Kuwaiti Salafis have played a central role in supporting armed groups in Syria. They have established support entities, and most of them do their work in public and are highly organized. Major credit goes to unofficial Kuwaiti money in arming a number of the biggest armed groups in Syria such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and al-Nusra Front.
Since the start of the Syrian crisis, a lot has been said about the Qatari, Saudi and Turkish roles in supporting the Syrian opposition and the armed groups. The Kuwaiti role, on the other hand, has not been exposed even though it is has been effective and influential. It is also different from the role played by the aforementioned countries, at least officially.
The Kuwaiti ruling family did not adopt this role publically, but at the same time it did not try to curb it. That is despite the fact that the Kuwaiti role has been a public one, featuring former and current Kuwaiti MPs, as well as Salafi clerics. It plays out on more than one front including funding and exporting jihadis. The Kuwaiti role involved not only creating military operation rooms and directing the course of certain battles, but also giving direct orders to commit massacres and then boasting about them.
The Hatla massacre: Made in Kuwait
A massacre was committed in the village of Hatla in Deir al-Zour’s countryside last June in which 60 victims were killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. People were killed with Kuwaiti knives and purely for sectarian reasons. Just like al-Nusra Front boasted at the time that it “cleansed Hatla of the Shia,” Kuwaiti Sheikh Shafi al-Ajami boasted of “slaughtering Shias with knives” amidst cheers and cries of “God is great.” Saudi, Qatari and Kuwaiti media outlets celebrated the massacre each in its own way. When a journalist from Asia News Agency asked Ajami a few days later “if he feared that the Kuwaiti authorities might arrest him,” he replied: “This is an issue that concerns me and the Kuwaiti authorities,” who did not lift a finger.
Funding and directing al-Nusra Front
After its dispute with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Kuwaiti Salafis played a central role in funding al-Nusra Front. The nature of the relationship between the two sides changed from implementing specific missions and getting paid for them, like the Hatla massacre, to ongoing funding and supervision.
A jihadi source told Al-Akhbar that “al-Ummah Party under the leadership of Hakim al-Mutairi is now active in financing and directing al-Nusra Front.” The source says that there were leaks that revealed his role. According to those leaks, “Hajaj al-Ajami is Mutairi’s man in Syria. After disagreements erupted between al-Nusra Front and ISIS, Ajami took advantage of al-Nusra Front’s need for money and agreed with its leaders to provide them with support.” This support was coupled with Ajami’s recommendation of Kuwaiti mujahideen who became sharia officials and leaders within al-Nusra Front such as Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti, who was until recently, one of the influential sharia officials.
According to the leaks, “he [Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti] does not have enough education to qualify him to hold a position with influence on al-Nusra leaders.” Ajaj Ajami was not the only Kuwaiti to fund al-Nusra. According to the same source, “al-Nusra Front accepted the funding from Shafi Ajami who provided it with about a million US dollars so far.” Kuwaiti endeavors have also succeeded in prompting some brigades to swear allegiance to al-Nusra Front. This, the source says, means that “Mutairi has taken root in al-Nusra Front and seized control of it not only through sharia officials and funding, but also by penetrating the group through entire factions that pledge allegiance to him directly.”
It should be noted that a number of Kuwaiti media outlets promoted the sharia officials of al-Nusra Front and their role in “demonstrating the deviation in ISIS’s thought.” They also claimed that “these preachers are known for their diligence in seeking to learn, and their history of knowledge is well-known.”
The Council of Supporters
Kuwaiti support for al-Nusra Front is not new, it was preceded by a lot of support initiatives that continue to this day to provide hardline armed groups with millions of dollars in cash and arms.
The Council of Supporters is one such initiative. Its formation was declared in December ۲۰۱۲ and it includes clerics, activists and former MPs such as Mohammed Hayef, who serves as the secretary general of the Council of Supporters.
