April 16, 2015 | Policy Brief

Saudi Steps on Terror Finance Fall Short

The U.S. Treasury Department announced last week that it was taking joint action with the government of Saudi Arabia to block the financing of a Pakistan-based charitable institution named Al-Furqan Foundation Welfare Trust. According to Treasury, Al-Furqan is the “successor entity” to two other organizations slapped with U.S. and United Nations sanctions in 2002: the Afghan Support Committee and the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society’s Pakistan branch (RIHS-Pakistan). The U.S. government states the groups merely changed their names to evade sanctions.

While Riyadh’s decision to take action against Al-Furqan is certainly a step in the right direction, Treasury’s announcement is also a reminder of how attempts by Saudi Arabia and several other U.S. allies to counter terror finance come up short.

Despite finally taking action against RIHS’s branch in Pakistan, it does not appear Saudi Arabia is willing to apply similar sanctions to RIHS’s global network. The organization’s headquarters in Kuwait and additional branches were sanctioned by Washington in 2008 for “providing financial and material support to al Qaida and al Qaida affiliates” from Africa to Indonesia.

Saudi authorities have also declined to take punitive measures against local preachers who fundraised for RIHS. In May 2012, Saudi preacher Saad al-Buraik promoted a fundraising campaign for Syria relief called the “Muslims with their Brothers in al-Sham Campaign” that advised donors to circumvent local restrictions by sending their donations to accounts in Qatar and Kuwait. Buraik’s personal website listed RIHS as one such “trusted” account.

This “Brothers” campaign claimed as two of its supporters Mohammed al-Arefe and Salman al-Oudah, the Kingdom’s most influential independent clerics with 11 and 6 million Twitter followers respectively. When the campaign was launched, it kicked off via simultaneous broadcast on over thirty satellite channels, including the Saudi-based Salafist station al-Wesal. Footage of the three-hour telethon from al-Wesal’s YouTube channel includes unmistakable banners calling for donations to Syria via RIHS.

Other guests of the fundraiser included prominent preachers Adnan al-Arour and Abdulaziz al-Fawzan. Like Buraik and Arour, Fawzan has over a million followers on Twitter, and he also serves as a full-time board member of the state-chartered Saudi Human Rights Commission. During the fundraiser, Fawzan proclaimed it a religious obligation for all Syrians to wage jihad against the Assad regime and for Saudis to wage “jihad with money.”

While Saudi Arabia’s response has been lacking, there is only so much that can be done to shut down Al-Furqan without cooperation from Pakistani authorities in Peshawar, where the organization is based. Similarly, a 2009 memo signed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that Kuwait “has not taken significant action to address or shut down RIHS’s headquarters or its branches” despite America raising the issue “numerous times.”

Fighting terror finance is hard, and it often requires coaxing reluctant U.S. allies to punish influential entities in their territory. But full compliance requires making sure that they feel the heat for such negligence in public.

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWeinberg