August 18, 2015

Biduns in the Face of Radicalization in Kuwait

A Kuwaiti special forces vehicle is parked outside the constitutional court in Kuwait City on August 4 during the trial of 29 suspects charged over a suicide bombing at a Shia mosque in June. (YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

The criminal investigation into the June 24 attack on the Shia Imam Sadiq mosque in Kuwait, which killed 26 people and left more than 200 others injured, revealed the involvement of some biduns, or stateless population. While the suicide bomber was identified as a Saudi national, the inquiry led to the arrest of three Kuwaiti biduns: the driver of the car who took the bomber to the mosque and collected the explosive belt from Saudi accomplices at the southern border, the owner of the car, and the car owner’s brother. Moreover, on July 14, the Kuwaiti media reported that, out of the 29 suspects charged in the attack by the public prosecution, five were Kuwaitis, seven Saudis, three Pakistanis, and 13 biduns.

The biduns constitute a marginalized segment of the Kuwaiti population that has been living in legal limbo for 30 to 50 years. While they claim that they are entitled to Kuwaiti nationality because they have no other, since 1986 Kuwait has considered them to be alien “illegal residents,” although evidence suggests that the majority has been there for longer. As a result, the biduns have been denied most civil and human rights, including access to education, health services, employment, and official documents. These conditions were softened in 2011 when a government decree reinstated limited basic rights for some of the biduns registered with the agency mandated with finding a solution to their legal conundrum.

The apparent involvement of some biduns in the June attack, together with the fact that Jihadi John, the executioner of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), hailed from an Iraqi family that fled to Kuwait in 1987 and lived in the same suburbs as the biduns before emigrating to the United Kingdom, raises concern about the radicalization of a small minority of people belonging to this category. The presence on Kuwait’s territory of some 100,000 people – about 10 percent of the population – living in a legal vacuum and suffering from discrimination and marginalization would appear to represent a potential security threat.

Yet, given the diverse circumstances of the biduns, the more pressing question is about the individual trajectories of radicalization. The biduns involved in violent actions seem to carry them out not because they are biduns but rather as a result of their tribal affiliations and social inclusion in a broader trend of Sunni radicalization affecting Kuwait and its neighbors. Overemphasizing the security threat of the biduns risks driving a wedge between them and the rest of Kuwaiti society, making the resolution of this intractable problem all the more difficult.

Sunni Radicalization and the Tribal-Islamist Nexus

The bidun involvement in political violence has come only in the framework of extremist transnational Islamist movements present in the country and comprising Kuwaitis as well as foreigners. This was the case of the Lions of the Peninsula Brigades, a violent organization linked with Iraqi and Saudi branches of al-Qaeda that fought the U.S. presence in Kuwait in the first half of the 2000s. In 2005, following a shootout with the Kuwaiti police forces, 25 Kuwaitis and seven biduns were tried for belonging to the organization.

The complicity of biduns in political violence, then, reflects a broader trend of Islamic empowerment and radicalization affecting Kuwaiti politics. It follows the convergence of interests between tribes and Islamist movements including the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements that originated from non-tribal (hadhar) Kuwaitis. While socialization in these movements functioned as a vehicle for upward mobility for a new generation of tribal youth, tribal allegiances, conversely, helped Islamists gain electoral victories, especially since 2006.

As a rule, the biduns have little faith in politics. They accurately understand the limits of what Kuwaiti politicians can actually do to help in the issue of nationality, as the conferral of citizenship is considered the domain of the ruling family. Still, the biduns have been exposed to the political doctrines of Sunni Islamists via two channels. First, as a people derived mainly from transnational tribal backgrounds (mostly Anazi, Shammar, and Dhafir composed of both Sunnis and Shias), the biduns inhabit the Kuwaiti “tribal” periphery, where Salafi currents are well implanted, in particular the activist Hizb al-Umma. Second, the influence of the Salafis and Muslim Brothers grew among biduns due to their financial clout, distributed through powerful charities, including the Salafi Association for the Revival of the Islamic Heritage and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Association for Islamic Reform.

As the Syrian war galvanized some of these currents, in particular the Salafis’, the politicized biduns were also part of the momentum. For instance, Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti, deputy commander of Jabhat al-Nusra in Qalamoun, hit the news in March 2014 when he was seen releasing the Maloula nuns after an agreement reached between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Syrian government. A few days later he fell on the battlefield during combat in Yabroud, and was hailed as a “martyr” not only by his bidun relatives but also by Islamist former members of parliament, Jaaman al-Harbash (Muslim Brotherhood from the Aniza tribe) and Walid al-Tabtabai (haraki Salafi from an urban background).

The temptation to fight in Syria and Iraq is also present among young affluent Kuwaitis whose number on the battlefield was estimated at 70 at the beginning of 2015. Singling out the biduns for their involvement in movements that have taken a radical turn in the face of regional events (notably in Syria) misses the bigger picture of Islamist empowerment since the 1980s and its increasing connection to tribes, which extend into neighboring countries. It also risks further stigmatizing the entire group, justifying the oppressive policies that substitute for finding a definitive solution.

