The Big Contradiction: American Bombs Dropping On Extremist Group Funded By U.S. Allies
President Barack Obama recently announced that he authorized the United States military to begin bombing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq, where the radical Islamist group has taken over large swathes of territory. But what Obama didn’t mention in his speeches on why he began military operations again in Iraq is that citizens of U.S. allies, mostly in Gulf Arab states, have helped the rise of ISIS. This is deeply embarrassing to the U.S.
America’s closest allies, like Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan, have played a role in financing the activities of ISIS, which has declared an Islamic “caliphate” stretching across the borders of Syria and Iraq and which has killed those they deem enemies of Islam, like Shiites and Yazidis. Turkey, in particular, gave ISIS an easy way into Syria through the border between the two countries. ISIS transited weapons and fighters from Turkey into Syria to fight in the ongoing civil war there—a civil war that has allowed ISIS to gain valuable battlefield experience.
That U.S. allies play a dual role in the “war on terror” is an old story. In public, they pay lip service to battling extremism, but have not taken bold steps to halt the flow of private financing to extremist groups in Syria and across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, is adept at playing this game. The Saudis want to use radical Sunnis in their war against Iran and Shiites, but also do not want these extremists to attack their own country, as Patrick Cockburn recently pointed out in the London Review of Books.
Fifteen of the hijackers who flew jetliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 were from Saudi Arabia. The 9/11 Commission Report said that Saudi Arabia was the main source of financing for Al Qaeda. But Al Qaeda has also attacked Saudi Arabia itself. More than a decade later, little has changed. In 2010, State Department cables published by WikiLeaks showed that the U.S. had concluded “it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority...Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
Today, the vast majority of ISIS’ funding is self-generated. Most of ISIS’ money comes from activities like siphoning oil from Iraq, extorting money, kidnapping ransoms and bank heists like one in Mosul, Iraq in June that gave the organization $420 million. But a portion of its money comes from private financiers in Gulf Arab states. At least one branch of the U.S. government—the Treasury Department—has said as much. In late June, the Associated Press reported that “the U.S. Treasury Department believes money is being raised in Kuwait and Qatar” for ISIS.
Kuwait is a key hub for the financing of ISIS. Weak laws related to the financing of extremist groups abroad have allowed donors there to raise and send money to groups in Syria, where ISIS has become the most effective force fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, much to the chagrin of the West and the rebel groups allied with the U.S. A 2013 report published by the Brookings Institution and authored by journalist Elizabeth Dickinson states that hundreds of millions of dollars from Kuwait have flowed to radical groups in Syria. The money has also transited through other U.S.-allied states, including Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
The Kuwaiti government is not actively encouraging the financing of ISIS or groups like it. The Brookings report says that the government has taken some steps to combat the flow. “But gaps still exist and there is little indication that established funding channels have been affected by government actions,” writes Dickinson, the author of the report. And Saleh Ashour, a Kuwaiti Parliament member, alleged to Dickinson that “the Kuwaiti government could not stop [these donations]...It’s a weak government that we have; they are chicken.”
Another source of private financing is Saudi Arabia. In late June, the Atlantic’s Steve Clemons reported that a senior Qatari official told him that “ISIS has been a Saudi project.” Clemons alleges that a Saudi government official, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, may have supported ISIS as part of a covert strategy in Syria with the aim of trying to overthrow Assad, an enemy of the Saudis. Bandar has since been relieved of his duties in the Saudi government, which is now reportedly wary of ISIS’ rise.
“Like elements of the mujahideen, which benefited from U.S. financial and military support during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and then later turned on the West in the form of al-Qaeda,” wrote Clemons, “ISIS achieved scale and consequence through Saudi support, only to now pose a grave threat to the kingdom and the region.”
Cockburn’s reporting has added more detail to Saudi involvement in ISIS. “The Saudi and Qatari aid was primarily financial, usually through private donations,” wrote Cockburn in August, “which Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, says were central to the Isis takeover of Sunni provinces in northern Iraq: ‘Such things do not happen spontaneously.’”