Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 March 2018

UAE ambassador says ‘get serious’ about ending ISIL financing

Yousef Al Otaiba called for countries to crack down more on funds reaching extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, Taimur Khan reports from Washington.

Yousef Al Otaiba, ambassador of the UAE to the United States, speaks at an event “Leadership in a Turbulent World." Nick Khazal / ELAM
Yousef Al Otaiba, ambassador of the UAE to the United States, speaks at an event “Leadership in a Turbulent World." Nick Khazal / ELAM

WASHINGTON // The UAE’s ambassador to Washington has called on regional governments to “get serious” about stopping the flow of funding to extremist groups.

“Promises of new laws are not enough, there must be aggressive enforcement, charitable fund-raising must be monitored, money flows must be examined and exposed,” Yousef Al Otaiba said at an event hosted by the embassy to launch a fellowship programme endowed by the UAE at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“Over the long term, disrupting their funding will do more to slow down extremists than any amount of airstrikes,” Mr Al Otaiba said.

Last week, the United Nations General Assembly was dominated by the threat of ISIL, with Barack Obama working to gain more support for the US-led campaign against the militants in Iraq and Syria.

Apart from military action, central themes of the assembly were how to cut private funding for ISIL as well as how to prevent extremists from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere from travelling to Syria and Iraq to join militant groups.

The UN Security Council passed a binding resolution that forces countries to pass laws addressing the foreign-fighter issue.

At the embassy event on Friday, Mr Al Otaiba said the UAE welcomes “president Obama’s leadership to restrict the recruitment and movements of foreign fighters. Encouraging nations to adopt new laws is the first step, rigorous enforcement is the next.”

As combating ISIL has come to the fore of several countries’ foreign policy priorities, a greater focus has been paid to the group’s sources of money.

Analysts say the group generates the majority of its funds through selling oil, extortion, smuggling, kidnapping and other means, however a smaller but significant portion comes from private donors in the Gulf.

The US Treasury Department has singled out Qatar and Kuwait for having weaknesses in this regard, despite recent laws passed to address the problem.

A State Department report released in April found that in 2013 Qatari authorities had not designated any terrorist fund-raisers, and only reported one suspicious transaction.

Qatar’s leader, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, told CNN that “we have strong laws against funding terrorist groups”. But, he said, “there [are] differences between some countries, of who are the terrorists and who are the, maybe, Islamist groups, but we don’t consider them as terrorists”.

Last week, the US Treasury designated a number of alleged terrorist fund-raisers working in Kuwait and Qatar, including one, known as Tariq Al Tunisi, who is said to have, in September 2013, “arranged for ISIL to receive approximately $2 million from a Qatar-based ISIL financial facilitator” for military operations, according to a Treasury statement. The statement did not name the ISIL fund-raiser.

“This is a positive step,” Mr Al Otaiba said of the latest designations. “And we hope to see more like it.”

Mr Al Otaiba said providing “alternatives” to extremism is also key. That “means building more inclusive, forward-looking, and efficient governments and the people to lead”.

He said the relationship with Harvard would help foster a new generation in the Middle East that “is the type of leadership we need to create”.

The Emirates Leadership Initiative was created at Harvard Kennedy School with a gift of $15 million from the UAE, and will last five years.

The initiative will allow annual fellowships for up to 10 graduate students from the UAE and other Arab countries as well as research fellowships for pre- and postdoctoral students.

The initiative will also provide for trips by Kennedy School students, faculty and administrators to the UAE and the region.

The programme will be co-directed by David Gergen, a Kennedy School professor and former White House adviser, and Nicholas Burns, a former senior US diplomat and National Security Council official now with the Kennedy School.

One of the six 2014 fellows selected by the Kennedy School is Khaled Kteily, 25, a Palestinian-Lebanese who came to the school after working as a business consultant in Canada.

Before that he worked for the UN on Palestinian refugee issues in the Levant.

As extremist violence, war and political polarisation engulf the Middle East and North Africa, Mr Kteily says he wants to now pursue a public-sector career in the region after his time at the Kennedy School.

“My sense with the fellowship is that they want people who believe in the Arab world, who have a lot of belief in what it can accomplish,” Mr Kteily said.

Amina Taher, 30, an Emirati from Dubai, took a sabbatical from her position in media relations at Etihad after she won a fellowship.

Her goal is to help public education reform in the UAE.

“How can we create more women leaders in the country who can have a better impact on education and different industries?” she said. She said her goal was to improve education for Emirati women so that they can fill leadership posts in government.