Saudi Arabia has made “important progress” in aggressively trying to curtail the flow of funds to terrorist groups, but the oil-rich kingdom and its Arab neighbors still remain major sources of financing for militant movements like al--Qaeda and the Taliban, according to leaked US government documents.
The findings, detailed in a series of internal US diplomatic cables spanning a period of several years, paint a stark picture of Washington’s challenges in convincing key allies of the need to clamp down on terror funding, much of which is believed to stem from private donors in those nations.
However, the cables, obtained and released by WikiLeaks, also offer a window into the delicate balancing act Persian Gulf governments must perform in cracking down on extremist sympathizers, while not running afoul of religious charitable duties and casting themselves as US stooges before an -increasingly skeptical populace.
“While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [KSA] takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority,” read a memo from December last year from US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The cable said that while the kingdom has begun to “make important progress on this front, ... donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
Saudi Arabia, the homeland of most of the Sept. 11 hijackers, has repeatedly come under fire from the US for its sluggish response to cracking down on terror financing. It has also been criticized for its reluctance to confront the fiery rhetoric espoused by some of its hard-line clerics, which is seen as either directly or indirectly fueling extremism.
Many of the criticisms and observations made in the US documents rehash — albeit more directly — previously stated US concerns.
In July last year, US President Barack Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said that the Taliban get more of their funding from wealthy Gulf donors than from the drug trade for which Afghanistan has long been famous.
Similarly, officials have complained of direct donations by wealthy individuals, particularly during religious months such as Ramadan, or during the hajj. Compounding that issue has been the difficulty and reluctance to monitor charities, as well as the abundant informal money transfer networks called hawala, or worker remittances.
Despite the concerns, Saudi Arabia emerges in the leaked cables as the most committed of the Gulf nations to working with the US to stem terror financing.
A February memo from the US embassy in Riyadh said Saudi Arabia has “made important progress in combating al-Qaida financing emanating from the country.” It said reporting “indicates that al-Qaida’s ability to raise funds has deteriorated substantially, and that it is now in its weakest state” since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The cable said, however, that Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior “remains almost completely dependent on the CIA.”
As a result, it said “our success against terrorist financing in the kingdom remains directly tied to our ability to provide actionable intelligence to our Saudi counterparts.”
The cables note that the annual Muslim pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, or the holy month of Ramadan, are fertile times for fundraising, and that monitoring and regulation of the charities is lacking.
However, Gulf governments, already maligned by al-Qaeda and other militant groups as US lackeys, are likely to be unwilling to be seen as interfering with a Muslim’s religious obligation to provide alms for the needy. The argument, ostensibly, is that individuals may often not be aware that they are providing funding to a group that fronts for a militant movement.
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