[Vredeslijst] Is Saudi Arabia funding ISIS?

Jeff meisner op xs4all.nl
Zo Jul 2 22:08:20 CEST 2017

There is a widely circulated conspiracy theory among the far right, but also 
circulated among the left, which attributes the rise of ISIS to support and 
funding by the government of Saudi Arabia. The following article disproves 
this allegation. Other equally false conspiracy theories make similar 
allegations against other national governments such as Turkey, Israel, Qatar 
and the U.S., with Donald Trump himself having named the latter two; these
are not addressed in the following article.

The Saudi government is among the most right-wing and repressive theocracies 
in the world. Its internal policies are among the most oppressive to 
dissidents, women, LGBT's, foreign workers, and religious minorities. Our 
efforts to protest and apply international pressure against that regime will 
be hurt, not helped, by promoting untrue conspiracy theories.

- JM


‘Is Saudi Arabia funding ISIS?’ Fact checking FactCheck
Bob Pitt
June 30 2017

Channel 4’s FactCheck is usually a good source of objective information on 
controversial issues. So it’s disappointing that a recent article by Martin 
Williams, which presents an assessment of the evidence behind the widespread 
accusation that the Saudi government is funding ISIS, is poorly researched 
and quite misleading. The article has been cited on social media as a 
reliable study, so it’s worth subjecting Williams’ analysis to a 
point-by-point examination to see if it holds up. (Short version: It doesn’t.)

The Clinton/Podesta emails

Evidently drawing on an article by Patrick Cockburn published in the 
Independent last October, Martin Williams claims that an August 2014 email 
exchange between Hillary Clinton and John Podesta provides the smoking gun 
that demonstrates Saudi state complicity in the funding of ISIS. He writes:

    Perhaps the most powerful indication of Saudi’s 
    financial links with ISIS can be seen in the cache 
    of emails leaked from the office of Hillary Clinton, 
    who was US Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013.

    The messages, published by Wikileaks, contain 
    an unambiguous statement by her campaign chairman, 
    John Podesta:

    “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional 
    intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments 
    of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing 
    clandestine financial and logistic support to 
    ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

The email from which Williams quotes was in fact acquired through the 
hacking of John Podesta’s personal account. But the quoted statement isn’t 
by Podesta at all. It’s from an anonymous briefing forwarded to him by 
Hillary Clinton, the author of which was almost certainly her longtime 
confidant Sidney Blumenthal. (It has the same format and style of other 
briefings by Blumenthal, and features his distinctive spelling of the Syrian 
dictator’s name as “Basher al Assad”.) Far from endorsing Blumenthal’s 
analysis, Podesta would certainly have rejected it. As he put it in another 
leaked email: “Sid is lost in his own web of conspiracies. I pay zero 
attention to what he says.”

As for Clinton, it seems likely that she sent the briefing to Podesta 
because she thought he would be interested in its points concerning the role 
of Kurdish forces as US allies in the fight against ISIS, which forms the 
main subject matter of the document. It doesn’t follow that she agreed with 
Blumenthal’s passing reference to the Saudi government’s supposed 
“clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL”. With regard to that 
issue, the briefing provides evidence of nothing more than Blumenthal’s 
conspiracist mind-set.

Yet, according to Martin Williams and FactCheck, this email exchange 
qualifies as “perhaps the most powerful indication of Saudi’s financial 
links with ISIS”! You can only conclude that the rest of the evidence must 
be very shaky indeed. And so it turns out.

The 2009 State Department cable

Regarding the allegation that the Saudi state was providing support to a 
jihadi movement, Williams states: “This wasn’t the first time US officials 
had made this claim.” Still following Patrick Cockburn, he cites a State 
Department cable from 2009, also released by Wikileaks, in which Williams 
says US officials “spelt out the same concerns” about Saudi government 
funding of jihadism as expressed in the Blumenthal briefing. Williams quotes 
the cable as follows:

    Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant 
    source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide. 
    While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) takes 
    seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi 
    Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade 
    Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating 
    from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority …

    More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains 
    a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, 
    the Taliban, LeT, and other terrorist groups, 
    including Hamas, which probably raise millions 
    of dollars annually from Saudi sources.

