Bosnian Muslims Turn to Kuwait For Money, Arms

A network of Arab contacts from Afghan war works to find support for Muslim brethren

WHILE Western governments debate whether or not to support Bosnian Muslims under Serbian attack, religious groups in the oil-rich Persian Gulf are openly raising funds for Bosnian fighters.

With public support for the Bosnians running high in the region, Kuwait has become a key stop on a fund-raising circuit whose focus is financing illicit arms purchases.

Officials and activists interviewed by the Monitor say a network of Arab contacts dating back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan has been revived to channel aid to Bosnia.

And in an ironic twist, Kuwait's own dependence on the non-Muslim West to defend its borders may be fueling a growing religious conservatism inside Kuwait. Some Kuwaitis lobbying for the Bosnians say they are "ashamed" by their country's reliance on American troops.

Earlier this month Abu Abdelazziz, the heavily bearded leader of Arab fighters in Bosnia, ended a two-week visit to Kuwait. In public meetings and radio phone-in programs, the Arab commander called on Kuwaitis to support what he described as an Islamic cause.

The Saudi Arabian-born Mr. Abdelazziz, a veteran of the Afghanistan mujahideen, last year joined Bosnian fighters in their war against the Serbian Army. In Kuwait he met with Kuwaiti fundamentalist groups and leading merchants known for their support of Islamic causes.

His message, Kuwaiti supporters say, was: "We don't need money, we need weapons." Even before he arrived, fund-raisers were directing funds to be sent to Bosnia's "Islamic Forces."

"People say they want to buy guns for Bosnia. I tell them to go to Croatia," said a Kuwaiti sympathizer. "If anyone wants to give the mujahideen weapons, he must send money ... there."

In a December Arab foreign ministers' meeting, Saudi Arabia warned that Muslim states would ignore the weapons ban if the United Nations did not take steps to halt Serbian aggression against Bosnian Muslims.

Kuwaiti aid officials refuse to say how much money has been raised, but the sum is believed to be substantial. Late last year Kuwait's Emir personally donated $1 million to Bosnian orphanages. Some Kuwaiti Islamists have suggested that captured Iraqi weapons from the 1991 Gulf war should be shipped to Bosnia.

According to a Kuwaiti who met with Abdelazziz, the Arab commander also asked for donations of medical equipment and staff. Muhammad al-Sharhan said aid is being channeled through the Zagreb office of the Kuwait Joint Relief Committee.

Dr. Sharhan spent three years in Peshawar, Pakistan as director of the Kuwaiti Red Crescent during the Afghanistan war. Still employed by Kuwait's Health Ministry, his new cause is Bosnia. Visits there have convinced him Arab states' support is needed.

"In any place where Muslims are being tortured and humiliated, jihad [holy war] should rise to liberate them - whether in Bosnia or Kashmir," Sharhan says.

Kuwait's government has kept a low profile on the Bosnian issue. Still, a permanent representative to Kuwait has been named: Bosnian Zachariah Aliovich, a student of Islamic studies, who has lived in Kuwait for six years. Most of the time he shuttles between Kuwait and his birthplace.

Yusuf Abderahman, a journalist with the Al Anbaa daily, has spent years covering Islamic movements around the world.

"The West, after the failure of communism, is looking to Islam as the new enemy," says Mr. Abderahman, who recently returned from a visit to the former Yugoslavia. "This is the new world order. The West was tough about the Iraq-Kuwait conflict, about Somalia. But in Bosnia, in Kashmir, Burma - nothing.

"What is best for Islam is that there be no war in the world. But if there is a war and we see a Muslim with a problem we must fight. Yes, it is a jihad."

Salah al-Rashad, director of Kuwait's Islam Presentation Committee, believes Bosnia "is the No. 1 issue today." Like other activists, he has made frequent trips to Afghanistan in support of Arab mujahideen fighters.

His committee, formed to assist new converts to Islam, regularly conducts conversion ceremonies in Kuwaiti prisons. Last week it sponsored a showing of a video about Britain's most famous convert to Islam, pop singer Cat Stevens.

"For the first time the Bosnians are speaking, people who have been forgotten for 300 years. The Kuwaitis didn't even know these people were Muslims," Mr. Rashad said. "The Bosnians are only Muslims by name - they look like Europeans, they eat like Europeans. But now they are beginning to think like Muslims."

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