Some of the most prominent members of the council are Dr. Fahd al-Khinah, Dr. Othman al-Khamis, Dr. Farhan al-Shamry, Dr. Nayef al-Ajami, Mohammed Dawi and Abdel Mane al-Sawwan. The council plays a vital role in funding a number of armed groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, as Kuwaiti support played a primary role in its formation.
The Damascus operations room
The Council of Supporters was the real player behind the creation of the Damascus operations room in September 2013. It included Jaysh al-Islam, al-Furqan Brigades, al-Habib al-Mustafa Brigades, the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement, the Companions Brigades and Battalions and the Army of the Muslims Brigade. A paragraph in its declaration of formation was dedicated to thanking the council, which has “graciously supported our operations room in all areas from military and logistic support to relief and moral support.”
Kuwait’s major campaign
The campaign was publicly launched in June 2013 at the same time as the Hatla massacre and was titled: “Kuwait’s Major Campaign to Prepare 12,000 Invaders for Syria.” The title was eventually mitigated by replacing the word “invader” with “mujahid.” The campaign collected 8.4 million Kuwait dinars (about US$ 30 million). Its main promoters were MPs Walid al-Tabtabaai, Jomaan al-Harbash, Mubarak al-Walaan, Falah al-Sawwagh, Badr al-Dahoum, Nayef al-Midras and Hamad al-Mattar. In addition to clerics Shafi al-Ajami, Abdul Aziz al-Fadli and Hajaj al-Ajami.
The [Syrian] coast operations room
Sheikh Hajaj bin Fahd al-Ajami played a central role in establishing an operations room for Syria’s coastal areas, which managed the attack on the villages of the northern Latakia countryside a few months ago. Ajami met at the time with a number of leaders of armed groups in the Latakia countryside, including Omar al-Shishani, the leader of the Army of Emigrants and Supporters. He convinced them to establish the operations room and launch the battle for Syria’s coastal area. Ajami is considered one of the most prominent supporters and financiers of Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham Movement. He plays a prominent role in providing the mujahideen with money through associations, some of which operate under the cover of humanitarian relief.
Al-Ajman and Yam tribes gathering to support Syria
This gathering represents one of the tribal activities supporting the revolution. It is controlled by the al-Ajman tribe, a sub-tribe of Yam. The gathering organizes campaigns to collect donations. Its funds are used in two ways, public relief work and clandestine arming. The last campaign was organized in October 2013 in the name of the Martyrs of al-Ajman and Yam tribe in Syria in “honor of the memory of some of the tribal men who were martyred, in Syria in defense of God’s religion and Muslims’ sanctity,” according to the statement made by the campaign’s general supervisor Nader Khamis bin Dakla al-Ajami.
The gathering cooperates with the Council of Supporters of the Syrian Revolution in Kuwait whose secretary general admitted in a speech he gave at the launch of the campaign that he “gives ۷۰ percent of his support to the Army of Islam in Damascus.” Among those present were a number of official figures including ambassador Abdul Aziz al-Subaie, honorary president of the Arab Union of Childhood Ambassadors, who honored those in charge of the campaign.
Al-Tabtabai: Godfather of the siege of Nubl and al-Zahraa
Former Kuwaiti MP Walid al-Tabtabai is considered one of the most influential figures among the armed groups in Syria. He frequently visits the areas under their control. He makes sure that the aid collected in Kuwait reaches these groups either in the form of cash to cover the fighters’ salaries, or in the form of arms shipments. Opposition media sources confirmed that one of his visits to the Idlib countryside lasted four months during which he participated in planning some operations.
In September 2013, Tabtabai appeared in a video clip on Youtube during his participation in preparing and launching Grad missiles allegedly at the Syrian coast. Many of the supporters of the revolution have expressed their gratitude for his effective contribution, including “his keenness on tightening the siege imposed on the two towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa in the Aleppo countryside.” Opposition sources confirm that Tabtabai is one of the godfathers of this siege. In November 2013 a rumor emerged that “he was injured after an air raid targeted a meeting he was having with 10 leaders of the armed groups in the Aleppo countryside.” Others claimed that he was killed before he gave a statement from Kuwait denying such reports.