By Daniel Loud
The threat of ISIS is new and unique to the international community; a threat that many still struggle to understand. Since the middle of 2014, ISIS proves unique in its ability to hold territory and in many respects function as a state. While the primary focus of the international community with regards to ISIS has put its threat to an end, it remains unclear how exactly this could be accomplished. While this is a clearly difficult question to answer, understanding the support that exists for such a baffling threat may offer some guidance on how to best counteract it. While there are many factors that have led to the growth and success of ISIS, one source of support that can likely be studied and addressed is the private funding of ISIS and other terrorist organizations by individuals within the Persian Gulf monarchies.
As can be expected, ISIS’s desired transition into statehood is an expensive undertaking, made more difficult by harsh financial restrictions from the world’s richest countries. Nonetheless, estimates say that the organization manages to obtain between one and two million U.S. Dollars a day on crude oil sales alone. However, this is not its only source of funding. U.S. and Middle Eastern officials have also pointed to funding by wealthy individuals in the Persian Gulf monarchies as a major source of income for several radical Islamic groups in Syria, ISIS included. The particular targets of these accusations have been affluent individuals in Qatar and Kuwait.
Qatar and Kuwait’s involvement with radical Islam, particularly in Syria, is neither new nor limited to these two kingdoms. Initially, these states were joined by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, funding the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria. During the early stages of the Syrian Civil War, this funding was supplied directly by the governments of these states in order to support Assad’s opposition. As the threat of radical Islam grew more imposing in Syria, this official funding was significantly scaled back, and harsh restrictions were placed on the funding of groups like ISIS. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been largely successful in restricting private as well as official funding for terrorist organizations, the Qatari and Kuwaiti financial systems remain much less regulated in this regard. This leaves private funds still open to ISIS and other organizations. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait’s financial systems do not have the same “red flags” that are raised for suspected interaction with terrorists. While the money does not directly go to ISIS or other groups, it can more easily run through back channels without the stringent oversight present in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. In 2013, Kuwait passed legislation aimed at limiting such transactions through the Financial Intelligence Unit. Such legislation made private funding of terrorist organizations a criminal offense, but the enforcement of this law has been inconsistent at best. In Qatar, support for private funding of terrorist organizations has been much more public, alienating many allies including the Saudis and Egyptians.
In the face of such diplomatic backlash, it is difficult to understand why the gulf monarchies remain lenient on private funding of ISIS and other organizations. Analysts point to both strategic and domestic concerns that drive this indirect support for terrorist organizations. First, Qatar and Kuwait share some limited strategic interests with terrorist groups including ISIS. The previously official funding that went to Syria aimed at toppling Assad, and these goals still motivate the private funding of terrorists in Syria. Furthermore, ISIS’s targeting of Shiite power in Iraq has garnered some support in Qatar and Kuwait (even to an extent in Saudi Arabia), encouraging further funding. Some in Qatar and Kuwait see funding of terrorist organizations as a way of keeping themselves from being targeted. By analyzing such interests, it becomes clear that the gulf monarchies do have something to gain by the limited successes of ISIS and others. However, these interests are changing as the Syrian Civil War evolves and infighting between Islamic groups within Syria leads to faltering support for funding the opposition. While this clearly harms the moderate opposition in Syria, it may also be a stepping-stone for decreased funding to terrorists operating in the area.
It would certainly take a coordinated diplomatic effort to bring this policy change about, given that support has not waned sufficiently for Syrian opposition groups to be abandoned. However, it is a starting point for the international community to rob ISIS of the financial support it so deeply relies on. While the world struggles to develop a strategy that can counter ISIS’s spread, tearing away a significant portion of its finances will make its goals much more difficult to achieve.
Daniel Loud is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.