Al-Qaeda Rattles America's Gulf Allies

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Denis Poroy/AP

A ceremony for Lance Cpl. Antonio Sledd, killed Tuesday in Kuwait, was held Friday at Camp Pendleton, California

Although only one U.S. serviceman was killed, the implications of last Tuesday's attack on a Marine training exercise in Kuwait may have set alarm bells ringing as far away as Washington. It had all the markings of a well-planned suicide operation: Anas Kandari, 21, and Jassem Hajiri, 26, had traveled from their homes in Kuwait City to the uninhabited island of Failaka, 12 miles offshore. There they had stalked U.S. Marines participating in an urban warfare exercise code-named "Eager Mace," before jumping out of a white pickup truck and spraying the Americans with Kalashnikov rifle fire. As the Marines took cover, the two men scrambled back into their vehicle and proceeded up the road where they attacked a second cluster of Marines before they were blown away.

Authorities believe the killers were — at the very least — Islamic extremists, and may well have had direct links with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. That would be worrying enough for the U.S. and its allies, given that it was the first such anti-American terrorist attack ever staged in Kuwait, a country that has been steadfastly pro-American since U.S. forces led the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq's occupation in 1991. But the Falaika incident, preceded by what now appears to have been a suicide attack last weekend on an oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, and followed by an attempted attack on a Humvee carrying U.S. troops in Kuwait a day later, may be an ominous signal that al-Qaeda intends to make the most of America's growing confrontation with Iraq. An obviously shaken Kuwaiti government launched a sweep and arrested a number of suspected accomplices, declaring the attacks "against Kuwait's national interests" and vowing to take "all necessary measures."

The Falaika attack may have been the first staged in Kuwait, but it was not the first time U.S. forces have been targeted in the Gulf since the end of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. In November 1995, confessed Bin Laden supporters from Saudi Arabia set off a car bomb at a joint Saudi-American training facility in Riyadh, killing four U.S. servicemen. In June 1996, attackers with alleged links to Iran detonated a massive truck bomb outside a U.S. Air Force housing complex in Khobar, eastern Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans. A few months later, the Saudi-born Bin Laden openly declared a jihad against the U.S., denouncing America's military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

Assuming that one or more of this week's attacks were the work of al-Qaeda, they dramatize what could become a larger factor working against U.S. efforts to depose Saddam Hussein through military force. "This most recent operation is consistent with the primary goal that Al Qaeda set for itself from the very first moment of its confrontation with the U.S., namely, to expel U.S. forces from the Arabian Peninsula," says Satie Noureddin of Beirut's daily As Safir newspaper. "The timing leaves no room for doubt that U.S. plans for war on Iraq cannot remain as they are without further adjustments."

The news from Kuwait this week raised tensions at other U.S. facilities around the region, prompting increased security. For the past decade, the U.S. has maintained approximately 25,000 active personnel in the Gulf countries as part of the strategy of containing Iraq under the auspices of Operation Southern Watch, which maintains no-fly zones over southern Iraq, as well as the Multinational Interdiction Force that monitors shipping in and out of Iraq.

But an invasion of Iraq could bring a tenfold increase in U.S. forces scattered across tiny Gulf kingdoms such as Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. The Pentagon already uses two Kuwaiti air bases and maintains a substantial ground force at that country's Camp Doha. Bahrain is home to the U.S. 6th Fleet, while Qatar hosts the biggest pre-positioned military hardware facility in the world — a brigade's worth of tanks, armored personnel carriers, ammo and other equipment. The United Arab Emirates and Oman have routinely allowed U.S. planes to come and go and may see a buildup of U.S. forces in the event of a war, while one of the biggest U.S. contingents in the Gulf is at Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan Airforce Base (P-SAB) near Riyadh. The Saudis have spoken out strongly against a war, but have indicated that they will allow the use of P-SAB if the United Nations authorizes military force against Saddam's regime. But because of Saudi sensitivities and because of the tactical geography of the region, Kuwait rather than Saudi Arabia is likely to be the focal point for U.S. ground troops massing to enter southern Iraq.

One of the more disturbing aspects of this week's attacks is the sense they create that despite having been saved by the U.S. in 1991, some Kuwaitis share the widespread Arab anger at the U.S. both because of Washington's unflagging support for Israel and because of its threats against Iraq. "Throughout the area, Bush's policies are making people more anti-American," said a senior Gulf diplomat. The London-based Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper was even more strident: "Kuwait is supposed to be the safest and most loyal ally of the Americans. The fact that a group of Kuwaitis has attacked U.S. forces reflects a transformation of the great love and gratitude felt by Kuwaitis towards the U.S. into intense hatred."

It remained unclear, for now, whether the Kuwaiti gunmen acted on instructions from al-Qaeda or some local equivalent, or on their own. But senior officials in Kuwait revealed that Kandari and Hajiri had spent time in Afghanistan and were known to be Muslim fundamentalists with connections to "certain extremist groups." The authoritative Asharq al Awsat daily published in London quoted Kuwaiti sources saying that the men were probably linked to bin Laden's network. Arab commentators see the attack in Kuwait and Yemen as a sign that al-Qaeda sleeper cells have been activated. Kandari and Hajiri would certainly not be the first known al-Qaeda operatives to hail from Kuwait. The group's oft-videotaped spokesman is a militant Kuwaiti preacher named Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. And a Kuwait-born Palestinian, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, is believed to have played a central role in planning the September 11 attacks.

But Kandari's brother Abdullah expressed doubt during an al-Jazeera interview over the suggestion that his brother may have been acting on orders from al-Qaeda. Abdullah Kandari described how his brother, just before he headed to Falaika Island to launch his attack, had become angry watching the 9pm news on Kuwait TV, which had broadcast footage of Palestinians killed by an Israeli missile strike in the Gaza refugee camp of Khan Yunis. According to Abdullah, Anas had jumped to his feet and cried, "God is generous, O Americans! We shall come and slaughter you like you have been slaughtering us!" Abdullah Kandari said that his brother blamed the U.S. more than Israel, and questioned how the U.S. could protect Kuwait while causing problems for Arabs.