Aspects of International Terrorism

Update from AIJAC

November 15, 2007
Number 11/07 #06

This Update is devoted to various recently published articles on aspects of the problem of international Islamist terrorism.

First up, the London Times used the occasion of Saudi King Abdullah’s visit to Britain to summarise the evidence that Saudi Arabia plays a central role in both the financing and personnel of Islamist terrorism, especially al-Qaeda. The piece explores the predominance of funding coming from Saudi Arabia, the predominance of Saudi fighters in al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the role fatwas issued by Saudi clerics plays in the international Islamist terrorist movement. For this important summary of Saudi Arabia’s role, CLICK HERE. Readers also shouldn’t miss the “Spiked Review of Books” summary of five books you may never get to read about international terrorism and its funding because of litigation by jurisdiction-shopping Saudi billionaires.

Next up is a reminder that the story is not all  bad news, summarising US-led successes in greatly curtailing terror funding, including especially from Saudi Arabia. The article details the efforts to close down terror-supporting charities, which have led to the seizure of US$265 million, as well as some problems and setbacks. For this update on an oft-neglected but central part of the fight against terrorism, CLICK HERE.

Finally, top specialist Dr. Zachary Abuza updates and analyses the situation in the southern Philippines, where a number of Islamist and separatist groups, some linked to al-Qaeda, have been operating, and fighting and negotiating with the government (and each other.) He described how, while there has been some success against Abu Sayyaf, one of the smaller and more violent groups, the overall approach has been what he calls “whack-a-mole” with no real strategy other than dealing with problems as they arise. For Abuza’s authoritative analysis of what needs to be done, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

Saudi Arabia is hub of world terror

The desert kingdom supplies the cash and the killers

Nick Fielding and Sarah Baxter, Washington

Times (London), November 4, 2007

It was an occasion for tears and celebration as the Knights of Martyrdom proclaimed on video: “Our brother Turki fell during the rays of dawn, covered in blood after he was hit by the bullets of the infidels, following in the path of his brother.” The flowery language could not disguise the brutal truth that a Saudi family had lost two sons fighting for Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The elder brother, Khaled, had been a deputy commander of a crack jihadist “special forces” unit. After his “glorious” death, Turki took his place.

“He was deeply affected by the martyrdom of his brother,” the Knights said. “He became more ambitious and more passionate about defending the land of Islam and dying as a martyr, like his brother.”

Turki’s fervent wish was granted earlier this year, but another Saudi national who travelled to Iraq had second thoughts. He was a graduate from a respectable family of teachers and professors who was recruited in a Saudi Arabian mosque and sent to Iraq with $1,000 in travel expenses and the telephone number of a smuggler who could get him across the Syrian border.

In Iraq he was ordered to blow himself up in a tanker on a bridge in Ramadi, but he panicked before he could press the detonator. He was arrested by Iraqi police. In a second lorry, another foreign fighter followed orders and died.

King Abdullah was surprised during his two-day state visit to Britain last week by the barrage of criticism directed at the Saudi kingdom. Officials were in “considerable shock”, one former British diplomat said.

Back home the king is regarded as a modest reformer who has cracked down on home-grown terrorism and loosened a few relatively minor restrictions on his subjects’ personal freedom.

With oil prices surging, Saudi Arabia is growing in prosperity and embracing some modern trappings. Bibles and crucifixes are still banned, but internet access is spreading and there are plans for “Mile High Tower”, the world’s tallest skyscraper, in Jeddah. As a key ally of the West, the king had every reason to expect a warm welcome.

Yet wealthy Saudis remain the chief financiers of worldwide terror networks. “If I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off the funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia,” said Stuart Levey, the US Treasury official in charge of tracking terror financing.

Extremist clerics provide a stream of recruits to some of the world’s nastiest trouble spots.

An analysis by NBC News suggested that the Saudis make up 55% of foreign fighters in Iraq. They are also among the most uncompromising and militant.

Half the foreign fighters held by the US at Camp Cropper near Baghdad are Saudis. They are kept in yellow jumpsuits in a separate, windowless compound after they attempted to impose sharia on the other detainees and preached an extreme form of Wahhabist Islam.

In recent months, Saudi religious scholars have caused consternation in Iraq and Iran by issuing fatwas calling for the destruction of the great Shi’ite shrines in Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, some of which have already been bombed. And while prominent members of the ruling al-Saud dynasty regularly express their abhorrence of terrorism, leading figures within the kingdom who advocate extremism are tolerated.

Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, the chief justice, who oversees terrorist trials, was recorded on tape in a mosque in 2004, encouraging young men to fight in Iraq. “Entering Iraq has become risky now,” he cautioned. “It requires avoiding those evil satellites and those drone aircraft, which own every corner of the skies over Iraq. If someone knows that he is capable of entering Iraq in order to join the fight, and if his intention is to raise up the word of God, then he is free to do so.”

