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Financing Terrorism: Saudi Arabia and Its Foreign Affairs

They cross over during the Hajj. Dressed in white like the pilgrims to Mecca, representatives of fundamentalist Islamist organizations enter Saudi Arabia during the month long celebration, when border controls are relaxed to deal with the massive influx of the faithful. Once inside Saudi Arabia, these operatives solicit donations, often preying on the Islamic pillar of charity under the guise of charitable religious organizations. But information in US diplomatic cables revealed by Wikileaks suggests a far more insidious system of patronage is also at play — wealthy Saudis have knowingly funded fundamentalist Sunni militant and terrorist organizations around the world. Yet Saudi Arabia is not included in the State Department list of State Sponsors of Terrorism  even though former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton described Saudi Arabia as a “critical source of terrorist funding.” The failure of the United States to hold its allies accountable for the death they fund has fundamentally undermined our efforts to promote global stabilityw

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the world’s second largest oil producer, and most of the profits generated go directly into the pockets of the Saudi royals who comprise the nation’s business and political elite. The combined wealth of the seven Saudi billionaires is over $49 billion, and Saudi Arabia is ranked number 17 in the world for number of millionaire households. Combined with the deeply entrenched belief in Wahhabist Sunni Islam, Saudi oil money has found its way into a range of religious causes, charities and Islamic prayer schools — some of which, Ted Carpenter of the National Interest argues, are used to “indoctrinate students in a virulent and extreme form of Islam.” For many in the Saudi elite, funding terrorist organizations is the last thing in their mind, however, an absence of due diligence and a demonstrated cultural expectation towards Islamic based philanthropy means that many violent fundamentalist groups are able to secure funding with relative ease by disguising themselves as Islamic charities.

The exact impact of Saudi support for terrorist groups remains unclear, as understanding of terror networks is, at best, nebulous. Operating in the shadows, Islamist terrorist organizations, aware that financial flows have the potential to be the weakest links in the armor that secrecy provides, closely guard their benefactors’ identities and the channels through which they are funneled cash. What is known, however, is that many terrorist organizations are capable of running on relatively meager budgets that can be easily supported by only a few wealthy patrons, such as members of Saudi’s elite. Groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (‘the Army of God’) who were behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, maintain sophisticated, multinational networks on a budget of as little as $5.25 million a year — a relative drop in the bucket for members of the sprawling Saudi royal family.

The immense wealth of Saudi Arabia has been leveraged globally to fund all manner of Sunni extremism, most disconcerting of which includes links to 9/11 and the growing threat posed by ISIS. Thirteen years on, questions persist about the role of Saudi funding and support in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks. Twenty-eight pages of the House Intelligence Committee findings on 9/11 remain classified, long after the release of the report. While still technically speculative, it has been credibly alleged that these twenty-eight sealed pages contain damming information regarding links between Saudi royalty and the hijackers. And while Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States during in 2001 has stated, “Saudi Arabia has nothing to hide,” the growing complexity of terror threats around the world and the persistent and recurring evidence of funding ties to Saudi Arabia does little to lend legitimacy to the Saudi institutions indignation.

Furthermore, reports have shown that ISIS has received extensive funding from Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia. However, Qatar is thought to be the leading donor and provider of logistical support to ISIS. Like Saudi, the Qatari government has largely turned a blind eye to private funding of Islamic organizations, maintaining plausible deniability when money has found itself in the hands of organizations like the al-Nursa Front rather than Islamic schools. However, there are some like Sheikh Hajaj al-Ajmi who publically implored the Qatari elite to “giver your money [to the groups] who will spend it on jihad, not aid.”  This might be because, as the Washington Institute argues, “America’s counterterrorism agenda sometimes conflicts with what Qatar perceives to be its own political interests.” The Qatari government has historically sought to foster support for militant groups as a way of building regional credibility and limiting their own exposure to such organizations.

