SHAFAQNA- Anna Newby, Muftah: On August 13th, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia donated $100 million to the fledgling United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT), an entity that King Abdullah first proposed in 2005 and formally inaugurated in 2011 with a $10 million contribution.
In a ceremony at the UN, Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir called terrorism “an evil that must be eradicated from the world through international efforts.” His point was a valid one, particularly in light of the grave transnational threats posed by groups like the Islamic State, Palestinian terrorist groups like the Islamic Jihad, and splinter Al-Qaeda affiliates like the al-Nusra Front moving in and out of Syria. But Saudi Arabia’s pledge to help the international communitycombat terrorism represents the latest in a host of ironies in the Middle East today.
Let us not forget that Saudi Arabia has contributed to the “evil” more than, perhaps, any other country in the world. With a long history of officially sanctioning terrorist activity while tacitly supporting terrorist groups, and maintaining a counterproductive slew of domestic and foreign policies that exacerbate terror threats around the world, it is going to take substantial effort for Saudi Arabia to make a positive net contribution to the fight against terrorism.
UN Counter-Terrorism Center
Although a 2006 UN General Assembly resolution formally recognized the need for a global counter-terrorism strategy and encouraged member states to support its implementation, no actual entity existed until 2011, when Saudi Arabia donated the funds to launch the UNCCT.
The organization is tasked with fostering international cooperation on counterterrorism efforts, as well as bolstering expertise within the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force at the UN. The UNCCT is essentially an advisory body that seeks to provide training and information sharing to member states. Among the center’s possible future work may be coordinating with donor countries—including the United States—to provide bilateral or regional assistance to countries in need of counterterrorism help. President Obama, for one, has stated that assistance through regional partnerships is core to U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
The UNCCT and its efforts are no doubt laudable, but some perspective is also necessary. The United States alonespends over $16 billion annually on counterterrorism efforts. Despite the Saudis’ generous donation last week, the UNCCT remains a relatively small player and is unlikely to be a game-changer in the international fight against terrorism.
The irony in all of this, of course, lies in Saudi Arabia’s far larger monetary contribution—which has a far more substantial impact — to a host of organizations and policies that actually exacerbate terrorism around the world. Through direct support of terrorist groups, a combination of practices that tacitly enable terrorist activities, and a wealth of far-reaching policies that breed terrorism domestically and internationally, Saudi Arabia is more to blame for contemporary terror threats than many other states.
Saudi Arabia has historically been one of the world’s largest supporters of Salafi jihadist terrorist militant groups like al-Qaeda, the Taliban (both the Afghani and the Pakistani branches), and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, now known simply as Islamic State).
Today, no high-level agents of any international terrorist group are believed to be operating inside Saudi Arabia, though about 1,600 people are serving sentences in Saudi prisons for terrorism-related charges. Under considerable pressure from the U.S. government, the Saudi government detained and questioned more than 11,000 people after 2003, hinting at the scale of terrorism-linked activity that had been tacitly tolerated prior. The most commonly cited data point, of course, is that 15 of the 19 hijackers who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks were Saudis, a fact that highlighted the Saudis’ then-longtime policy of looking the other way.
Although the crackdown on terror cells within Saudi Arabia has been sweeping—and the physical harboring of high-level terrorists a thing of the past—the legacies of Saudi Arabia’s tacit support for local terrorist cells continues to plague the global security environment. Many Saudi nationals have merely relocated to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) cells in Yemen.
Saudi funding is the real problem, of course, and as a leaked 2009 white paper signed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton read: “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” The New York Times recently reported that Saudi Arabia is “increasingly worried about the spread of Islamist militant extremism [namely the Islamic State, in Iraq] reaching its own doorstep.” That is a curious remark, since militants have been long known to slip into Saudi Arabian territory—disguised as religious pilgrims—to solicit funds from government-sanctioned charities, as well as to establish front companies for money laundering purposes. Although Saudi counterterrorism officials have done much to root out and rupture those financing avenues, it is known that wealthy Saudis (among others) continue to finance the Islamic State, the single most prominent terrorist group operating in the Middle East today.
The real problem, however, is that Saudi Arabia maintains entrenched, macro-level policies—domestically and internationally—that exacerbate terrorism problems at their root.
Domestically, the state has a crystal clear no-tolerance policy for dissent of any form. In May 2014, a Saudi court sentenced a well-known Saudi activist and blogger, Raif Badawi, to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for creating the Free Saudi Liberals website for political and social debates. In June, three Saudi lawyers were collectively given fines of more than 1 million Saudi riyals ($266,666) and a total media ban for posting critical tweets about the kingdom’s Ministry of Justice. In July, prominent human rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges stemming from his peaceful activism. The Saudi security forces’ longtime onslaught on the Shia-majority region of Qatif has only raised anti-government sentiment further. With almost no peaceful outlets for dissent, there is a real risk that sympathy for extremist tactics of self-expression will grow.
On an international level, both the Saudi government and its nationals supply militant groups of varying stripes weapons and other forms of support. The government is the main backer of the Syrian rebels, including combatants who fight alongside al-Qaeda loyalists. In May 2013, a senior rebel military commander declared: “Saudi Arabia is now formally in charge of the Syria issue.” It is a conflict which U.S. officials have repeatedly warned breeds terrorism. In Iraq, too, the Saudis have been key backers for militant groups that only perpetuate an already-abysmal security situation.
The Saudi government has adopted a bizarre and self-defeating cocktail of policies that simultaneously crack down on and enable terrorism. Despite its often-impressive offensives against guilty individuals and domestic terror financing operations, its more entrenched—and far-reaching—policies on dissent and troubling regional alliances do much to sustain terrorists around the region and the world.
Playing Catch Up
Officials from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia boast about closely cooperating at high levels on counterterrorism efforts. American authorities say they discuss terrorism issues with their Saudi counterparts in private – a strategy that, while sometimes objectionable, has its merits. In these conversations, it is important that Americans be explicit about the connections between Saudi Arabia’s ongoing policies to repress peaceful dissent—as well as to carelessly funnel weapons around the region—and terrorism. Such policies are self-defeating to Saudi security, and increase threats to the region, the United States, and the world.
For all they have done wrong on the terrorism front, the Saudi government deserves credit for some more recent steps, including extensive cooperation with the United States to restrict terrorists’ funding channels, hunt down wanted persons, and share information. Its donation to the UNCCT is part of this broader (and hopefully long-lasting) effort to turn over a new leaf, which is almost certainly taking place under considerable pressure from their counterparts in Washington.
But Saudis have a lot of catching up to do. The variety of ways in which the government has fostered the growth of terrorist activity remains an unforgettable stain on its record.