INTERNATIONAL

Gulf States fear Iraq, Al-Qaeda tie-up

MANAMA (BAHRAIN) Nov. 24. Faced with a series of violent incidents, key Persian Gulf States of Kuwait, Yemen and Saudi Arabia appear to have intensified a campaign to counter remnants of the Al-Qaeda group fleeing the war in Afghanistan. These countries fear that the influence of the Al-Qaeda can be highly destabilising in case the U.S. leads a war against Iraq.

Since most of these Persian Gulf States are pro-U.S. and would have no choice but to collaborate with the Washington in a war against a fellow Arab State, there is a genuine concern among them that the Al-Qaeda terror cells will exploit the situation to acquire greater influence and seriously challenge them from within. Most countries in the region do not, so far, see a direct link between the Al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime of the President, Saddam Hussein.

But there are fears that Iraq could forge this highly destabilising link-up, in case it is attacked. Consequently, self-preservation has pulled most of these countries in two directions. First, they have intensified their crackdown on the radical elements within their territory. Second, they are going to great lengths to avert a war in Iraq. In targeting the extremists, all three countries are focusing on the 20,000 highly radical individuals and clerics that have been associated at some stage with the over two decade conflict in Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia recently made the unprecedented declaration that it had imprisoned around 100 Saudi nationals on account of their suspected links with terrorism. This was reportedly stated soon after the November 16 shoot out incident in Central Riyadh that apparently brought the Saudi police to confront some Afghan war veterans. Analysts point out that there is a perceptible shift in the Saudi approach to the Al-Qaeda remnants. While the perception earlier was that the fleeing fellow travellers of Osama had a nuisance value, they are now viewed as a credible threat to the Kingdom's stability.

Kuwait, analysts point out, appears to have become more focused in the counter-terrorism drive. Kuwait's heightened response to terrorism has come after the recent shooting of U.S. soldiers who are amassing on its territory apparently for "military exercises". While the Kuwaiti authorities do not link the latest wounding of two U.S. soldiers by a Kuwaiti policemen to terrorism, the possibility that the two killers of a U.S. marine, who were participating in a military exercise in Kuwait's Failaka island last month, were associated with a extremist outfit cannot be ruled out. Analysts point out that the timing of the October incident is significant. The attack took place a day Ayman al-Zawahri, Al-Qaeda's second-in command delivered a message broadcast by Qatar's Al-Jazeera satellite network to increase attacks on the U.S. and its allies.

Kuwaiti authorities are currently interrogating three Afghan veterans accused of channelling money to the Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Kuwait has also arrested a 21-year-old man, who has reportedly disclosed new information about the bombing of the U.S. warship Cole. Yemen, despite severe domestic criticism on account of its collaboration with the United States, has taken stern measures to target the Al-Qaeda support base. The U.S., for instance, used an unmanned aircraft to kill six alleged Al-Qaeda fugitives on Yemeni soil.