Much has been reported about the complex system of terrorist financing and the
money trail facilitating the September 11 terror attacks. Individuals and charities
from the Persian Gulf--mainly from Saudi Arabia--appear to be the most important
source of funding for terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda. According to an
October 2002 Council on Foreign Relations report of an Independent Task Force
on Terrorist Financing, Osama bin Laden and his men have been able to accumulate
millions of dollars using legitimate businesses such as charities, nongovernmental
organizations, mosques, banks and other financial institutions to help raise and
move their funds.
"...the hijackers, 15 hijackers who are Saudis, they studied this thinking --
destructive thinking -- in Saudi Arabia. They spent a few months in Afghanistan.
But they lived their life, they studied this in government mosques. [..] Government
curriculum inspired what happened in New York." - PBS interview with Ali Al-Ahmed, executive director of the Saudi Institute
How does it work? Take Saudi Arabia for example. This Gulf monarchy is a rentier
state in which no taxes are imposed on the population. Instead, Saudis have a
religious tax, the zakat, requiring all Muslims to give at least 2.5 percent of
their income to charities. Many of the charities are truly dedicated to good causes,
but others merely serve as money laundering and terrorist financing apparatuses.
While many Saudis contribute to those charities in good faith believing their money
goes toward good causes, others know full well the terrorist purposes to which their
money will be funneled.
What makes penetration and control of money transactions in the Arab world
especially difficult is the Hawala system--the unofficial method of transferring
money and one of the key elements in the financing of global terrorism. The system
has been going for generations and is deeply embedded in the Arab culture. Hawala
transactions are based on trust; they are carried out verbally leaving no paper trail.
The Saudi regime has been complicit in its people's actions and has turned a blind
eye to the phenomenon of wealthy citizens sending money to charities that in
turn route it to terror organizations. Furthermore, Saudi government money funneled
into madrassas where radical anti-Americanism is propagated has been instrumental
in creating an ideological climate which generates terrorism.
Former CIA director James Woolsey described the Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism and
Islamist extremism as "the soil in which Al-Qaeda and its sister terrorist
organizations are flourishing."
Barrels and bombs
It is no coincidence that so much of the cash filling terrorists' coffers come
from the oil monarchies in the Persian Gulf. It is also no coincidence that those
countries holding the world's largest oil reserves and those generating most of
their income from oil exports, are also those with the strongest support for
radical Islam. In fact, oil and terrorism are entangled. If not for the West's
oil money, most Gulf states would not have had the wealth that allowed them to
invest so much in arms procurement and sponsor terrorists organizations.
Consider Saudi Arabia. Oil revenues make up around 90-95% of total Saudi export
earnings, 70%-80% of state revenues, and around 40% of the country's gross domestic
product (GDP). In 2002 alone, Saudi Arabia earned nearly $55 billion
in crude oil export revenues. Most wealthy Saudis who sponsor charities and
educational foundations that preach religious intolerance and hate toward the
Western values have made their money from the petroleum industry or its subsidiaries.
Osama bin Laden's wealth comes from the family's construction company that made
its fortune from government contracts financed by oil money. It is also oil
money that enables Saudi Arabia to invest approximately 40% of its income on
weapons procurement. In July 2005 undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey testifying in the Senate noted “Wealthy Saudi financiers and charities have funded terrorist organizations and causes that support terrorism and the ideology that fuels the terrorists' agenda. Even today, we believe that Saudi donors may still be a significant source of terrorist financing, including for the insurgency in Iraq."
If Saudi Arabia is the financial engine of radical Sunni Islam, its neighbor Iran is the powerhouse behind the proliferation of radical Shiite Islam. Iran, OPEC’s second largest oil producer, is holder of 10 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and has the world’s second largest natural gas reserve. With oil and gas revenues constituting over 80 percent of its total export earning and 50 percent of its gross domestic product, Iran is heavily dependent on petrodollars. It is a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and supporter of some of the world’s most radical Islamic movements such as the Lebanese Hizballah. Iran’s mullahs are fully aware of the power of their oil. Its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned in 2002: “If the West did not receive oil, their factories would grind to a halt. This will shake the world!” As the world’s demand for oil increases, Iran grows richer --Iran’s oil revenues have jumped 25 percent in 2005—and more than able to snub the U.S. and its allies in their efforts to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
The line between the barrel and the bomb is clear. It is oil wealth that enables
dictatorial regimes to sustain themselves, resisting openness, progress and power
sharing. Some semi-feudal royal families in the Gulf buy their legitimacy from
the Muslim religious establishment. This establishment uses oil money to globally
propagate hostility to the West, modernity, non-Muslims, and women.
This trend is likely to continue. Both the International Energy Agency and the
Energy Information Agency of the U.S. Department of Energy currently project a
steady increase in world demand for oil through at least 2020. This means
further enrichment of the oil-producing countries and continued access of
terrorist groups to a viable financial network which allow then remain a lethal
threat to the U.S. and its allies.
Drying the swamp
There are many strategies proposed by counter-terrorism experts to obstruct
terrorist financing. Many of them are effective and, indeed, some of the steps
that have been taken since September 11, such as freezing bank accounts and
improving the scrutiny over international monetary transfers, contributed to a
reduction in Al-Qaeda's financial maneuverability. But the only way to deal with
the problem strategically is to reduce the disposable income and wealth generation
capacity of terrorist supporters.
Hence, America's best weapon against terrorism is to decrease its dependency on
foreign oil by increasing its fuel efficiency and introducing next-generation
fuels. If the U.S. bought less oil, the global oil market would shrink and price
per-barrel would decline. This would invalidate the social contract between the
leaders and their people and stem the flow of resources to the religious establishment.
It will likely increase popular pressure for political participation, modernity
and reformed political and social institutions.
Reducing demand for Middle East oil would force the petroleum-rich regimes to
invest their funds domestically, seek ways to diversify their economies and rethink
their support for America's enemies. Only then financial support for terrorism
could radically diminish.