RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has promised to defeat Islamist terrorist groups threatening his nation. “We will not let a band of terrorists using religion as a disguise behind which they hide private interests to terrorize the protected Muslims,” said Abdullah in his Saturday Ramadan address. He has vowed to crush any militants that invade from Syria or Iraq. If Abdullah wants to fight terrorism, however, he is better served regulating private spending rather than worrying only about militias abroad.
In a 2009 diplomatic cable, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda…and other terrorist groups.” Today, Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of both jihadist fighters and money to Middle Eastern terrorist groups. These include ISIS, which has overtaken much of Northern Iraq and Syria.
The Saudi government does not directly fund ISIS, but many of its private citizens give them money and support. Many Saudi Arabians support ISIS, and donations from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In fact, many militant groups run fundraising campaigns to target wealthy Saudi donors.
Why does so much money go to terrorists from Saudi Arabia if the government is opposed to them? Part of the problem is that Saudi Arabia has a limited ability to monitor financial transactions and prevent private money from going to groups like ISIS. To be fair, the government has made attempts to control its domestic banks. Last March, they made donations to ISIS illegal. Yet, these efforts have not been enough to prevent crafty donors from finding loopholes.
One of the primary methods that terrorists use to get funds is to have supporters transfer money through third parties in other countries, including Kuwait. “Kuwait has become the epicenter for fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria,” said David Cohen, the U.S. Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Kuwait, considered a U.S. ally, has appointed Nayef al-Ajmi, an affiliate of the terrorist group al-Nusra, as its Minister of Islamic Endowments.
To prevent more money from going to terrorist groups, Saudi Arabia will need to pressure Kuwait and other countries to more closely control cash flows to Syria. However, Saudi Arabia places a greater political priority on defeating Shi’ite groups, like Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Without other foreign military action against Syria, many Saudi groups give more funding to rebel armies, of which some are considered terrorist organizations.
Saudi Arabia’s government is still working to take steps to reduce donations to jihadists. When Qatar increasingly backed militants in Syria, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassadors. Still, prosecutions of suspected supporters of ISIS have not happened. To this day, Saudi Arabian citizens provide the most support to terrorists.
ISIS has enough independent wealth that withdrawing private Saudi funding would not cripple the organization. Nevertheless, if King Abdullah wants to destroy terrorism, he should get his people to commit to do the same.
– Ted Rappleye
Sources: Reuters, The Independent, The Washington Institute