CAIRO — 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 Gulf Arab neighbors still remain major sources of financing for militant movements like al-Qaida and the Taliban, according to leaked U.S. government documents.
The findings, detailed in a series of internal U.S. 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.
But the cables, obtained and released by WikiLeaks, also offer a window into the delicate balancing act Gulf governments must perform in cracking down on extremist sympathizers while not running afoul of religious charitable duties and casting themselves as U.S. 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," reads a December 2009 memo from 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 U.S. 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 hardline clerics which is seen as either directly or indirectly fueling extremism.
Many of the criticisms and observations made in the U.S. documents rehash – albeit more directly – previously stated American concerns.
In July 2009, 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 U.S. to stem terror financing.
A February memo from the U.S. 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 Interior Ministry "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."
Other Gulf nations garner even harsher reviews – conclusions reached in cables that carry a markedly different tone than that adopted by Washington for public consumption when dealing with some of its closest regional allies.
In Clinton's cable, Kuwait is seen as willing to take action against networks that threaten the country, but "less inclined to take action against Kuwait-based financiers and facilitators plotting attacks outside of Kuwait."
As a result, the country is described as a "key transit point" that lacks the regulatory framework needed to monitor such activity and a government that is hamstrung by political infighting.
At the time the cable was written, Kuwait was still grappling with fallout from the global financial meltdown. It was unlikely that the government, in the midst of that financial crisis, was willing to open new battles with an already emboldened parliament.
The United Arab Emirates is called to task largely for the same factors that made it famous. One cable says the seven-state federation's "role as a growing global financial center, coupled with weak regulatory oversight, makes it vulnerable to abuse by terrorist financiers and facilitation networks."
U.S. officials have also long maintained that the UAE has been a haven for corrupt Afghani officials looking to hide funds in its banks.
Qatar, a tiny gas-rich nation, is seen as "hesitant to take on known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals."
But the documents, whose release has been blasted by the U.S. and a slew of other states, offer a window into the reasons why these governments are reluctant to act with the level of zeal the U.S. would like to see.
The cable 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.
But Gulf governments, already maligned by al-Qaida and other militant groups as U.S. 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.