Lobbying 2016: Kuwait lobby blitz secures Gitmo release

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Kuwait's lobbying blitz has paid off.

The Gulf emirate has spent millions of dollars over the past decade pressing Washington for the release of its 12 citizens captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan. The last remaining one, Fayez al Kandari, was released from the US prison at Guantanamo in January.

"The United States is grateful to the government of the State of Kuwait for its willingness to support ongoing US efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility," the Department of Defense said in a statement at the time. "The United States coordinated with the government of the State of Kuwait to ensure this transfer took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures."

Kandari's repatriation marked the culmination of a years-long lobbying effort. The government-funded International Counsel Bureau, which represents the detainees' families, paid four US law firms $1.18 million last year to advocate before all three branches of government, lobbying US records show — all four contracts have since been terminated.

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Kuwait also retains the services of PR firm Garrison Courtney, but the account shows no sign of recent activity.

Despite President Barack Obama's election-year promise to shutter Guantanamo and Kuwait's promise to keep its citizens out of trouble, obtaining Kandari's release proved particularly difficult. Captured in Afghanistan in 2002, he had been considered a "high-risk" detainee by US intelligence analysts who suspected him of helping recruit an al Qaeda cell responsible for killing a US Marine on Faylaka Island in Kuwait in October 2002, according to the hawkish think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Long War Journal.

Negotiations were further complicated by reports that a Kuwaiti citizen released in 2005, Abdallah Saleh Ali al Ajmi, blew himself up in Mosul three years later, killing seven police officers. Kuwait has also come under scrutiny as the birthplace of the Islamic State executioner known as “Jihadi John,” who was reportedly one of the country’s 100,000 stateless “bidoons” before he moved to England. The country has also drawn fire for not doing enough to stop the terror group’s funding streams.

In an October 2014 speech, David Cohen, who was then the Treasury Department’s sanctions guru, called Kuwait and Qatar “permissive jurisdictions for terrorist financing.” Since then, however, the State Department's latest iteration of its annual Country Reports on Terrorism praised Kuwait for taking "several measures to improve the oversight and regulation of charitable fundraising, including monitoring transfers to international beneficiaries and regulating online donations."

Since al Ajmi’s attack, Kuwait has promised to create a “state-of-the-art rehabilitation center and program to reintegrate detainees with their families and society,” David Cynamon, an attorney for the prisoners, wrote in a 2010 open letter to Obama and then-Attorney General Eric Holder. The other 10 are not believed to have conducted any violence.

Kuwait has also garnered US kudos for its efforts to mediate between the warring parties in Yemen.

The emirate has participated in the Saudi-led campaign against Houthi rebels, providing airstrikes as well as small numbers of ground forces. But it has also taken advantage of its closer ties to Tehran — Kuwait is 30% Shiite — to host peace talks aimed at ending the conflict and restoring deposed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power, earning Secretary of State John Kerry's "appreciation."

"Secretary Kerry spoke by phone with UN Special Envoy Ould Cheikh Ahmed today and expressed the United States’ continued support for the UN-led Yemen peace negotiations, highlighting that these talks are the best opportunity to bring an end to the conflict," spokesman John Kirby said in an Aug. 3 statement. "The Secretary expressed his appreciation for the Emir and government of Kuwait’s steadfast support for the negotiations."

The Obama administration, however, has been critical of Kuwait's simultaneous crackdown on critics of the intervention in Yemen.

"Throughout the year, the government arrested a few dozen persons on charges such as participation in unlicensed demonstrations or insulting the judiciary. Most of those arrested were citizens protesting Saudi Arabia’s military action in Yemen," the State Department writes in its 2015 country report on human rights practices in Kuwait, released in April.

Kuwait has also struggled to finalize a $3 billion deal for 28 F/A-18 Super Hornet jets, which had been expected last year. Despite Kuwait's joining the US-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State in September 2014 and hosting the headquarters of the US Army component of Central Command (ARCENT), worries that such a sale could cut into Israel's "qualitative military edge" and other concerns have delayed its approval by all the relevant agencies of the US government.

Congress, however, has stepped in to help speed things along. A group of key senators, including Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., wrote a letter to Obama in April urging a quick decision.

"We understand that these requests must be carefully considered, but a decision on them has been pending too long,” they wrote. "Denying the requests will not preclude these countries from purchasing fighter aircraft with advanced capabilities from foreign providers, including perhaps Russia. America must not lose an opportunity to expand our influence in the Middle East and ensure continued US industrial dominance by ceding the field to our competitors or adversaries.”

Kuwait announced in February that it would be buying 28 Eurofighters instead, but rescinded that purchase shortly thereafter upon perceiving signs that the Obama administration would soon OK the sale.

"On the international front," Boeing F/A-18 program vice president Dan Gillian announced in June, "a deal with Kuwait is currently going through the Foreign Military Sales [FMS] process with the US government and should be finalized in the not-too-distant future.”

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Julian Pecquet is the Washington Editor for Al-Monitor.

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