x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Saudi slows terrorism's money taps

A US report says terrorism donations continue to flow despite Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism efforts.

former Saudi prisoners attend a rehabilitation programme at a centre near Riyadh.
former Saudi prisoners attend a rehabilitation programme at a centre near Riyadh.

The Saudi government has made progress in curtailing the flow of money for violent extremists from inside the kingdom, but concerns remain about continued donations from Saudi individuals and charitable groups, a recent US government report stated. Measures by the kingdom, including stricter monitoring of bank transactions and a ban on transferring charitable funds abroad without government approval, were noted as significant steps, in a report by the US Government Accounting Office (GAO).

The Saudi government has also been increasing its efforts to prosecute people accused of funding militants, the GAO report noted. More than 40 people were arrested in 2007 for financially supporting terrorists, and 56 were detained in 2008, of whom 20 were prosecuted. Still, the report cited a US state department study made public in February that found that "Saudi individuals and Saudi-based charitable organisations continue to be a significant source of financing for terrorism and extremism outside of Saudi Arabia".

US treasury officials responsible for tracking terrorist financing told the GAO "that Saudi-based individuals are a top source of funding for al Qa'eda and - the Taliban", though the officials "did not cite an estimated amount" for that funding. The GAO report, issued in September, also noted concerns that during Haj, when an estimated two million to three million Muslims visit Saudi Arabia, "non-Saudi individuals associated with extremists groups could exchange funds to support terrorism and violent extremism outside of Saudi Arabia".

Pilgrims have already started arriving in Saudi Arabia for Haj, which officially starts on November 25. Like criminal enterprises, terrorist groups use cash couriers to evade the oversight of banks. These couriers are difficult to detect and to regulate. After years of complaints from Washington about the lack of co-operation from Riyadh in fighting terrorism, the GAO report struck a new note. In April, it said, the US Embassy in Riyadh had "assessed progress towards its goal of building an active antiterrorist coalition with Saudi Arabia as 'on target'".

The report also stated that a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Ford Fraker, had described US-Saudi counterterrorism co-operation efforts "as among the most productive in the world". Saudi officials received a draft of the GAO report and found it "a fair and detailed review" of US-Saudi co-operation, the report stated. In December, the Saudi government closed what US regulators had regarded as a loophole in the 2003 Saudi ban on transferring money abroad without official approval by explicitly stating that the ban applies to large Saudi charities that work overseas.

These charities include the Muslim World League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Relief Organisation. "Moreover, Saudi officials told us that, as of July 2009, the Saudi government had not approved any transfer" of funds from any charity for activities outside the kingdom, though it has approved transfers of such humanitarian supplies as medical items and blankets, the report said.

In another move, the Saudi government has frozen the accounts and seized the assets of some individuals designated terrorist financiers by the United Nations, and had provided their names to Saudi banks so their transactions could be monitored, the report said. The GAO also reported on the status of the Saudi government's rehabilitation programme for jailed extremists. It said 4,300 individuals had completed the programme as of March, and that 250 of them had passed through an "aftercare" programme aimed at facilitating the reintegration of militants, mostly former Guantanamo prisoners, into Saudi society.

According to Saudi officials, the aftercare programme's recidivism rate is 20 per cent, and most of those returning to terrorist activities are former Guantanamo detainees. The 11 Saudis who remain at Guantanamo, the GAO report said, were described by Saudi officials as "the most difficult cases for rehabilitation". Another area of concern addressed in the report was Yemen, which was described as an emerging base from which al Qa'eda militants can launch attacks against US and Saudi interests.

The report also said the United States was helping Saudi Arabia train a 35,000-man facilities security force to protect critical infrastructure such as the Abqaiq oil facility. @Email:cmurphy@thenational.ae