US allies are funding ISIS, according to Patrick Cockburn – but does he produce any actual evidence?

“We finally know what Hillary Clinton knew all along — US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding Isis”. This was the blaring headline to an article by Patrick Cockburn published in the Independent last week.

It has proved very popular among some sections of the left and has been widely circulated. The Stop the War Coalition saw fit to republish the article on their website. StWC vice chair Chris Nineham commented: “How strange! Only Patrick Cockburn has reported the recent leaks proving not just that Saudi and Qatar have been funding ISIS for years, but that the US State Department were well aware of it all along…”

But the reason only Patrick Cockburn has reported this story is probably that most other journalists can see it lacks any basis in fact. As is often the way with “anti-imperialist” commentary on these issues, Cockburn’s analysis barely rises above the intellectual level of a 9/11 Truther.

In reality, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Saudi and Qatari governments were ever “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isis”, as is alleged in the memo Cockburn quotes. Quite the contrary. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have consistently funded and armed organisations (the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam) who are fighting against Daesh/ISIS.

The memo quoted by Cockburn dates from August 2014 and was forwarded by Hillary Clinton to her future presidential campaign chairman John Podesta, who at the time was a political adviser to the Obama administration. But Clinton herself of course held no position in the US government in 2014 (she had resigned as Secretary of State a year and a half earlier), so it is highly unlikely that the briefing was “a US State Department memo”, as Cockburn suggests.

There is therefore no basis for Cockburn’s confident claim that the memo shows that “the State Department and US intelligence clearly had no doubt that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were funding Isis” and that this was “received wisdom in the upper ranks of the US government”.

Who wrote the memo? We don’t know for sure, but it looks like it might well be one of the briefings Clinton regularly received from her longtime confidant Sidney Blumenthal. (It has the same format and style, and features Blumenthal’s distinctive spelling of Bashar al-Assad as “Basher”.) As such it had no official status and would have reflected his own personal views, not those of “the upper ranks of the US government”.

If Blumenthal was indeed the author of the memo, it’s unlikely Podesta would have taken it seriously. In another leaked email, he described Blumenthal as “lost in his own web of conspiracies”  – harsh criticism coming from a man who himself gives credence to the view that the US government has conspired to suppress evidence that UFOs are visiting aliens!

Nor would this be the first time that Blumenthal’s rather cranky views have embarrassed Clinton. A 2011 briefing he sent her, which Clinton circulated, promoted the conspiracy theory that France had intervened in Libya to prevent Gaddafi establishing a pan-African currency based on the gold dinar. This was eagerly endorsed by some on the left (and of course by RT) but dismissed by anyone who knew anything about the subject.

To back up his claim that the US knew all along that the Saudi regime was funding jihadis, Cockburn goes on to quote a 2009 State Department cable also originating with Clinton which says that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan]”. Cockburn invites us to believe that this is evidence of Saudi government sponsorship of these organisations. But it’s not. The quoted sentence refers to support from private Saudi donors.

The 2009 cable in fact said the opposite of what Cockburn implies. It noted 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”.

A Ministry of Defence submission earlier this year to the Foreign Affairs Committee confirmed that Saudi Arabia “has a comprehensive set of laws in place to prevent terrorist financing, which are enforced vigorously” and noted that the regime “has been at the forefront of international efforts to defeat Daesh”.

There is of course a good reason why the Saudi government wants to defeat Daesh/ISIS and al-Qaeda. Whatever their other differences, these organisations agree that the Saudi monarchy are apostates and both aim at the state’s violent overthrow. They have carried out terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia in pursuit of that objective, the most recent probably being by ISIS in July this year.

As for ISIS itself, it has no need of Saudi or Qatari finance. Although Cockburn sneers at what he terms the conventional wisdom that ISIS is “self-supporting through the sale of oil, taxes and antiquities”, all the experts agree that this is indeed the case.

In short, Cockburn is manipulating and distorting the evidence to suit his own purposes. It discredits the left when we endorse this sort of nonsense.


Following on from Cockburn’s Independent piece, Julian Assange raised the 2014 memo in an interview with John Pilger, broadcast by RT in November, which received millions of views. RT reported: “Assange’s claim that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knew that US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar were directly funding Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIL/ISIS), gained almost 600,000 clicks alone.”

In the RT video Assange intones gravely that the Clinton-Podesta exchange is “the most significant email in the whole collection”, proving conclusively that ISIS “is funded by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar”, while Pilger nods sagely in agreement. Pilger eagerly endorses Assange’s analysis, emphasising his point that the email proves that “the notorious terrorist group called ISIL or ISIS is created largely with money from the very people who are giving money to the Clinton Foundation”.

If the Saudi government is indeed funding ISIS, you would have to say that ISIS has shown a quite remarkable lack of gratitude for this generous financial assistance. The day before uploading the video clip from the Pilger-Assange interview, RT carried a report of speech by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in which the ISIS leader “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”.

First published on Medium in October 2016