Attacks Highlight Kuwait’s Delicate Security Balance

A Kuwaiti security services member stands guard at the Grand Mosque, site of a terrorist attack on June 26. Kuwait City, Kuwait, July 3, 2015. (Raed Qutena/EPA/Corbis)

A suicide bomber killed 27 people and wounded over 220 in a Kuwait mosque on June 26, as part of a wave of attacks by Islamist extremists worldwide. As the country’s most serious act of terrorism for several decades, legitimate questions are being asked about whether Kuwait’s relative stability and security could be compromised amid growing regional unrest.

The bombing of the Shiite Imam Al Sadiq Mosque in Kuwait City occurred on the same day as a shooting in Tunisia claimed by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), an al-Shabaab assault on an African Union peacekeeping base in Somalia, and a beheading in France by an apparently ISIS-inspired individual. While not thought to have been coordinated, the attacks followed threats by Islamist extremists to escalate violence during the holy month of Ramadan.

The Kuwait bombing was claimed by ISIS’s Wilayat Najd (Najd Province) and is the most significant terrorist attack in Kuwait since the 1980s assaults on the United States and French embassies. Thankfully for now, the concerns of a potential deterioration in the overall security environment and an undermining of the country’s relatively stable political system remain unfounded.

The terrorism threat to Kuwait has been pronounced for some time. Its proximity to Iraq and Saudi Arabia has frequently raised concerns regarding spillover and periodic disruptions by terrorist cells has underlined this latent threat. However, elevated security levels and a polity that is largely unified around the emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, have served to mitigate the risk until now.

Nonetheless, Kuwait’s susceptibility to attack is elevated by its ongoing support of US military activity in the region. The country owes much to the US for its assistance during the Iraq invasion in the early 1990s and continues to provide support for American operations, including through the hosting of military facilities and personnel. Kuwait is also a partner in the US-led coalition against ISIS, although it has not provided air assets to this coalition as yet.

Kuwait continues to position itself geopolitically between the major powers that surround it. It maintains cordial relations with Iran, while also supporting the US and abiding by Western-initiated sanctions against the regime in Tehran over its nuclear development policy. Kuwait is also a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) dominated by Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia and supports the regional body’s activities. It was involved in the GCC military intervention in Bahrain in 2011, albeit in a largely support capacity, and is currently involved in military action against the pro-Iranian Houthis in Yemen.

Domestically, the country remains stable and, arguably, the most democratic in the GCC. Its significant Shiite population (which account for 30% of the country’s total population), while facing some discrimination and lack of access to the most senior state positions, is represented in the security forces and government. The Shiite community’s political leaders are also considered largely pro-government.

Elections for positions in Kuwait’s legislature are held regularly and women enjoy considerable freedoms. The country’s political societies and groupings, some of which include a combination of Shiites and Sunnis, are allowed to pose questions to the ruling family and prime minister in the legislature, although not publicly criticize the ruling establishment.

Nevertheless, the democracy experienced in Kuwait has been fraught with difficulties at times. Numerous national assemblies have been dissolved by the emir and a large portion of the opposition continues to oppose the government and boycott the polls over demands related to the release of a prominent opposition leader, Mussalam al-Barak, and a desire for wider political reforms. While this has resulted in a degree of government instability, the political system as a whole remains largely stable. Maintaining this stability is, therefore, key for the emir and the ruling family.

The local reaction to the June 26 bombing has been profound. Tens of thousands of Kuwaitis from all walks of life have condemned the bombing and rushed to pay condolences at Kuwait City’s Grand Mosque. Commentators on social media have also been unanimous in their rejection of sectarianism and promotion of Kuwait unity. The government has also moved swiftly. Security measures at mosques have been elevated, the victims have been declared martyrs and the National Assembly is preparing to enact tougher counterterrorism legislation. In a sign of regional unity, Hezbollah, Iran, Shiite political groupings in Iraq, a host of Western governments, and most religious orders in Kuwait have condemned the incident.

The outcome of the mosque bombing therefore runs counter to the ISIS intention of  sowing sectarian strife. The response could not be more different than that which followed the extremist group’s activities in Saudi Arabia. Wilayat Najd’s attacks on May 22 and 29 this year in that country’s restive eastern region have raised tensions between the government and Shiites, who continue to accuse the Saudi government of not doing enough to safeguard the local population.

While ISIS’s goal of stoking sectarianism may have failed in Kuwait, its ability to infiltrate and conduct an attack in a country, which has experienced so little terrorist-related violence, is still a concern, particularly as the bomber entered the country without notice and liaised with a local cell—which had not been identified by the authorities—before executing the attack.

The Kuwaiti government has revealed a number of further concerning details about the plot. The bomber, Fahad Suleiman Abdulmohsen Al-Gabbaa (aka Abu Suleiman Al-Muwahhid), was apparently a Saudi national who entered Kuwait at dawn on June 26 after travelling from Riyadh via Bahrain. From the Kuwait International Airport he was met by Abdulrahman Sabah Eidan Saud, a member of the stateless Bedoon ethnic minority, who transported him to the mosque. It is thought that the transporter provided the bomber with the explosive belt at this point. That a militant cell could operate without notice begs the question of whether other cells may be active in Kuwait.

While it has worked diligently to forge regional alliances and contain domestic political opposition, Kuwait remains susceptible to extremist violence. The bombing provides it with an opportunity to counter the sectarian narrative by unifying Sunnis and Shiite. However, if the government does not seek to compromise with the opposition or move beyond mere pandering to the Shiite community, the threat of unrest and instability remains a long-term concern, which could provide groups like ISIS further opportunity to sow discord.