This amounts to misrepresentation by selective quotation. While the cable 
did indeed argue that “more needs to be done” to prevent Saudi citizens from 
funding jihadis, it also acknowledged that the Saudi government had 
“responded to terrorist financing concerns raised by the United States 
through proactively investigating and detaining financial facilitators of 
concern”, and had made “increasingly aggressive efforts to disrupt 
al-Qa’ida’s access to funding from Saudi sources”.

Does this really sound like the State Department was making the same claim 
that Blumenthal (or as Williams would have it, Podesta) did when he accused 
the Saudi government of “providing clandestine financial and logistic 
support” to ISIS?

Hillary Clinton …

Martin Williams also attaches great significance to a speech by Hillary 
Clinton from October 2013, again released by Wikileaks, in which she said of 
the situation in Syria: “The Saudis and others are shipping large amounts of 
weapons?—?and pretty indiscriminately?—?not at all targeted toward the 
people that we think would be the more moderate, least likely, to cause 
problems in the future.”

Contrary to Clinton’s comments, the Saudi regime has in reality been 
extremely discriminating in the support it has given to armed factions 
resisting Assad. Its tactic from the start was to promote secular 
nationalist organisations fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, 
in order to sideline democratic Islamists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, 
while at the same time building up the forces that founded Jaish al-Islam, 
to act as a non-jihadi Salafi counterweight to al-Qaeda. Both the FSA and 
Jaish al-Islam are bitter enemies of ISIS and have engaged in armed conflict 
with that organisation.

In any case, in her 2013 speech Clinton spoke only in general terms about 
“the Saudis and others” having provided arms to the anti-Assad opposition in 
a way that was “not at all targeted toward the people that we think would be 
the more moderate”. That falls some way short of claiming that the Saudi 
government was specifically funding ISIS, so it is difficult to see how this 
speech serves as evidence that they did. Yet Williams offers it as an 
example of how “people in the highest ranks of US government have had good 
reason to believe money is flowing between Saudi Arabia and ISIS”.

… and Joe Biden

As further evidence of this Williams cites some off-the-cuff and not 
entirely coherent remarks made by Joe Biden in October 2014 during a Q&A 
session at Harvard University, in the course of which the then US 
vice-president accused Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE of pouring 
money and arms into Syria to support extremist organisations that were 
fighting Assad. According to Williams, Biden included ISIS among these 
organisations. He quotes Biden as stating: “We declared [ISIS] a terrorist 
group early on. And we could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying 

This quotation is doctored to attribute to Biden a claim that he did not 
make. Biden actually referred to “al-Nusra who we declared a terrorist group 
early on” (emphasis added). This organisation, not ISIS, was the one he 
complained “we could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying”. Jabhat 
al-Nusra in fact vehemently opposed the launch of ISIS and refused to join 
it?—?indeed, it subsequently fought alongside other anti-Assad forces to 
drive ISIS out of opposition-held territory. You can make a case that some 
US allies (Turkey and Qatar) provided at least indirect assistance to 
al-Nusra, in the period when it appeared to be moving away from jihadism and 
had not yet declared its affiliation to al-Qaeda. But that’s very different 
from claiming that these US allies supported ISIS. And it tells us nothing 
at all about who the Saudi government has been funding and arming in Syria.

Williams also omits to mention that Biden later publicly apologised for his 
comments, stating that he had referred only to the situation in the early 
stages of the Syrian civil war, and emphasising that he recognised “Saudi 
Arabia’s strong support in the shared fight against ISIL”.

Distorting the Washington Institute’s analysis

Williams cites a 2014 study from the Washington Institute by Lori Plotkin 
Boghardt on “Saudi Funding of ISIS”, which he concedes found “no credible 
evidence” of government funding. However, Williams then continues:

    But the report added that Saudi government “has 
    taken pleasure in recent ISIS-led Sunni advances 
    against Iraq’s Shiite government, and in jihadist 
    gains in Syria at Bashar al-Assad’s expense”.