The Bush administration is split over how to deal with the Saudi threat, with the State Department warning against pressure that might lead the royal family to fall and be replaced by more dangerous extremists.

“The urban legend is that George Bush and Dick Cheney are close to the Saudis because of oil and their past ties with them, but they’re pretty disillusioned with them,” said Stephen Schwartz, of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism in Washington. “The problem is that the Saudis have been part of American policy for so long that it’s not easy to work out a solution.”

According to Levey, not one person identified by America or the United Nations as a terrorist financier has been prosecuted by Saudi authorities. A fortnight ago exasperated US Treasury officials named three Saudi citizens as terrorist financiers. “In order to deter other would-be donors, it is important to hold these terrorists publicly accountable,” Levey said.

All three had worked in the Philippines, where they are alleged to have helped to finance the Abu Sayyaf group, an Al-Qaeda affiliate. One, Muham-mad Sughayr, was said to be the main link between Abu Sayyaf and wealthy Gulf donors.

Sughayr was arrested in the Philippines in 2005 and swiftly deported to Saudi Arabia after pressure from the Saudi embassy in Manila. There is no evidence that he was prosecuted on his return home.

This year the Saudis arrested 10 people thought to be terrorist financiers, but the excitement faded when their defence lawyers claimed that they were political dissidents and human rights groups took up their cause.

Matthew Levitt, a former intelligence analyst at the US Treasury and counter-terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes the Saudis could do more. He said: “It is important for the Saudis to hold people publicly accountable. Key financiers have built up considerable personal wealth and are loath to put that at risk. There is some evidence that individuals who have been outed have curtailed their financial activities.”

In the past the Saudis openly supported Islamic militants. Osama Bin Laden was originally treated as a favourite son of the regime and feted as a hero for fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Huge charitable organisations such as the International Islamic Relief Organisation and the al-Haramain Foundation – accused in American court documents of having links to extremist groups – flourished, sometimes with patronage from senior Saudi royals.

The 1991 Gulf war was a wake-up call for the Saudis. Bin Laden began making vitriolic attacks on the Saudi royal family for cooperating with the US and demanded the expulsion of foreign troops from Arabia. His citizenship was revoked in 1994. The 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, which killed 19 US servicemen and one Saudi, was a warning that he could strike within the kingdom.

As long as foreigners were the principal targets, the Saudis turned a blind eye to terror. Even the September 11 attacks of 2001, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, could not shake their complacency. Despite promises to crack down on radical imams, Saudi mosques continued to preach hatred of America.

The mood began to change in 2003 and 2004, when Al-Qaeda mounted a series of terrorist attacks within the kingdom that threatened to become an insurgency. “They finally acknowledged at the highest levels that they had a problem and it was coming for them,” said Rachel Bronson, the author of Thicker than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia.

Assassination attempts against security officials caused some of the royals to fear for their own safety. In May 2004 Islamic terrorists struck two oil industry installations and a foreigners’ housing compound in Khobar, taking 50 hostages and killing 22 of them.

The Saudi authorities began to cooperate more with the FBI, clamp down on extremist charities, monitor mosques and keep a watchful eye on fighters returning from Iraq.

Only last month Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s leading cleric, criticised gullible Saudis for becoming “convenient knights for whoever wants to exploit their zeal, even to the point of turning them into walking bombs”.

And last week in London, King Abdullah warned young British Muslims not to become involved with extremists.

Yet the Saudis’ ambivalence towards terrorism has not gone away. Money for foreign fighters and terror groups still pours out of the kingdom, but it now tends to be carried in cash by couriers rather than sent through the wires, where it can be stopped and identified more easily.

A National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad, a nongovernmental organisation that was intended to regulate private aid abroad to guard against terrorist financing, has still not been created three years after it was trumpeted by the Saudi embassy in Washington.

Hundreds of Islamic militants have been arrested but many have been released after undergoing reeducation programmes led by Muslim clerics.

According to the daily Alwa-tan, the interior ministry has given 115m riyals (£14.7m) to detainees and their families to help them to repay debts, to assist families with health care and housing, to pay for weddings and to buy a car on their release. The most needy prisoners’ families receive 2,000-3,000 riyals (£286 to £384) a month.

Ali Sa’d Al-Mussa, a lecturer at King Khaled University in Abha, protested: “I’m afraid that holding [extremist] views leads to earning a prize or, worse, a steady income.”

Former detainees from the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are also benefiting. To celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid, 55 prisoners were temporarily released last month and given the equivalent of £1,300 each to spend with their families.

School textbooks still teach the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious antiSemitic forgery, and preach hatred towards Christians, Jews and other religions, including Shi’ite Muslims, who are considered heretics.

Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, said: “The Saudi education system has over 5m children using these books. If only one in 1,000 take these teachings to heart and seek to act on them violently, there will be 5,000 terrorists.”

