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The Many Headed Hydra: A Difficult US Fight to Choke Off Terror Finance

By Yassin Musharbash

US diplomats around the world have been trying for years to cut off funding for terrorism. But many governments have proven reluctant to join the effort. Particularly in Pakistan, high-level contacts to extremist groups are proving to be a significant hurdle.

A video grab from Al Jazeera television thought to depict al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The US has had trouble eliminating funding for the terrorist organization. Zoom

A video grab from Al Jazeera television thought to depict al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The US has had trouble eliminating funding for the terrorist organization.

The document exuded confidence -- and officially it didn't exist. "With your help," the US State Department wrote in a "non-paper" to the Saudi Arabian government, "we can learn more and stop the abuse of al-Haramain by terrorists." Then-US Secretary of State authorized the several-page-long memo on Jan. 28, 2003. Its focus was charitable organizations that allegedly also provided funding for terrorism -- organizations like al-Haramain. Above all, the letter was intended to turn Saudi Arabia from a shady half-friend into a solid US ally in the fight against terrorism and its sponsors.

The Americans were aware that cash injections from wealthy benefactors in Saudi Arabia were al-Qaida's most important source of revenue. "Finding these people and stopping the financial flows -- whether through public or private action -- would seriously impede the al-Qaida leadership's ability to reconstitute the group and launch devastating new attacks in the United States, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere," wrote Powell in the non-paper.

His efforts met at least with partial success. Riyadh has since become an ally of the West when it comes to combating terrorism. As recently as a few weeks ago, in late October, Saudi Arabian intelligence helped foil a plan to send two parcel bombs to the US via Europe.

But the flow of money to al-Qaida and organizations connected with it has by no means been stopped in Saudi Arabia. In May 2009, Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, traveled to the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh himself, precisely for that reason. He told Saudi financial investigators that "private donations from the Gulf" were still the most important source of funding for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

'A Source of Funding'

The US embassy noted that "it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority." It said "donors in Saudi Arabia continue to constitute a source of funding to Sunni extremist groups worldwide." As for al-Haramain, it apparently continues to operate, albeit under a different name.

Holbrooke's warning came a full six years after Powell's memo. But Osama bin Laden continues to lead the al-Qaida terror network, Mullah Omar still heads the Afghan Taliban -- and the terrorists haven't run out of money.

Militant Islamists collected funds for bomb attacks on suburban railway trains in Madrid in 2004 and the London Underground in 2005. They funded suicide attacks on hotels in Jordan and on the Sinai Peninsula, and they pay for deadly bombings in Iraq and Pakistan that take place almost daily. The problem that Powell described back in 2003 has still not been solved. Everyone has an idea how the terrorists get their money, but no-one can find a way to stem the flow of funds.

US diplomats are battling a multi-headed Hydra. The dispatches leaked by WikiLeaks reveal just how bitter this battle has become. The memos repeatedly show the State Department's barely concealed frustration with America's partners.

As Many Levels as Possible

The authorities in Qatar are described as "largely passive" in the fight against terror and "overall ... considered the worst in the region." Indonesia is said to be an "alphabet soup" of government bodies supposedly responsible, and a "universe of aliases" of suspected terrorists and terrorism sponsors -- in short, a bureaucratic nightmare. As for Kuwait, the diplomats told Washington that cooperation only improved after a Kuwaiti blew himself up in Iraq.

There are, of course, some countries which are particularly helpful, including Morocco, Jordan, Abu Dhabi and Egypt. Cairo has even pointed out new methods that the terrorists are using.

The US is trying to wage war on the terrorists on as many levels as possible. In Indonesia, for example, it is helping legislators draft anti-money laundering laws. The US also offers training courses and provides advisers to ministries in many other countries.

But essentially little has changed. The diplomatic dispatches on the subject of terror finance tend to focus on three countries: Saudi Arabia, because so much money allegedly flows through the country; Kuwait, because its government took years to blacklist three terror sponsors; and Pakistan, where the US is confronted with a wall of demonstrative non-commitment.

Added to the List

Diplomacy is a delicate business, and Kuwait is a perfect case in point. The US efforts in Kuwait center on three men: Jabir Al-Jalamah, Mubarak Al-Bathali and Hamid Al-Ali. In the US, they have been officially designated "terrorist facilitators" and financiers since December 2006, and Washington was keen to have them added to the relevant United Nations list.

In June of 2006, Washington asked its embassy in Kuwait to sound out how the government there might react to such a move. The diplomats didn't envisage any fundamental problems, but predicted the Kuwaitis would drag their feet on the issue. What actually transpired was that Kuwait asked Qatar to prevent the men's names from being added to the UN watch list. US negotiators urged the Kuwaitis to end the blockade in May 2007. The result was a diplomatic spat. The US information about the three men was "full of holes," the Kuwaitis said. As a result, the American request could unfortunately not be granted.

Naturally Kuwait is allowed to have legal concerns -- the documents only show the American point of view. Washington responded by sending Kuwait a "non-paper" listing detailed accusations against the men. But the Kuwaitis said that wasn't enough either. US diplomats adopted a blunter tone: After the three men had been listed as terrorist facilitators in the US, the diplomats pointed out, Kuwait had agreed to at least keep them under surveillance. In reality, however, the three financiers had continued to collect funds for terrorists, the Americans wrote.


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