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Kuwait feeling the heat over terror financing

Later this month Kuwait is in the dock once more on terror financing. The Financial Action Task Force, a group of super-hero accountants, will be reviewing financial regulations and practices which have seen hundreds of millions let loose from Kuwaiti donors into the coffers of terrorists. Like all super-heroes, these accountants are backed by super-powers. In their case it's the G7. And if they aren't impressed, Kuwait could be black-listed.

The country has had some near misses. In 2006 the UN Anti-Terrorism Department investigated the Ministry for Social Affairs and Labour (MSAL), but they appeased by quickly passing regulations to scrutinise "Islamic charities" more closely. MSAL passed another inspection in 2010 but were then put under the magnifying glass again the following year. Now, with the growing menace of the Islamic State, Kuwait is facing its third inspection in four years.

Kuwait has lately suffered some strong beastings from the United States government. In a speech delivered in April U.S. Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen described Kuwait (and Qatar) as having more "permissive jurisdictions" for terror financing. That was diplomatic – he went on to indict Kuwait alone as "the epicentre of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria."

Smaller scale agents operating in Qatar are believed to be flowing funds into the pockets of more major networks in Kuwait. A tougher finance regime in Saudi Arabia has encouraged terror donors to send money over to Kuwait first. Eventually these funds reportedly arrive into the bank accounts of al-Qa'ida's Syrian affiliate, al-Nusrah Front, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – now known as the Islamic State.

The Kuwaiti governments approach to terror financing is susceptible to two broad criticisms: unforgivably late to the game and a policy approach summarised as two steps forward, one step back.

It was only last year when terrorism financing was made an official crime. The government also announced the formation of a Financial Intelligence Unit, though this is yet to be come fully operational. They also determined that designated terrorist assets could finally be seized. This in a country which has been under the magnifying glass since 9/11, there has clearly been no appetite at a government level for curbing terror financing.

But then the appointment of Nayef al-Ajmi to oversee both the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Religious Affairs convinced many in the international community, including Kuwait's allies in Washington, that the ruling al-Sabahs weren't too keen to enforce a ban on terrorism funding. Luckily for the Middle East, Al-Ajmi was, it seems, forced to quit. But his appointment again shows a lack of sensitivity to the urgency of curbing regional terror threats.

Dr. Al-Ajmi had a strong religious pedigree. He served as an assistant dean at Kuwait University's College of Sharia and Islamic Studies, and also advises a number of investment firms on Sharia-compliance.

He's also a hideous anti-Semite – who believes Allah has transformed the Jewish people ("the scum of mankind") into "apes and pigs."

One of his first acts as Minister was allowing charities to collect donations outside Kuwaits mosques – ostensibly for humanitarian projects in Syria, but quite possibly for terrorism activities also. Regulation of "Islamic charities," which often serve as conduits for terror financing across the Gulf, has been a key concern for both the international community and more determined governments such as Saudi Arabia – who made it illegal for charities to operate more than one bank account, monitor all transfers from that account, and prevent that account from making any transfers abroad. In contrast, al-Ajmi was happy for charities to be dangerously deregulated.

In August the United Nations Security Council blacklisted two Kuwaiti citizens for alleged financing of al-Nusrah Front in Syria. Both men, Hajjaj al-Ajmi and Shafi al-Ajmi had already been designated as terrorists by the U.S. government. Both are threatening to sue the U.S. government over this – but they have a somewhat blemished record when it comes to jihadist rhetoric.

Hajjaj al-Ajmi, who after being briefly detained by Kuwaiti border officials for questioning, then released – saw his liberty celebrated by Twitter accounts clearly linked to jihadi terrorists. Shafi al-Ajmi, whose preaching license has been revoked by the Kuwaiti government for radical sermons on Syria and Egypt, has implied that executing captured Shia fighters is OK, in his own twisted interpretation of Sunni Islam.

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, al-Ajmi "publicly admitted that he collected money under the auspices of charity and delivered the funds in person to ANF. Al-Ajmi also acknowledged purchasing and smuggling arms on behalf of ANF."

So it's strange that Mansour Ayad al-Otaibi, Kuwaiti envoy to the United Nations did not respond to this circumstantial evidence with a sober "We'll look into this and get back to you" but instead insisted his citizens innocence, telling reporters he hoped the sanctions would be temporary. The evidence will be up to the courts to decide upon, but the hastiness with which Kuwait's envoy rebuked the claims of terrorist links appears an unforgivable apathy.

Some experts believe Kuwait may again dodge a bullet; that appetite in the heart of the U.S. Administration is not there to blacklist a key player in the global oil markets, even as the U.S. Treasury continually denounces Kuwait. Others say that with the urgency of the Islamic State crisis, this time round may be different – and that Kuwait will either be blacklisted or end up on a "grey list," with limited sanctions such as are applied to Indonesia or Algeria. There is certainly nervousness within the Kuwait administration, some of which has been aired publically.

Why the laissez-faire attitude to policing people who fund other people to blow other people up? Politics. The ruling al-Sabah family are nervous that going after populist preachers may arouse the wrath of domestic fundamentalists, particularly Salafis. There have already been frequent protests, arguably riots, endless dissolutions and reformations of Parliament, election boycotts and corruption scandals. They don't want another issue on their plate.

Unfortunately the political needs of the al-Sabah monarchy stand at odds with the civilians being massacred in Iraq, the casualties of suicide bombers or grim mass murders. If indeed the U.S. Administration is talking the talk but not prepared to walk the walk – shame on them. If the international community is not prepared to push Kuwait harder, shame on them also. As for the Kuwaiti government – words have never been enough.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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