One night during Ramadan this summer, Hamad al-Matar, a former Kuwaiti member of parliament (MP), invited guests over to donate "to prepare 12,000 Jihadists for the sake of Allah," a poster invitation advised. Anyone could come to his diwaniya, a space used for weekly gatherings to talk politics and sip sweet hot tea. And many did come, their pockets open and their contributions generous.
"I think we raised 100,000 KD [$350,000]," he later recalled in the same diwaniya, a long room lined on the perimeter with ornate couches. "That amazed me. I was thinking I would collect a couple thousand KD. Never in my entire life did I get such an amount of money in my pocket in one day."
But what happened to that sum of money next, Matar said, he isn't certain. "I'm not involved actually honestly speaking in where this money goes, because there are so many people much better than myself. Even I didn't know the map [of Syria]," he explained. "Honestly I don't know actually" where the money went.
For the last two years, MPs like Matar, as well as Kuwaiti charities, tribes, and citizens have raised money -- possibly hundreds of millions of dollars -- for armed groups fighting the Syrian regime. In many ways, the financing is highly organized. Smartly aligned to a given theme, battle, or season, campaigns are broadcast on social media and advertised with signage and elegant prose.
But Matar's account offers a glimpse of just how uncontrollable -- even random -- this support has become. In Kuwait, private financing came into political vogue in Sunni circles, bringing aboard legions of public figures seeking to associate themselves with support for the Syrian rebels.
That broad base of popular support among Sunnis has rendered the phenomenon nearly unstoppable for the Kuwaiti government. There is another complication too: some in the Shiite community have held events and possibly raised funds in support of the embattled Assad regime.
Donors on both sides of the political spectrum could prove perilous for Kuwait, home to a tiny population of just 3 million. Sectarian tensions have risen in recent months as events in the region have escalated. The war in Syria now threatens to invigorate a generation of extremists on both poles who may not take as kindly to the country's mixed-sectarian make-up.
In the early days of the uprising, just a few individuals and charities were involved in shaping and funding rebel opposition groups. But as the level of violence rose, donations grew, and the funders were keen to see that their money had been well spent; YouTube and Twitter exploded with videos announcing the creation of new brigades, some even named after their donors in the Gulf.
Suddenly, everyone in Kuwait knew which diwaniyas and charities had funded a brigade. And that visibility attracted a new cohort of donors. Kuwait's large Sunni tribes held massive fundraisers, in one case reportedly raising $14 million in just five days. They became competitions: Could the Ajman tribe outbid the Shammar? Social pressure increased the take -- and made participation a necessity for many of Kuwait's most prominent politicians.
MPs like Matar joined the fold, sometimes wrapping Syria's story into Kuwait's own political predicament. Since 2009, a coalition of Islamist, tribal, and youth groups have banded together to demand government and social reforms, among them an end to perceived government favoritism toward the mostly-Shiite merchant class. Now, Syria's struggle seemed to fit into a narrative of Shiite repression of the Sunni common man. President Bashar al-Assad, an Allawite, was backed by Shiite Iran, while the Gulf states professed support to the mostly-Sunni rebels.
On Twitter, there was a rush to boast donations and solicit more. Fundraisers posted photos of cars and jewelry that had been sold to support the "mujahideen." They also earmarked specific costs for weapons: For example by saying that an $800 donation will buy a directed missile or a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). For Matar's diwaniya fundraiser, a contribution of 700 KD ($2,500) was said to be sufficient to prepare one fighter for battle. Some donors went into Syria, even participating in the fighting -- or so they claimed on Twitter.
"In terms of weapons, those people are announcing, very clearly in the media, in the social media, that, ‘we are gathering,'" said Mohammed al-Dallal, a former MP for the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait's political wing, the Islamic Constitutional Movement. (He said he personally only supports humanitarian work.) "Go to twitter, social media, you find their pictures."
The private donors have not escaped the government's attention -- but officials say the situation has been exaggerated. "These donations, if they do occur, are honestly insignificant," argued Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah al-Mubarak al-Sabah, minister of state for cabinet affairs. "Yes of course it makes a good story in the press when $10 ends up in the wrong person's hands. But unfortunately those $10 are only $10 of a million dollars. I'm just trying to give you the scope, I'm not signifying $10 got there, it's just an example."
Over the summer, Kuwait began implementing a new law that for the first time criminalizes terrorist financing. Banks will be required to note down the personal details of all their clients as well as anyone making an international transfer of more than 3,000 KD ($10,500). To help track and investigate misdeeds, the Central Bank will build a new Financial Intelligence Unit with the help of experts at the IMF. The work to enforce these new regulations has just begun, with little evidence they have so far affected the existing donor networks to Syria's opposition.
Still, those in Kuwait who would like to see the government do more allege that there are also domestic political obstacles to stopping private financing to Syria. Many of the constituencies most active in fundraising have also been the most vocal opposition to the government. Dozens of Islamist and Salafist MPs boycotted the last two elections, but their ability to draw people to the streets is still a looming reality in Kuwaiti politics.
"The government cannot do anything because if they move against such activities, the Islamist parties will start shouting loudly against the government," Bashar AlSayegh, the editor of Kuwait's Al Jareeda newspaper, explained. "Here in Kuwait, it is very easy to claim that the government is working with the Iranian regime against the Syrian people."
Donors like Matar also argue they are simply doing the bidding of Kuwait and fellow Gulf states, which have publicly backed the Syrian opposition. What could be wrong with doing the same privately? "When I was a member of the foreign policy committee with our National Assembly, we went to see Crown Prince Salman [bin Abdulaziz al-Saud] in Saudi Arabia. He said very clearly, ‘We are supporting Syria and we should support Syria,'" Matar said. "The same message, we heard from Qatar ... and Bahrain."
Yet while the government has followed the region in recognizing the Syrian opposition, its population is far from unified on the matter. And there is an equally vocal segment of Kuwaiti society that has supported the Syrian president.
In a gathering in 2012, former MP and Shiite businessman Abdul Hameed Dashti spoke in front of a large poster with Kuwait's emir pictured embracing Assad. "Kuwait, land of prosperity, your emir is the lord of the free," a man in the crowd began to chant, draped in a Syrian crowd. "Syria will not be shaken. Its protector is Bashar." A video of the event mentions 23 million Kuwaiti dinars ($81 million) for the regime, but it is not clear if these funds were raised, where they would come from, and how they would be directed.
"I have good relations with the President [Assad] and his family, and all Syrians," Dashti said in June in an interview. From his downtown office, surrounded by photos of Assad, he attacked the rebels' supporters: "There are people who have a new culture as a killer the last few years, they are openly collecting money and supporting the Free Syria Army and Jabhat al-Nusra, and al Qaeda."
Seeking a middle ground on the Syrian conflict, Kuwait's government has carved out a niche in humanitarian relief -- something upon which most everyone can agree. It hosted the first international donor conference for Syria in January and plans to do so again in early 2014. Kuwait itself has donated more than $300 million this year, and local humanitarian groups raised a further $183 million.
Behind the scenes, other fundraising continues. "People they choose: Some [donors] say, ‘I want this money to go to the people who are fighting,'" said Sulaiman Shamsaldeen, a former head of the humanitarian group, the International Islamic Charitable Organization in Kuwait.
"And they have the full right."
Elizabeth Dickinson is Gulf correspondent for The National, and former FP assistant managing editor. This article is the first of a series produced in cooperation with the Brookings Institution's Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations for the report -- "Playing with Fire: Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria's Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home."