‘Is Saudi Arabia funding ISIS?’ Fact checking FactCheck

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 them.”

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 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 funding’.”

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 2010…. 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 donations….

“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.

First published on Medium in June 2017