WASHINGTON — The US Treasury Department announced Wednesday it is levying sanctions against three men suspected of helping finance groups believed involved in terrorism in Iraq and Syria — a move that targeted two well-known Kuwaiti men and showed Washington's growing frustration with its Gulf ally.
The two Kuwaitis allegedly support the Nusra Front group, which is al-Qaida's branch in Syria fighting against some Syrian rebel groups as well as President Bashar Assad's forces. The third man named on the sanctions list is suspected of helping the Islamic State, an al-Qaida breakaway group that has seized a huge chunk of northern Iraq, controls much of northeastern Syria and commands as many as 10,000 fighters.
The three individuals sanctioned are: Shafi al-Ajmi, Hajaj al-Ajmi — both Kuwaiti —and Abd al-Rahman al-'Aniz, who is of lesser profile and whose nationality was not disclosed in the Treasury's statement.
The action freezes any assets the three might have in U.S. jurisdiction and bans U.S. citizens from doing business with them.
Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen on Wednesday called on the Kuwaiti government to do more to disrupt terrorist financing. The US Treasury reiterated its concern that private fundraisers in the Gulf are using social media to solicit donations and communicate with fighters on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.
The Treasury alleges Shafi publicly admitted to collecting money under the auspices of charity and delivering the funds in person to Nusra Front. The Treasury alleges that Hajaj agreed to provide financial support to Nusra Front in exchange for installing Kuwaitis in the group's leadership positions. The Treasury also alleges that al-Anzi worked with Islamic State on the travel of foreign fighters moving from Syria to Iraq, and from Kuwait to Afghanistan.
Some religious figures in the Gulf have also publicly accused Shafi and Hajaj of supporting violent extremists in Syria and Iraq.
Sheik Waseem Yousef from the United Arab Emirates dedicated a recent episode of his television show to outing the two as alleged Islamic State supporters in the Gulf.
Separately, Saudi-based Syrian Sheik Adnan al-Aroor, who became one of the most inspirational anti-Syrian government figures, accused Hajaj on his television program of "corruption in jihad". He accused Hajaj of using people's humanitarian charitable donations to fund the Islamic State.
Hajaj denies that his money flows to Islamic State fighters and told reporters in June there is a "financial siege" on the Syrian uprising that has curbed charity for people under the guise of the "war on terror". He said Western-allied Gulf countries are working to channel any aid to Syria for groups that support their policies there. Anyone who steps outside those boundaries is exposed to "media slandering", he said.
However, Hajaj has openly admitted in videos online to sitting with members of the Islamic State group and Nusra Front in attempted reconciliation meetings to try and end their clashes against one another for control of parts of Syria.
Shafi was quoted in Kuwait's Al-Rai newspaper in June describing the takeover of Iraq's second largest city of Mosul as a revolution and Sunni uprising. He said the Shiite-led Iraqi government is trying to frame it as being led by the Islamic State in order to crush it.
Last year, government officials in Kuwait pulled Shafi off television a day after his show premiered on state television. The show was canceled over previous comments of his that authorities said stoked tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and promoted the Nusra Front in Syria.
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.