven (the line of Abdulaziz bin Saud and Hassa bint Ahmad Al-Sudairi) having been restored to a prominent and central position in Saudi Arabia’s political structure. Princes do spy on each other for the purpose of acquiring information to leverage for positions of greater power. Numerous princes from the third generation, many of whom are older than the Deputy Crown Prince, will eye an opportunity to make claims. Principally, there will be cries of “I would have done it better if I had been in charge”. Dissent and grumblings are thought to be widespread within the ruling family. It is not difficult to understand why many princes would be motivated to use the Yemen war against Mohammed bin Salman. After all, the Saudi throne comes with billions of dollars and virtually unlimited power.


Rumors persist within certain circles that Mohamed bin Nayef is considering changing the kingdom’s line of succession. Sources in Saudi Arabia have indicated that he would prefer his nephew, Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, to become his Crown Prince, thus removing Mohammed bin Salman from the line to the throne. Abdulaziz, who is often seen in the background of photos of the Crown Prince, is purportedly being groomed for a leadership role in the Saudi monarchy.

Although the Al Saud family’s grasp on power is currently strong, the military campaign is embarrassing enough for the kingdom’s rulers to require a scapegoat. Ongoing events point to Mohammed bin Salman filling that role. Consequently, he may no longer serve in a prominent position of power after his father ceases to be the King of Saudi Arabia. While the Deputy Crown Prince may not face arrest or exile, it is highly possible that he will be relegated to a junior position within the establishment.

While Saudi Arabia initially launched “Operation Decisive Storm” as part of an effort to unite the ruling family behind Mohammed bin Salman, the conflict may ultimately prove to be his undoing.

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US to increase drone use in Middle East


A senior Pentagon official said the US will increase its use of drones internationally to as many as 90 a day by 2019. (AFP/File)

The number of U.S. military and intelligence daily drone flights will be increased by 50 percent in coming years, a senior Pentagon official said.

It is the first significant increase in drone use since 2011 and reflects the value of drones, for information-gathering as well as for lethal airstrikes, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. Strikes by the unmanned aircraft have killed at least 3,000 people, non-governmental organizations have estimated.

The plan, as explained by the Pentagon official, will expand drone use in locations including Ukraine,Iraq, Syria, North Africa ( and the South China Sea. While most drones are currently in use by the U.S. Air Force, the Army, Special Operations Command and private contractors will be involved in the expanded use of drones.

The Pentagon plan envisions flights, which it calls combat air patrols, to expand from 61 per day to as many as 90 per day by 2019, largely for additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In April, Gen. Philip Breedlove, chief of the U.S. European Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee more coverage of territory by surveillance drones ( was required.

“Earlier indications and warning and the ability to better understand Moscow’s thinking and intent are absolutely critical for avoiding future surprise and miscalculation, for deterring effectively and for preparing to respond if required,” he said.

Use of drones by the United States, widely expanded under the Obama administration, has been the target of critics who claim drone attacks have killed many innocent civilians.


The number of U.S. military and intelligence daily drone flights will be increased by 50 percent in coming years, a senior Pentagon official said.

It is the first significant increase in drone use since 2011 and reflects the value of drones, for information-gathering as well as for lethal airstrikes, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. Strikes by the unmanned aircraft have killed at least 3,000 people, non-governmental organizations have estimated.

The plan, as explained by the Pentagon official, will expand drone use in locations including Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, North Africa and the South China Sea. While most drones are currently in use by the U.S. Air Force, the Army, Special Operations Command and private contractors will be involved in the expanded use of drones.

The Pentagon plan envisions flights, which it calls combat air patrols, to expand from 61 per day to as many as 90 per day by 2019, largely for additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In April, Gen. Philip Breedlove, chief of the U.S. European Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee more coverage of territory by surveillance drones was required.

“Earlier indications and warning and the ability to better understand Moscow’s thinking and intent are absolutely critical for avoiding future surprise and miscalculation, for deterring effectively and for preparing to respond if required,” he said.

Use of drones by the United States, widely expanded under the Obama administration, has been the target of critics who claim drone attacks have killed many innocent civilians.

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Kurdish Muslims abandoning Islam for ancient Zoroastrianism

“Committing to Zoroastrianism would mean abandoning Islam. But even those who want to take on the Zoroastrian “belt” are staying well away from denigrating any other belief system. This may be one reason why, so far, Islamic clergy and Islamic politicians haven’t criticised the Zoroastrians openly.” – Ala Latif

ZoroasterOne of the smallest and oldest religions in the world is experiencing a revival in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The religion has deep Kurdish roots—it was founded by Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, who was born in the Kurdish part of Iran and the religion’s sacred book, the Avesta, was written in an ancient language from which the Kurdish language derives. However this century it is estimated that there are only around 190,000 believers in the world—as Islam became the dominant religion in the region during the 7th century, Zoroastrianism more or less disappeared.

Until—quite possibly—now. For the first time in over a thousand years, locals in a rural part of Sulaymaniyah province conducted an ancient ceremony on May 1, whereby followers put on a special belt that signifies they are ready to serve the religion and observe its tenets. It would be akin to a baptism in the Christian faith.

The newly pledged Zoroastrians have said that they will organise similar ceremonies elsewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan and they have also asked permission to build up to 12 [fire] temples inside the region, which has its own borders, military and parliament. Zoroastrians are also visiting government departments in Iraqi Kurdistan and they have asked that Zoroastrianism be acknowledged as a religion officially. They even have their own anthem and many locals are attending Zoroastrian events and responding to Zoroastrian organisations and pages on social media.

