March 30, 2014 | Policy Brief

Controversial Kuwaiti Minister Offers to Step Down

March 30, 2014 | Policy Brief

Controversial Kuwaiti Minister Offers to Step Down

Nayef al-Ajmi, Kuwait’s controversial government minister, submitted his resignation last week after a particularly bumpy three months in office. Al-Ajmi had been in charge of both the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments.

Shortly after being sworn in during early January, it became clear that al-Ajmi had an extensive track record linked to the financing of Syria-based jihadist groups.  His image or direct endorsement had been used by three separate networks to raise money for extremist Syrian fighters such as the Islamic Front and, according to some reports, even al Qaeda’s affiliate the Nusrah Front.

In a March 4 speech in Washington, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, called out the tiny Gulf states of Kuwait and Qatar for being “permissive jurisdictions” where fundraisers can easily collect money for “extremist insurgents” that are “often terrorist groups.”

Cohen specifically described Kuwait’s appointment of al-Ajmi as “a step in the wrong direction,” explaining that “Al-Ajmi has a history of promoting jihad in Syria” and confirming that one of the individuals using al-Ajmi’s image for fundraising posters was indeed “a prominent al-Nusrah Front financier.”  Cohen also criticized al-Ajmi's authorization of non-profits and charities to collect donations at Kuwaiti mosques as “a measure we believe can be easily exploited by Kuwait-based terrorist fundraisers.”

During his short tenure, al-Ajmi also came under fire for misogyny.  His announcement that only men need apply to a legal researcher position in the Justice Ministry elicited praise from hardliners but earned him the condemnation of women’s rights activists, including in Kuwait’s National Assembly. 

Just before his resignation last week, one Kuwaiti parliamentarian issued an open challenge to al-Ajmi, asserting that Cohen’s allegations were too serious to ignore.  The MP insisted that either al-Ajmi “hand in his resignation immediately” or “reject the accusations and sue the U.S. official,” since “lapsing into silence will only fuel speculation and doubt.”

In the end, the Kuwaiti paper al-Jarida reported that al-Ajmi submitted his verbal resignation citing health reasons. However, the paper cited informed sources explaining that the real story was more complicated and pointed to Cohen’s allegations.  Al-Ajmi’s Twitter feed stated on Wednesday that had he left the country for treatment, but as of today he was back in Kuwait for an audience with the amir’s deputy, Crown Prince Nawaf.

Al-Jarida claims that the amir will make a decision regarding al-Ajmi’s resignation in the days or weeks ahead. If the amir lets him go, it will be a step forward for Kuwait, which has become a significant funding source for jihadism in Syria. But it is unlikely that Treasury will stop at al-Ajmi. As Cohen warned, Kuwait has become a terrorism finance jurisdiction of significant concern.

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.