Obama is Right: The Gulf Arabs Ride Free on Terrorism

Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are breaking their counterterrorism promises.

President Obama missed the last real opportunity of his administration to urge the Arab Gulf monarchies to finally adopt a no-tolerance rule toward all terrorist groups and to end the inexcusable impunity of terror financiers in their territory. Rather than calling out how certain Gulf states have failed to honor their commitments in this regard, President Obama used language that patted them on the back for half measures during his visit to Riyadh last Thursday for a Gulf leadership summit.

Back in September 2014, just before the start of international airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria, the United States released a document called the Jeddah Communiqué. In it, the State Department announced that the Gulf monarchs and several other Arab allies of the United States had committed to “countering financing of ISIL and other violent extremists, repudiating their hateful ideology, ending impunity and bringing perpetrators to justice.” And just this past week, the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council reiterated their “shared commitment to defeat terrorism in all its forms.”

So how have the GCC states actually fared, compared to their promises? Well, if you listen to President Obama this week, they’ve already succeeded. He bragged to the press in Riyadh on Thursday that “during the course of our administration, the GCC states have extensively cooperated with us on counterterrorism” and “on curbing the financing of terrorist activities.” The summit’s joint communiqué said the United States “commended” the Gulf states for their “rigorous efforts. . . to prevent terrorist attacks,” including their efforts to “counter violent extremism.”

Yet as I testified last year before Congress, Gulf rulers continue to embrace preachers of religious intolerance—most notably in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but also in Bahrain, Kuwait and Dubai of the United Arab Emirates. Many Gulf governments have also failed to consistently outlaw major terrorist organizations and take legal action against internationally designated funders of terrorism on their territory.

Indeed, the Gulf region stands at the intersection of two powerful and pivotal trends: fundamentalist ideological currents and enormous wealth from oil and natural gas. That confluence allegedly makes it a top sourcesome have argued the top source—of private donations to certain menacing terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hamas.

Official sources told me earlier this year that Kuwait has yet to convict—or even indict on terror-finance charges—a single one of the ten or so living Kuwaiti nationals and residents who are subject to terror-finance sanctions by the United States and United Nations. They also indicated that one or two of the men may still be employed at Kuwait’s flagship state university, and the local press has reported that one sanctioned Kuwaiti has also been given his mosque pulpit back by order of the state.

In Qatar, there is reason to believe circumstances are more or less the same. In 2014, a top Treasury official called both countries “permissive jurisdictions” for terrorist finance, an ignominious appellation that the U.S. government has yet to walk back. That official also called out Qatar for granting legal impunity to citizens in its territory under U.S. and UN sanctions on charges of terror finance.

Last month, Qatar proclaimed that U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew expressed appreciation for Qatar’s “efforts. . . in the prosecution of financiers of terrorism.” But “efforts” to prosecute do not necessarily mean that actual indictments have been filed, that indictments have targeted most of the key individuals on U.S. or UN terror finance lists, that those individuals are now behind bars or that lasting convictions have been achieved. And I can find no publicly available evidence to suggest otherwise.

Additionally, when the United States sanctioned two Qatar-based individuals on charges of funding Al Qaeda last year, a U.S. official reportedly told the press that Qatar had yet to arrest the two men and that “there continues to be concerns about terrorist financing going on in Qatar.”