    It added: “It would not be surprising to learn 
    of limited, perhaps indirect contact, logistical 
    coordination to further Sunni positions in Syria 
    and beyond, or leaking of funds and materiel from 
    Saudi-supported rebels to ISIS.”

    “Arab Gulf donors as a whole?—?of which Saudis 
    are believed to be the most charitable?—?have 
    funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Syria 
    in recent years, including to ISIS and other groups,” 
    it said. “Riyadh could do much more to limit private 

Once again Williams engages in selective quotation, which distorts the 
overall thrust of the Washington Institute’s analysis. Here is a more 
directly relevant passage from the same article:

    There is a misconception that the kingdom does 
    not get in the way of private Saudi financing 
    of terrorist groups operating in Syria, including 
    ISIS. Yet one of Riyadh’s most observable counter-terrorism 
    financing activities is its monitoring of the 
    country’s formal financial sector in order to 
    block suspect donations. Indeed, social media 
    fundraising campaigns highlight the challenges 
    of sending such funds from Saudi Arabia to Syria. 
    To ensure that their contributions actually reach 
    Syria, Saudi donors are encouraged to send their 
    money to Kuwait, long considered one of the most 
    permissive terrorism financing environments in 
    the Persian Gulf.

That provides a convincing refutation of the myth of Saudi state support for 
ISIS. But Williams doesn’t see fit to quote it.

How is ISIS funded?

Williams also has a stab at identifying ISIS’s actual sources of funding. He 
accepts that “it’s not as simple as just donations from wealthy backers”. 
Indeed it’s not. Here is a detailed analysis from McClatchy DC of documents 
containing the organisation’s financial records for the period between 2005 
(when it was still al-Qaeda in Iraq) and 2010 (by which time it had become 
Islamic State in Iraq):

    The documents also challenge popular narratives 
    about the group, including that Saudi Arabia and 
    other Persian Gulf countries were key contributors 
    to the birth of ISIS…. In fact, the intercepted 
    documents show, outside donations amounted to 
    only a tiny fraction?—?no more than 5 percent?—?of 
    the group’s operating budgets from 2005 until 

    Charles Lister, who researches extremist 
    groups as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s 
    Doha Center in Qatar, said there was no evidence 
    that foreign donors such as Gulf nations became 
    any more important to the group after 2010; he 
    dismissed that idea as stemming from a “political 
    context of deep suspicion and paranoia”.

As Williams mentions, referring to a Financial Times report, according to 
some estimates ISIS at one point enjoyed an income of $1.5 million a day 
from oil sales. In a 2015 op ed for the New York Times, Charles Lister 
argued that the figure was likely an exaggeration, but added: “ISIS may be 
earning as much as $600 million annually by levying a 50 percent tax on 
government-paid employees, a 3 to 5 percent tax on all local businesses and 
a tax of between 10 and 15 percent on all commercial trucks passing through 
its territory.”

The Financial Action Task Force published a study of ISIS’s funding in 2015, 
which confirmed this view. While noting that the organisation “has received 
some funding from wealthy private regional donors”, the FATF found that “the 
overall quantitative value of external donations to ISIL is minimal relative 
to its other revenue sources”.

It’s obvious that no Saudi donor could have provided anything approaching 
the level of funding that ISIS generated for itself within the territory it 
then controlled. So even if the Saudi government had cracked down on private 
donors even more heavily than it did, the impact on ISIS’s finances would 
have been negligible.

‘Why don’t we stop them?’

Having failed to establish any evidence whatsoever that the Saudi government 
is funding ISIS, or facilitating such funding, Williams nevertheless 
demands: “Why don’t we stop them?” (To which some might think the obvious 
answer is: “Because they’re not doing it.”)

