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.
The Pakistan Question
The men were eventually added to the UN's al-Qaida list in January 2008. In May, Kuwait froze the trio's bank accounts. But in the latest available report on the matter, from January 2010, the US expresses "concern, however, that the three Kuwaiti UN 1267 designees (Al Bathali, Al-Ali, and Jalamah) and others, are still traveling and providing support to extremist groups." In addition, the US told the Kuwaiti government that "funding from Kuwait to extremist networks in South Asia is of particular concern, especially funding of Taliban activity" along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
US relations with Saudi Arabia are likewise less than ideal. Like Kuwait, officials in Riyadh have repeatedly delayed or obstructed legislation and other efforts to control the flow of donations. One has to be careful not to create "economic martyrs" among the extremists, the Saudis warn. They are also concerned about the reaction of the conservative religious establishment in the country.
The documents from the US Embassy in Riyadh are also interesting for another reason: The scope of the American-Saudi dialog is much wider than in other countries. It is not solely about money, but also about politics. And the Americans' Saudi interlocutors -- who are often members of the royal family -- provide the West with profound insights.
The Saudis talk freely about others and sometimes even about themselves. They describe Iran as a significant sponsor of terrorism, and warn that Shiite Saudis are transferring money to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The annual pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj, creates a "security vacuum," they say. They know full well that terrorists arrange to meet there.
A 'Rotten Head'
When Washington once again urged for more controls on donations, a member of the royal household promised in 2006 to put the matter to the monarch: "Since we often get accused of being autocratic, we might as well be autocratic once in a while," he said.
The Saudis are particularly clear about what they think of Pakistan. A memo dated February 2010 says the king himself described Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari as an "obstacle" and a "rotten head." In May 2009, the Saudis made it apparent that they also mistrust the Pakistani secret service, the ISI: "We think 10 times before approaching them," they said according to a US dispatch.
Saudi Arabia is important to the US, not least because of its importance within the Muslim world. For the rulers in Riyadh, the role is not inconvenient. And the Saudis do not seem particularly bothered about the fact that the Saudi Interior Ministry is "almost completely" dependent on the CIA in the war on terror, as a US embassy memo asserted in February 2010.
And Pakistan? If Saudi Arabia was only a half-friend back in 2003, Pakistan is almost a half-enemy in 2010. The US is not really sure where it stands vis-à-vis Islamabad. Sometimes it appears as if progress is being made, for instance when a civil servant asks for training in tackling terrorist fundraisers. But then there are reports like the following memo from the US Embassy in February 2010: "The military and intelligence establishment has taken steps since spring 2009 to hamper the operations of the Islamabad Embassy."
'Not Be Won for Many Years'
Pakistan's non-committal stance appears to be systematic. Islamabad took a similar approach in response to moves to put Pakistani sponsors of terrorism on the UN list. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry gave its assurances that Pakistan gave its wholehearted backing to the process. It could not, however, take part in the process -- there was a lack of proof, they argued, and the government would undoubtedly be sued.
A US "non-paper" dated Aug. 10, 2009 addressed the problem of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LT), the southern Asian terror organization that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed a total of 175 people. It also focused on the groups and people who helped LT, whose tricks the Americans had identified. The aid organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa, for example, pays for a new school or the expansion of a madrassa, but part of the money is then diverted to fund bomb builders. They "would inflate the cost to siphon money to LT," a US diplomat wrote.
Pakistan nevertheless remains intractable. The US diplomats concede that "some officials from Pakistan's ISI continue to maintain ties with a wide array of extremist organizations." What choice do US diplomats have? Not much. They warn Islamabad about the threat of damage to the country's reputation, and tell the State Department that "Pakistan's intermittent support to terrorist groups and militant organizations threatens to undermine regional security."
Have US efforts been entirely in vain? There have certainly been successes, but it is impossible to completely defeat a Hydra. In February 2007, the US Embassy in Riyadh cabled the following prediction back to Washington: "The Saudi leadership acknowledges privately that the war on terrorism will not be won for many years."