A series of gunbattles here over the past month between Islamic militants and security forces have left many Kuwaitis wondering whether the violence plaguing neighboring Iraq and Saudi Arabia is about to spill over into their oil-rich Gulf state.
The Kuwaiti police have conducted several raids to round up Islamic militants who were allegedly planning to carry out attacks against Western targets, including American troops based in the country. Eight militants and four policemen have died in the clashes and 18 militants remain in custody. Large amounts of weapons and bombmaking materials have been seized.
With the authorities here admitting that the militants pose a serious threat, Kuwaitis fear they could pay a price for being America's staunchest ally in the Arab world. Kuwait gave full support to the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the country remains an important logistics hub for the US.
"These clashes are a small drop in the ocean to what is coming. Kuwait is becoming a top priority for Al Qaeda," says Mohammed Mulaifi, a writer and member of the strict Salafi branch of Sunni Islam who has close contacts with Kuwaiti militants.
So far the Kuwaiti authorities have remained one step ahead of the militants, breaking up cells, seizing weapons, and arresting suspects before attacks occur. At least three cells of Islamic militants have been identified and targeted in the crackdown, say Kuwaiti officials. On Tuesday, the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry announced that one ringleader, Amer Khlaif al-Enezi, 29, who was arrested in a raid on Jan. 31, died of "heart failure" in prison.
According to an official at the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry, Mr. Enezi had confessed to planning attacks against US military convoys. He says Enezi's brother, Nasser, who was killed in the Jan. 31 raid, had intended to kidnap Westerners and film their beheadings, a tactic he learned while fighting with insurgents in Iraq.
Mohsen al-Fadli and Khaled al-Dowsary, the other two wanted ringleaders, remain at large. Both are accused of having links with militants in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
In neighboring Saudi Arabia, the government is engaged in its own brutal confrontation with domestic Islamic militants intent on overthrowing the royal family. Despite the close ideological connections with their Saudi counterparts, Kuwaiti militants, analysts say, are more interested in attacking Western targets than ousting the ruling Sabah family.
The Kuwaiti authorities traditionally have turned a blind eye toward extremists operating in the country, so long as they refrained from directing their activities against the state. But the recent clashes have forced the government to look harder at the threat posed by domestic Islamists.
"These events mark a real watershed in terms of Kuwait dealing with the problem of extremists in their midst," says a Western diplomat, who did not want to be named.
The security scare also has led Kuwaitis to ask some searching questions about where to draw the line between legitimate conservative Islamic rhetoric and incitement to Islamist violence, and how to dissuade youngsters from turning toward the radical ideology of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
"These incidents have turned the majority of the religious believers against the militant trend," says Shafeeq Ghabra, president of the American University of Kuwait. "They are asking how it is possible that their 15- or 16-year-old sons can be recruited by militants to murder in the name of God."
Analysts say that the militants are motivated by a combination of factors: resentment toward the US-led occupation of Iraq and continued presence of American troops on Kuwaiti soil, the festering Arab-Israeli conflict, lack of democratic freedoms in Arab societies, and twisted interpretations of Islam.
Although Kuwait's constitution is secular in nature, conservative Islamists wield considerable influence in how secular laws are applied in society. For example, schools prohibit clapping and the playing of the national anthem, considering those contrary to the word of God and expressions of secularism. The government is starting to fight back against the influence of the conservative Islamists, a confrontation that analysts say will define the country's future.
"The battle will never be won if the interpretation of Islam continues to be hijacked by a minority of Muslims who have taken Islam out of context and turned it into a fighting religion instead of one of peace and enlightenment," says Mr. Ghabra. "This battle will define the Muslim world for generations to come."
The government has allocated 5.5 million Kuwaiti dinars toward an awareness campaign organized to promote moderate Islam. The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs is planning to hold live television debates between the public and the families of arrested militants.
Although most conservative Islamists say they welcome the government's initiatives, they doubt that they will have a lasting effect. "The violence won't stop because it is a deep-rooted feeling among some Muslims," says Mohammed Tabtabai, the dean of the College of Sharia and Islamic Studies at Kuwait University. "All you can do is try and reduce it."
Indeed, the violence in Kuwait is set to intensify, according to Mr. Mulaifi, the Salafist writer. "Kuwait was not part of Al Qaeda's plan of action in the past," he says. "But that changed after Al Qaeda realized that Kuwait had become a launching pad for the Crusader forces to enter and strike Iraq and crush hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis."
Soft-spoken and wearing a red-and-white head scarf and gray dishdash, Mr. Mulaifi says he does not support the violence of the radicals, but follows their discourse closely.
"I read the books that Al Qaeda leaders read, and I knew many youngsters who were sympathetic to Al Qaeda who fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan," he says. "That's why I can say that the calm in Kuwait was only a postponement. Kuwait is now under the Al Qaeda spotlight."