Although as yet there are no official numbers as to how many Kurdish locals are actually turning to this religion, there is certainly a lot of discussion about it. And those who are already Zoroastrians believe that as soon as locals learn more about the religion, their numbers will increase. They also seem to be selling the idea of Zoroastrianism by saying that it is somehow “more Kurdish” then other religions—certainly an attractive idea in an area where many locals care more about their ethnic identity than religious divisions.

Kurdish ZoroastrianAs one believer, Dara Aziz, told Niqash: “I really hope our temples will open soon so that we can return to our authentic religion”.

“This religion will restore the real culture and religion of the Kurdish people,” says Luqman al-Haj Karim, a senior representative of Zoroastrianism and head of the Zoroastrian organisation, Zand, who believes that his belief system is more “Kurdish” than most. “The revival is a part of a cultural revolution, that gives people new ways to explore peace of mind, harmony and love,” he insists.

In fact, Zoroastrians believe that the forces of good and evil are continually struggling in the world—this is why many locals also suspect that this religious revival has more to do with the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, as well as deepening sectarian and ethnic divides in Iraq, than any needs expressed by locals for something to believe in.

“The people of Kurdistan no longer know which Islamic movement, which doctrine or which fatwa, they should be believing in,” Mariwan Naqshbandi, the spokesperson for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, told Niqash. He says that the interest in Zoroastrianism is a symptom of the disagreements within Islam and religious instability in the Iraqi Kurdish region, as well as in the country as a whole.

“For many more liberal or more nationalist Kurds, the mottos used by the Zoroastrians seem moderate and realistic,” Naqshbandi explains. “There are many people here who are very angry with the Islamic State group and it’s inhumanity.”

Naqshbandi also confirmed that his Ministry would help the Zoroastrians achieve their goals. The right to freedom of religion and worship was enshrined in Kurdish law and Naqshbandi said that the Zoroastrians would be represented in his offices.

Mumbai Parsi Temple: Jashan ceremony held in the Banaji Atash Behram on April 9th, 2011.

Zoroastrian leader al-Karim isn’t so sure whether it is the Islamic State, or IS, group’s extremism that is changing how locals think about religion. “The people of Kurdistan are suffering from a collapsing culture that actually hinders change,” he argues. “It’s illogical to connect Zoroastrianism with the IS group. We are simply encouraging a new way of thinking about how to live a better life, the way that Zoroaster told us to.”

On local social media there has been much discussion on this subject. One of the most prevalent questions is this: Will the Kurdish abandon Islam altogether in favour of other beliefs?

“We don’t want to be a substitute for any other religion,” al-Karim replies. “We simply want to respond to society’s needs.”

However, even if al-Karim doesn’t admit it, it is clear to everyone else. Committing to Zoroastrianism would mean abandoning Islam. But even those who want to take on the Zoroastrian “belt” are staying well away from denigrating any other belief system. This may be one reason why, so far, Islamic clergy and Islamic politicians haven’t criticised the Zoroastrians openly.

As one local politician, Haji Karwan, an MP for the Islamic Union in Iraqi Kurdistan, tells Niqash, he doesn’t think that so many people have actually converted to Zoroastrianism anyway. He also thinks that those promoting the religion are few and far between. “But of course, people are free to choose whatever religion they want to practise,” Karwan told Niqash. “Islam says there’s no compulsion in religion.”

On the other hand, Karwan disagrees with the idea that any religion—let alone Zoroastrianism—is specifically “Kurdish” in nature. Religion came to humanity as a whole, not to any one specific ethnic group, he argues. – Niqash, 28 May 2015

Iraqi Kurds

Zoroastrian Kurds celebrate Newroz at Mitanni

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Islamic State Suspected Of Using WMD In Syria And Iraq

Jim Kouri

In a disturbing report to federal, state and local law enforcement officers throughout the country on Friday, the Pentagon said preliminary tests have determined that a chemical weapon was used during ongoing combat in northern Iraq. During an intense battle between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Kurdish rebel forces, ISIS may very well have resorted to using chemical agents, according to Military Times on Friday.

It has already been proven that chlorine gas is being used by the Islamist marauders, but now Pentagon officials are saying there may be another deadly chemical being used by the ISIS terrorists. According to Brigadier General Kevin Killea during a Pentagon briefing late Friday afternoon, mortar shell fragments fired on the Kurds by ISIS tested positive for mustard gas. But Gen. Killea quickly cautioned reporters and others that a positive determination can’t be made before there is more testing completed.

“That [was a preliminary] field test which are not 100 percent accurate and not conclusive. What those results tell us is merely the presence of that chemical, it doesn’t tell us anything more than that,” said Killea.

U.S. senior officials said test results from another ISIS attack in Syria three weeks ago confirmed the jihadists used a mustard agent as a weapon, which is against international law. It is also something that can easily be brought into the United States by terrorists or their couriers across U.S. borders.

The mustard agent used in Syria by ISIS was more likely precursor chemicals, not the weaponized kind that are believed to be stored in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenals. However, a number of experts in WMD (weapons of mass detruction) have long believed Assad’s army had been blamed for chemical weapons attacks that were actually perpetrated by ISIS.

The latest findings by U.S. officials suggests that the Sunni terrorist group may have mixed chemical weapons on its own. “U.S. intelligence communities and law enforcement analysts have been concerned that the ISIS, which controls a large part of Syrian and Iraqi territory, would find chemical weapons that were abandoned by fleeing Syrian troops or they may have their own experts working on creating WMD,” said former military intelligence officer and law enforcement detective Joseph Mandalheim.

What is most concerning to U.S. cops is the fact that with terrorists having access to WMD such as mustard and chlorine gases, ISIS may attempt to sneak some of it into the United States to be used by their homegrown followers. Reports by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicate that during their testing of border and seaport security, the Red Teams were successful in sneaking WMD into the U.S. through inadequately covered Canadian or Mexican borders.

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