KUWAIT CITY – Every Friday, 17-year-old Dhari al-Zahameel’s family would wait for him to come back from the mosque so they could have lunch together. Then one day the young al-Zahameel didn’t come home, instead sending word he had gone to fight in the jihad, or holy war.
The teenager did not say where he was headed, but his father, Othman al-Zahameel, found out the boy had taken a flight to Syria that day — April 30 — with a friend of about the same age. The final destination was not difficult to figure out: Iraq.
The elder al-Zahameel told The Associated Press he made several fruitless trips to Syria to search for his son. Then, in mid-July, Dhari, his friend and two other Kuwaitis — one also a teenager — were sent home from Syria.
The Kuwait government said they had been accused of trying to enter Iraq illegally, the first official acknowledgment that citizens of this U.S. ally were taking up arms against American troops in Iraq.
It was something of a shock because this small oil-rich state owes its 1991 liberation from a seven-month Iraqi occupation to a U.S.-led coalition and Kuwait was the launch pad for the war that toppled Saddam Hussein last year. Just as upsetting was that apparently many of those recruited by Kuwaiti extremists to fight in Iraq are teenagers.
One Kuwaiti security official said Muslim radicals are recruiting teens because they are too young to remember Saddam’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait and so have no qualms about fighting their country’s liberators in Iraq.
Upon their return to Kuwait, Al-Zahameel and his three comrades were detained by Kuwaiti security officers, and information from their interrogations led to the arrest of 14 extremists suspected of recruiting them or preparing for terrorist attacks here.
The teenager remains under investigation and could face up to two years in juvenile detention if he is convicted of leaving the country to fight Americans, said his lawyer, Abdullah al-Otaibi.
Osama al-Menawer, a lawyer who represents Islamic fundamentalists, said dozens of Kuwaitis seeking to join Iraq’s insurgency have entered the country through Syria, Iran and Turkey, avoiding Kuwait’s own tightly controlled frontier. Many have been killed in the fighting, which they view as a jihad, or Muslim holy war.
“Nobody is denying what the Americans did” for Kuwait, he said. But, he added, “is everything America does correct?”
Experts on Islamic extremism say radical groups see the presence of U.S. troops on Arab soil as a chance to rally their followers.
For more than a decade this Gulf emirate has been gripped by a struggle between liberals who want more freedoms and a stronger democracy and Muslim fundamentalists who favor full implementation of sharia, Islamic law.