Kuwait plays uneasy host as Canadian jets join anti-ISIS campaign
CP-140M Aurora reconnaissance aircraft prepare to leave CFB Greenwood in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley on Friday, October 24, 2014.(Andrew Vaughan / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, October 29, 2014 2:30PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, October 30, 2014 7:06AM EDT
KUWAIT CITY -- Canadian warplanes have taken up position in Kuwait, a country straining in its own way to hold back the tide of Islamic extremism from its borders.
The CF-18 jet fighters and CP-140 Aurora surveillance planes are expected to join a U.S.-led coalition's bombing campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant within days.
But outside the tightly buttoned-down airfields there is angst about what is shaping up to be the third war in the region in two decades.
"The official line here is to take a pro-Western position, while maintaining a neutral stance," said George E. Irani, an international studies professor at the American University of Kuwait.
"Yet, the local dimension, you certainly have a large, important, powerful Islamist presence here."
With Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Baghdad, about 600 kilometres away, much of the debate in this tiny country is how much of a security threat is posed by the extremist movement and what sort of long-term political danger its fanatical ideology represents.
The country's security forces recently broke up a suspected ISIL cell and authorities in neighbouring Saudi Arabia last week sentenced 14 people for plotting to carry out suicide bombings against military targets in Kuwait and Qatar.
Security around western military bases is strict and Canadians -- as of early this week -- needed special permission to leave their fortified compounds.
It is as much about maintaining a low profile as it is fear of drawing an extremist attack.
Some suggest ISIL doesn't have to pour across the Iraqi border in order to sow mayhem and that the threat -- much like the attacks last week in Ottawa and St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., demonstrated -- may come from homegrown radicals inspired through the Internet.
Kuwait hosted a major conference of coalition partners earlier this week that focused on the online threat, a meeting from which Canada was absent.
A Foreign Affairs spokeswoman in Ottawa said the conference, where the U.S., Britain, France, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and the Gulf States discussed ISIL's sophisticated online propaganda and recruiting, was an "official level" meeting.
Retired U.S. general John Allen, who is co-ordinating the campaign against ISIL, was present.
Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Claude Rochon said in an email that Canada was not at the conference because it was organized for the Gulf Co-operation Council and the United States. But Rochon noted the region had already been visited by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
Allen told the gathering that contesting the Islamic State's presence online and denying "the legitimacy of the message it sends to vulnerable young people" is vital.
"It is only then that ISIL will truly be defeated."
But experts here say the problem in the Muslim world is not necessarily online and the emphasis on social media is more a reflection of western self-interest, because that is how radicalism spreads in countries such as Canada, the U.S., and Britain.
Keeping intolerance out of the mosques and the education system is a preoccupation for the Kuwaiti government, political observers say. They add that more emphasis needs to be placed on that aspect of the coalition strategy.
Unlike Afghanistan and Pakistan, where hate is propagated among poor, illiterate masses, radicals in the Gulf States tend to be well off and potentially more dangerous because they are committed ideologues, or true believers.
That may, in part, explain the sheer brutality of Islamic State fighters.
Kuwaitis who pride themselves on being moderates and progressive have watched some of their countrymen take up senior positions in ISIL. The commander overseeing the battle for Kobani along the Turkish border, is apparently a Kuwaiti citizen known as 'Azam Al-Kuwaiti.'
Security experts say people here are bombarded by fake Twitter accounts trying to entice them to join the Islamic State jihad.
The country has recently seen the return of up to 2,000 Islamist fighters who went to fight against the Assad regime in Syria, but not all of them are extremists, said Irani.
"I would define Kuwait's policy towards ISIL as cautious pragmatism, relying on a heavy U.S. presence here," Irani said.