Al-Qaida Link Seen in Kuwait Attack

K By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

kUWAIT – Kuwaiti and American officials said Wednesday that two Kuwaiti gunmen who killed a U.S. Marine and wounded another in an attack here Tuesday were Islamic activists who had attended an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan.

Investigators were trying to determine whether the shooting was decided independently or planned in conjunction with al-Qaida’s fugitive leadership, officials said. Although nothing conclusive was known, some U.S. and Kuwaiti officials suggested it was unlikely the two men acted on their own, noting the attack took place on a largely uninhabited island in the Persian Gulf 12 miles east of Kuwait City as a contingent of Marines were conducting urban-warfare exercises.

“It’s hard to imagine that they could do this by themselves,” said Mohammed Sager, chairman of the Kuwaiti parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “They couldn’t do this without detailed information. There had to be people behind them.”

In another violent incident involving American forces here, a U.S. serviceman shot at a civilian vehicle Wednesday night after somebody inside pointed a gun at a Humvee carrying two American soldiers on a highway west of Kuwait City, U.S. defense officials said. No American personnel were injured and it was not clear what happened to the occupants of the civilian vehicle, which U.S. soldiers saw veering off the roadway, the U.S. officials told reporters in Washington.

The two shootings have intensified fears of hostility toward the approximately 6,000 U.S. military personnel in this small but wealthy Persian Gulf nation, which is regarded as a vital launch pad for a possible attack against Iraq. Analysts said the incidents could pose challenges to the United States as it seeks to mobilize more troops and equipment here and elsewhere around Iraq, resulting in new security precautions and restrictions on the movement of U.S. troops.

“I think we will see more of these small-scale attacks,” a U.S. official said in Washington, adding that intelligence analysts believe they could begin in Qatar and Bahrain, other gulf states with U.S. troops. “They are cheap to do and are not complicated.”

U.S. officials said they were examining whether Wednesday’s incident was related to Tuesday’s. One U.S. official said American and Kuwaiti investigators also were examining whether the two men who launched Tuesday’s attack received coded messages from al-Qaida leaders.

A senior Kuwaiti official said authorities arrested several people for questioning in connection with the shooting. Analysts here said most were Muslim fundamentalists known for expressing anti-Western views and other Kuwaitis believed to have visited training camps in Afghanistan.

“We have rounded up individuals who we think provided some assistance” to the gunmen, the Kuwaiti minister of state for foreign affairs, Mohammad Salem Sabah, said in an interview.

He called the attack an “isolated” incident, saying that an overwhelming majority of Kuwaiti people support the presence of U.S. troops in Kuwait. American soldiers have been here since 1991, when a military coalition led by the United States ended a seven-month Iraqi occupation.

But the shooting has raised fears that people with anti-U.S. sentiments similar to those of al-Qaida–and perhaps with connection to the organization itself–have decided to act even in one of the most pro-Western nations in the Arab world. The U.S. Embassy here issued a notice to American citizens Wednesday urging them to “remain vigilant with regard to their personal security and to exercise caution.”

Sager said people with anti-American views remain a small minority in Kuwait, “but they do exist here.”

“These are people who are against the United States not because American soldiers are here–people realize the Americans are here for our protection–but they are frustrated with the United States because of its support for Israel,” he said.

Several Kuwaitis have been tied to the al-Qaida founder, Osama bin Laden, including the network’s spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was stripped of his Kuwaiti citizenship in October 2001. A Kuwait-born operative, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, is suspected of helping plan the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

The two gunmen who fired at Marines Tuesday, identified by Kuwaiti authorities as Anas al-Kandari, 21, and Jassem al-Hajiri, 26, drove up to a group of Marines taking a break during a training exercise. The attackers, who were cousins, jumped out of their white pickup truck and opened fire with AK-47 assault rifles, hitting two of the Marines, before driving up to a second group of Marines. The men once again opened fire but those Marines shot back, killing the assailants.

The Pentagon identified the slain Marine as Lance Cpl. Antonio J. Sledd, 20, of Hillsborough, Fla. The wounded Marine, who was not identified, was shot in the arm and is being treated at a military hospital in Kuwait. He will be flown to a military medical facility in Germany over the next few days, said Lt. Garrett Kasper, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, another gulf nation 300 miles south of here.