CATF Reports Oct. 20, 2016, 8:57am


On August 1, 2014 White House hopeful Hillary Clinton shared with John Podesta, her current campaign manager, a nine-point overview of her strategy on the Middle East in an email recently released by WikiLeaks. Reflecting on the perspective of a multi-pronged approach to countering ISIS, Clinton pointed out the necessity to combine a military and para-military effort with diplomatic pressure against Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The two countries, Clinton wrote, were “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” Her wording is especially interesting in that it clearly suggests, in the spontaneity of a supposedly confidential exchange of thoughts, state sponsorship of extremism and terrorism by both countries. Interestingly, as an additional batch of emails leaked a few days ago disclosed, the Clinton Foundation was set to receive a $1 million donation from Qatar on the occasion of Bill Clinton’s birthday in 2012, but it has been known for a while now that the foundation benefited from generous donations from both Saudi Arabia and Qatar during the years Hillary was serving as Secretary of State, from 2009 to 2013. What is ultimately scandalous, therefore, is not the piece of news coming with the leaked emails as much as the sad confirmation that those emails offer. Clinton’s nonchalance in acknowledging the role played by Qatar and Saudi Arabia as supposed financiers of ISIS and extremism in the Middle East seems to corroborate a longstanding awareness of U.S. authorities of their historic Gulf allies’ “risky dual strategy” at terror financing in the Middle East, and even more alarmingly, the U.S.’s willingness to play along with that through diplomatic pressure and soft power mechanisms.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have funded extremists and terrorists abroad for decades for both ideological and strategic reasons, not least to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, while formally – albeit not convincingly – criminalizing terror financing at home and on the world’s stage. A 2012 U.S. diplomatic cable described Qatar as the least cooperative country in the region, exploited by terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban as a “fundraising locale.” Foundation for Defense of Democracies Senior Fellow David Weinberg remarked in December 2014 that “neither staffing problems nor weak institutions can explain why Qatar has consistently failed to indict, arrest, convict, and hold behind bars individuals who have been sanctioned by the international community on charges of terror finance.”

Longtime financiers of unrest in the Middle East, Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s strategic regional efforts have been inthe spotlight especially since early 2014, when suspicions over supposed attempts at funding ISIS by the two countries gained merit through remarks and reports by public authorities and experts who had started to delve into the roots of the “ISIS phenomenon.” In March 2014 Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vocally condemned Qatari and Saudi efforts at inciting violence in Iraq through their military support and financial sponsorship of Sunni terrorists and extremists that ultimately escalated violence both in Iraq and in Syria, as well as their open hosting of  “leaders of al Qaeda and Takfirists (extremists)” in their territories. In September 2014, U.S. officials quoted by NBC posited that Qatar had overshadowed the once leading efforts of Saudi-based individual donors directed to support ISIS. Even earlier, however, Qatar had been publicly labelled as a “permissive jurisdiction” for fundraisers soliciting donations to fund extremism and terrorism – including ISIS – by Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Daniel Cohen.

Although only a minor contribution in the larger scheme of ISIS’ funding sources, ISIS’ network of Gulf donors proved especially crucial in supporting the terrorist group’s early ventures. In an August 2014 piece for the Wall Street Journal, Gen. Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army and the chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, and Danielle Pletka, the senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, urged the U.S. to use its leverage to force Qatar to halt its cash and arms flow to ISIS and other Islamist groups. Also in August, the German Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development Gerd Müller publicly suggested that Qatar was arming and financing ISIS troops. Rumors that Qatar might have sponsored ISIS training camps in Darfur were later voiced at a public event in Washington, D.C. in February 2015 by attendees from the intelligence community. Although those speculations were never officially confirmed, they further consolidated Qatar Charity’s controversial reputation as a channel for Qatar’s support for extremists and terrorists across the globe.

If Qatar’s sponsoring efforts for ISIS have never been exactly quantified, Qatar’s negligence at enforcing domestic and international sanctions as well as at effectively monitoring domestic terror financiers has produced spectacular results over the past two decades. Significantly, in December 2013 the U.S. Department of the Treasury blacklisted Abdulrahman al-Nuaymi for his role as Qatar-based facilitator and terrorist financier on behalf of al-Qaeda. Nuaymi successfully operated as a mediator between the top echelons of ISIS’ forerunner, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Qatar-based donors, to the extent that he “reportedly oversaw the transfer of over $2 million per month to al-Qa'ida in Iraq for a period of time.” Doha has staunchly refused to arrest him, and although Nuaymi’s profile makes for an almost prototypical case study of the emirate’s negligence, he is not the only sanctioned individual who continues to live in the country with impunity. Even beyond Nuaymi’s case, Haaretz columnist Daniella Peled observed that “there is no oversight of Qatar’s middlemen in Turkey buying weapons for antigovernment forces in Syria, and fighters from non-ISIS jihadi groups sometimes join the Islamic State and bring their weapons with them.” A similar consideration applies to Saudi Arabia: it is a known fact that cash donations to rebel groups fighting Assad from Saudi benefactors often left Saudi Arabia with the help of Turkish intermediaries, and, mostly through defectors, ended up supporting ISIS.

Many have claimed that the absence of a smoking gun when it comes to Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s direct support of ISIS does not necessarily diminish their contribution to the ISIS phenomenon. Not only have Qatari and Saudi policies supported ISIS’ establishment, besides directly nurturing extremism in the Middle East and allowing funds and weapons to end up in the hands of ISIS operatives. Both governments have deliberately pursued a systematic campaign to spread Salafism across the globe through mosques and foundations. Notably, several experts have argued that Wahhabi thought, a most conservative interpretation of Islam, is central to ISIS’ ideology.

A reconstruction of the San Bernardino bloodshed has brought up evidence that both the shooter and his wife were apparently radicalized during their stay in Saudi Arabia. Among many other examples, the San Bernardino case has made clear that the U.S.’s soft power strategies and diplomatic pressure will not be able to contain the incalculable spillover effects of Qatar’s and Saudi Arabia’s terror financing efforts. Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s longtime double game poses a real threat to the United States’ interests, and if the U.S. still has the most leverage to demand real change, as Keane and Pletka wrote on the Wall Street Journal in 2014, it is time to escalate pressure on their allies towards compliance by using all available means.

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