While Saudi Arabia is often a secondary source of funds and support for terror movements who can find more motivated and ideologically invested benefactors, Saudi Arabia remains perhaps the most prolific sponsor of international Islamist terrorism, allegedly supporting groups as disparate as the Afghanistan Taliban, Al-Quaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Al-Nursa Front.

This diverse sponsorship indicates that it would be a mistake to assume that only the United States and the Middle East are affected by Saudi-sponsored terrorism. Links have been drawn from the 2008 attacks in Mumbai by the LeT to Saudi donations to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the LeT’s “charity wing,” nominally for the construction of Madras (Islamic prayer) schools. Similarly, Zvi Magen, the deputy head of the Institute for National Security Studies stated that, “the Russians, with good reason, suspect Saudi Arabia of helping Islamic radicals in Russia.” Russia has long had a complicated and antagonistic relationship with Saudi Arabia, but their continued sponsorship of Chechen Islamist groups, which are largely synonymous with Chechen independence movements, has remained a wedge in their relationship.

The United States government is not blind to the threat of Saudi funded terrorism either. In 2010, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated that it was an “ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist funds emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic concern.” The US government has also been highly critical of Saudi’s refusal to ban ‘charitable’ organizations that have continued to funnel money to known terrorist organizations. However, the perpetually tenuous nature of the US-Saudi relationship means that criticism is voiced behind closed doors, and the United States has shied away from formally rebuking the Saudi Arabia for its role in funding global terror, largely out of concern for oil interests and continued regional stability.

Even Saudi Arabia is not immune from the effects of funding terror. Attacks on oil fields, government infrastructure and public spaces by Islamic terrorists are all too common, with major attacks occurring on an almost annual basis over the last decade.

However, commentators have pointed out that the attacks primarily target foreign nationals and members of the Saudi security establishment and political elite. Unlike many terrorist attacks around the world that seek to cause indiscriminate pain, militant insurgency in Saudi Arabia is typically more targeted, taking a specifically anti-western bent.

While American “War on Terror” has raged for over a decade, attacks against the Saudis have continued, and it would seem that the kingdom’s rulers have begun to lose trust in the promise of American protection. In 2011, the UAE hired Erik Prince, CEO of the notorious Blackwater PMC to set up a private defense force to protect the nation’s oil fields. Though contracted to the UAE, the 25,000-strong force is intended to safeguard the common oil interests of all Gulf States, with Saudi Arabia expected to “kick in” to help fund the private army.

The attraction of this foreign, mercenary army for the Gulf States is borne from the concern Prince expresses that Muslims “could not be counted on to kill other Muslims.” As the American military experience in Afghanistan has demonstrated, the threat of infiltration and questionable allegiances is all too real. In August this year, Major General Harold Greene was killed in an insider attack. Although General Greene was the highest ranked member of the US military to be killed in Afghanistan, he is only one of the dozens of US military personnel and contractors to have been killed by insider attacks during the US missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The thought that we are fighting a war against our own enemies is not a comforting one, yet the US must come to grips with the fact that in its quixotic war on terror, it has not assembled a coalition of the willing, as our ‘allies’ hold true to their own complex, and often contradictory ideologies and cultural currents that can pit governments and individuals against American interests. Saudi Arabia is by no means the only nation state funneling money to terrorist groups around the world; Carpenter describes Pakistan complicity as “nearly as great as Saudi Arabia’s.” The US government has also drawn links between Islamist terrorist organizations and the governments of Qatar and Yemen, among others. America has attempted to take the moral high ground in our war on terror, placing ourselves on the side of liberal progress and civilization, yet in our pursuit of an elusive enemy we have made and retained allies of convenience. America has trapped itself in a Byzantine system where its money, military and diplomatic might is used to support regimes that, intentionally or not, have consistently sought to undermine American interests and global stability. We must hold allies like Saudi Arabia accountable, just as we must face up to the reality that the American agenda does not extend to the governments and private individuals who are the benefactors Islamic terrorism in the modern world.

This piece is part of BPR’s special feature on terrorism. You can explore the special feature here

About the Author

Edward Clifford '16 is Associate World Section Manager and an associate editor of the Brown Political Review.