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The Mideast

Money, guns flowing from Kuwait to Syria's most radical rebel factions

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Free Syrian Army fighters fire at enemy positions during heavy clashes with government forces, in the Salaheddine district in Aleppo, Syria. Weapons and money are now flowing in from Kuwait. (AP) (AP)

Syrian rebels have a new source of weapons and cash from inside Kuwait, and their benefactors in the oil-rich state are sending the aid to the most militant and anti-West factions involved in the fight to topple Bashar al-Assad.

The role of Saudi and Qatari governments and individuals in the funding and arming of Islamist fighters in Syria has been well known since the civil war began more than two years ago. But now, guns and money are flowing from private sources and Salafist-controlled NGOs based in Kuwait, and they are going to rebel factions aligned with Al Qaeda.

“We are collecting money to buy all these weapons, so that our brothers will be victorious,” hard-core Sunni Islamist Sheikh Shafi' Al-Ajami announced on Kuwaiti television last month, listing the black-market prices of weapons, including heat-seeking missiles, anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Days later, Al-Ajami addressed a small throng outside the Lebanese Embassy in Kuwait and gleefully described slitting the throat of a Shiite Muslim in Syria.

“We slaughtered him with knives,” Al-Ajami said to shouts of “God is Great.”

“We are collecting money to buy all these weapons, so that our brothers will be victorious."

- Sheikh Shafi' Al-Ajami, Kuwaiti parliament member

U.S. and Western officials want aid flowing into Syria to be targeted to less extreme rebel groups. One concern is that hundreds of European fighters who have joined the most militant groups, which have links to Al Qaeda and other jihadist factions, will one day return home from Syria and carry out terrorist acts against the West.

Among the groups receiving money from Kuwait is the Syrian Islamic Front, an alliance of eight jihadist groups, which while ready to conduct joint operations with Western-backed rebels, has refused to join the Free Syrian Army. SIF leader Hassan Aboud Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi has admitted publicly the alliance has received funding from the al-Ajami network of donors.

Al-Ajami, a member of the Kuwaiti parliament, isn’t alone in the Gulf country banging the drum for jihad and raising money for Syrian rebels and jihadists. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which started this week, is high season for fundraising and analysts expect that with Sunni-Shiite tensions now at their height across the Middle East -- a result of what has become a sectarian conflict in Syria -- Kuwait’s Sunni Muslims will rally to anti-Shiite Islamist appeals for donations.

Former members of the Kuwaiti parliament Falah Al Sawagh and Waleed Al Tabtabie also are highly visible fundraisers and frequent travelers to rebel-held areas in Syria, Turkey and Jordan to hand over cash to their favored groups, say analysts.

Although neither has adopted the fiery rhetoric of al-Ajami, Al Sawagh admitted recently to Reuters that he places no constraints on how the recipients spend donations he gives and the funding can go to jihad.

“They have absolute freedom to spend this money. If they can recruit mujahedeen for defending themselves and their sanctity with this money, then this is their choice,” he told the wire agency.

The fundraising is open and, according to Norman Benotman, the president of the Quillam Foundation, a London-based think tank that monitors terrorism funding, Kuwait’s government doesn’t dare intervene.

“If they tried to launch a police or security crackdown there’d be a backlash,” Benotman said. “The tribes themselves organize the activity. Every day there’s fundraising; it is not an undercover or secretive pursuit. It is part of the social life of Kuwait now. The government would have to go after mosques, tribes, elders and Sheikhs. It would not be good for the Kuwaiti government. It is the last thing they need.”

And any government action would risk targeting powerful Muslim charities such as the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, a charity the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted in 2008 for bankrolling Al Qaeda. The long-established Kuwaiti charity was also named in 2011 for fostering radicalism among Spain’s Muslim population by the Spanish spy agency CNI.

How much money Kuwaitis channel to jihadist and more extreme Islamist groups in Syria isn’t known. But Quillam Foundation’s Benotman believes the sums are substantial.

“We are talking millions and millions,” he says.  

According to Benotman, the money isn’t just being collected from Kuwaitis, but is being sent there by other Gulf Arabs – especially from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to get around security measures by those governments.

“[Saudi Arabia and the UAE] have established official channels for aid and the governments supervise the funds destined for Syria,” Benotman said. “Saudis and Emiratis don’t want to risk severe punishment. So they send it to individuals and charities in Kuwait instead.”