Williams notes the need for cooperation with Saudi Arabia on security 
issues, along with with the importance of the country as an oil-producer and 
a major customer for British arms manufacturers. He implies that such 
considerations have resulted in Britain’s official silence over Riyadh’s 
sponsorship of terrorism. Posing the question “What does the UK government 
say about it?”, Williams answers “Not much”. He points out that under David 
Cameron’s premiership the government commissioned a report into the foreign 
funding of terrorist groups but the Home Office has stated that it may not 
be published. Williams observes: “Without this report, we cannot say for 
sure what the UK government knows about Saudi funding to ISIS.”

As it happens, we can. Or at least we have a good summary of what the 
government knows?—?based on written evidence submitted by the Ministry of 
Defence to last year’s Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into ISIS 
financing. The MoD document emphasised that the Saudi government has played 
a central role in the campaign to block funding for terrorism and stated 
that there was “no substantive evidence” to support the charge that it has 
been providing financial support to ISIS. Here is the relevant passage:

    With the threat of Daesh close, the Saudi Arabian 
    Government has been at the forefront of international 
    efforts to defeat Daesh, including through joint 
    leadership of the Coalition’s work to cut Daesh’s 
    resources. Saudi Arabia has a comprehensive set 
    of laws in place to prevent terrorist financing, 
    which are enforced vigorously.

    The Saudis are a co-chair of the CIFG [Counter-ISIL 
    Finance Group], which is the Coalition’s mechanism 
    for monitoring Daesh funding. Alongside their 
    work with CIFG, Saudi Arabia has worked to cut 
    Daesh off from the international financial system. 
    They are also implementing UN Security Council 
    Resolution 2253/2199 on top of 1267/1989 Isil 
    and Al-Qaeda sanctions regime and list.

    No substantive evidence exists to support accusations 
    of Saudi government financial support to Daesh. 
    The Saudi Interior Ministry passed laws in March 
    2015, making it illegal for Saudi residents to 
    provide support to Daesh, by designating it as 
    terrorist entity. Saudi Arabia has taken active 
    measures to deny private Saudi financing of terrorist 
    groups, inclusive of Daesh and its affiliates. 
    This includes monitoring the formal financial 
    sector through Suspect Activity Reports SARs in 
    order to identify and block suspected terrorist 

    Saudi Arabia has taken further steps by advising 
    its religious establishments against engaging 
    on Syria related issues, aside from humanitarian 
    relief efforts, and introducing a whistle blower 
    system. This provides financial incentive for 
    the reporting of money laundering and terrorist 
    financing operations.

Although this provides an authoritative answer to FactCheck’s question “Is 
Saudi Arabia funding ISIS?”, the MoD’s evidence doesn’t feature anywhere in 
Martin Williams’ article.

The real relationship between ISIS and the Saudi regime

One final point. If the Saudi government was indeed funding ISIS, or at 
least helpfully turning a blind eye to private citizens who did so, you 
would expect this to be reflected in the attitude ISIS takes towards the 
Saudi state. But Williams showed no interest in investigating this aspect of 
the question. If he had, he would have found that ISIS has a consistent 
record of demanding the violent overthrow of the Saudi regime.

In 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi launched “a scathing attack on Saudi Arabia’s 
ruling family, labelling them ‘the serpent’s head’. He went on to tell 
supporters to prioritise attacking Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslim minority and 
the Saudi government and security forces over attacking Western forces”. (A 
strategy that ISIS supporters proceeded to implement.) In 2015 the ISIS 
leader called on Saudi citizens to “rise up against the apostate tyrants”. 
In 2016 he “threatened to carry out multiple attacks in Saudi Arabia, 
targeting the Islamic kingdom’s security services, government officials and, 
notably, members of Al Saud royal family”.

Is this the sort of attitude that the recipients of Saudi state support 
would take towards their benefactors? Conversely, would it make any sense 
for the Saudi state to help fund jihadists who are committed to its total 
destruction? The House of Saud may be reactionary, repressive and barbaric, 
but they’re not completely stupid.

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