The Danger of Further Delegitimization 

Originally made up of people “without nationality” due to their failure to register with the competent authority before 1965, the biduns are a mixed category. The classification also includes tribesmen from neighboring countries who were recruited by the police and military for their tribal loyalty, as well as nationals of poorer neighbors who, according to the Kuwaiti authorities, tried to blend in with Kuwait’s stateless population in the 1970s and 1980s, fleeing Iraq’s bloody dictatorship or merely hoping to obtain Kuwaiti nationality.

Although Kuwaiti citizens do not favor naturalizing the biduns, they have often expressed dissatisfaction with the way the government has let the issue damage the “modernist” reputation of the emirate for three decades. Since 1985, when the first public debates surrounding the emergence of this indeterminate category took place in the National Assembly, Kuwaiti politicians have warned against this “time bomb” and denounced the government’s poor handling of the issue, which has let it snowball, making the solution more difficult and costly in both human and financial terms.

In December 1986, in the midst of an economic crisis, a classified decree stated that the biduns should be gradually replaced in the security forces by people with established nationality. It also called for the strict application of the 1959 Law on the Residence of Aliens, thereby ending the exemption from sponsorship and residence permit requirements that “members of tribes” had been granted until then. It resulted in the dismissal of biduns from their employment for failure to provide adequate documentation, the expulsion of their children from public schools, and the subsequent stripping of any of the socio-economic rights they had enjoyed before.

The ministerial decree was being implemented when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Upon Kuwait’s liberation in 1991, the biduns were blamed for the humiliating military defeat and cast as traitors due to both their prominent role in the security forces and the actual collaboration of a minority of them with the Iraqis. Human Rights Watch reported that, in September 1990, the Iraqi authorities ordered all non-Kuwaitis living in Kuwait to join the pro-Iraqi Popular Army under threat of death. A few bidun individuals did, and this stigmatized the entire group despite the fact that some biduns had also joined the resistance against the Iraqi occupation and many were killed by the occupation forces. It wasn’t until the 2000s that pro-bidun Kuwaiti activists were able to raise awareness of the issue and clear their reputation as “traitors to their country.”

Brandishing the security threat is an efficient means to widen the distance between the Kuwaitis and the biduns, undistinguishable from them, and delegitimize the latter’s claims. Since the Iraqi invasion, the Kuwaiti authorities have issued “security blocks” against 900 cases of biduns suspected of collaborating with the enemy, to make sure these flagged individuals wouldn’t obtain nationality. As a result, they also face further impediments to accessing government services. Yet, in recent years, the basis for these security blocks has been widely extended and includes, among other “unspecified security restrictions,” participation in the 2011 unauthorized demonstrations; an expansion that could now affect some 30,000 people.

In February 2011, inspired by popular uprisings in the Arab world, the biduns launched their own peaceful protest in the hinterlands of Kuwait where the majority live. Brandishing Kuwaiti flags and pictures of the emir, they demanded an end to their marginalized status. In a bid to reassure the nationals and dispel the image of a dangerous people, at the start of the protests they organized blood donations to the Kuwaiti Blood Bank and offered flowers to Kuwaitis.

However, as a result of consistent policies of discrimination and exclusion, the possibility of solving the bidun issue through the biduns’ integration into Kuwaiti society seems more and more distant. Despite repeated promises by the government, no solution has materialized. A law passed in 2000 permitting the naturalization of 2,000 people a year was never implemented. In 2010, the agency in charge of the bidun file stated that 34,000 biduns out of 106,000 officially met the eligibility requirements for Kuwaiti nationality, however no steps were taken toward naturalization. Instead, the government announced that it was considering granting the biduns citizenship in the Comoros islands in a deal in which the government would transfer money to the African archipelago in exchange for issuing its passports to the biduns. However, the new generation of biduns rejected this arrangement as a sales transaction, feeling that it ignored their attachment to the country in which they were born.

The recent attack and the subsequent trial in which the bidun driver of the suicide bomber allegedly acknowledged being an ISIL member put the spotlight on the bidun presence in the country. Yet, the involvement of a few stateless individuals in violent actions does not mean that the entire category constitutes a security threat, nor does it prove that disenfranchisement makes biduns more prone to jihadist involvement. This reasoning reinforces the decade-long government emphasis on the security threat posed by this unwanted and excluded group, and serves to diminish any sympathy by urban Kuwaitis for the plight of the biduns. Eventually this could also delegitimize the biduns’ claim to citizenship and hasten a harsh solution that disregards the desires and interests of those most concerned: the biduns themselves. Instead, what should be recognized in the radicalization of a few biduns is the growing influence of Sunni transnational movements as well as the creeping sectarianization of the biduns – a new and troubling development for a group whose sectarian identity has until now been mixed and, if anything, considered Shia.

Claire Beaugrand is a researcher with the Insitut français du Proche Orient (Ifpo) and member of the European Research Council program “When Authoritarianism Fails in the Arab World.” She authored a doctoral thesis on Statelessness and Transnationalism in Northern Arabia: Biduns and State Building in Kuwait 1959-2009, which will be published by IB Tauris.