In frustration, Arlen Specter, the Republican senator for Pennsylvania, introduced the Saudi Arabia Accountability Act 10 days ago, calling for strong encouragement of the Saudi government to “end its support for institutions that fund, train, incite, encourage or in any other way aid and abet terrorism”.

The act, however, is expected to die when it reaches the Senate foreign relations committee: the Bush administration is counting on Saudi Arabia to help stabilise Iraq, curtail Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions and give a push to the Israeli and Palestinian peace process at a conference due to be held this month in Annapolis, Maryland.

“Do we really want to take on the Saudis at the moment?” asks Bronson. “We’ve got enough problems as it is.”

Additional reporting: Marie Colvin and Ben Hardy, Jeddah


Frozen assets: US has crimped Al Qaeda funds

The CIA estimates that prior to Sept. 11, Al Qaeda was spending about $30 million per year. Since then, the US has seized some $265 million in assets linked to the group.

By Peter Grier
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
October 30, 2007

For years the three Saudi men had worked as a loosely organized team, according to US intelligence. They’d funneled thousands of dollars in cash – and non-monetary help such as Al Qaeda training manuals – to Islamist militants in the Philippines.

At one point they’d even paid $18,000 for an operation to blow up the US or Australian embassies in Manila, allege US officials. But Philippine authorities disrupted the plot before it could be realized.

So this fall the US government took action against the trio: Abdul Rahim al-Talhi, Muhammad Abdallah Salih Sughayr, and Fahd Muhammad Abd al-Aziz al-Khashiban. On Oct. 10, the Treasury Department designated them as terrorist financiers – freezing their assets and forbidding American citizens from doing business with them.

The move did not draw much notice at the time. But small actions such as this are a crucial part of what may be one of the most successful parts of the struggle against terrorism: the effort to curtail its financiers.

“All our evidence is, this is successful and actually a very important part of the war on terror,” said John B. Taylor, former Treasury undersecretary for international affairs, at a Council on Foreign Relations seminar earlier this year.

It’s also an effort that has some controversial aspects. Among them is whether the US government has too much power to punish alleged terrorist paymasters and funding groups via simple administrative actions.

In 2004, for instance, the US alleged that a Texas-based charity named the Holy Land Foundation had funneled about $12 million to the Palestinian militant group Hamas – which the US has named a terrorist organization. The Bush administration ordered the foundation closed.

But on Oct. 22 a federal criminal prosecution of five officials from the now-defunct charity collapsed amidst legal confusion. It is unclear whether prosecutors will attempt to try the case again.

Some jurors had a hard time accepting the prosecution’s contention that by sending money to Hamas-affiliated local charities named “zakat committees” the Holy Land Foundation was supporting terrorist actions.

“The fact that they couldn’t get a single conviction suggests that we need to rethink the process by which [Holy Land] was shut down,” says David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University. “They were able to close it down, freeze its assets … ultimately on the basis of secret evidence.”

The US has issued sanctions against 44 different charitable organizations under authority derived from an executive order signed by President Bush, according to Chip Poncy, director of strategic policy at the Treasury’s Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes.

All these groups were carrying out some legitimate charitable activities, said Mr. Poncy at a May 10 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. But they were also funding some activities that the US considered to be in support of terrorism.

“The view that we have always taken is that if any aspect of a charity’s organization is engaged in terrorist support, then the charitable organization is a problem,” said Poncy.

Overall, tackling the financial front of the struggle against terrorism appears to be successful, say experts. In part, this is due to the fact that the US is a center of world commerce, and many global business transactions are carried out in dollars.

Plus, even foreign banks generally do not want the taint of dealing with named terrorists. Thus the world’s formal financial system is now generally closed to Al Qaeda and other well-known terrorist groups.

The CIA estimates that prior to Sept. 11, Al Qaeda was spending about $30 million per year. Since then, the US has seized some $265 million in assets linked to the group – about nine years worth of operating expenses.

The US has also named some 460 individuals as terrorist supporters, and thus subject to sanctions. The Oct. 10 designation of the three men alleged to be paymasters of Southeast Asian militants was part of this aspect of the effort.

The 9/11 Commission gave an ‘A-‘ to the war on terrorist financing in its 2004 public report.

“It is premature to assume that terrorist organizations are having difficulty funding their organizations and operations,” concludes a monograph on the subject issued by the US Army Command and General Staff College. “What is important is that the global effort against terrorist financing has made it more expensive and more difficult to raise and move funds.”

That can be seen in the fact that the most spectacular Al Qaeda-linked attacks in the West in recent years – the Madrid bombings of 2004 and the London bombings of 2005 – were low-tech affairs, cheap, and financed primarily through criminal activities carried out by the bomber groups themselves.

The future of terrorist financing may involve simple theft or the manipulation of stored-value cards, Internet banking, and online payment services.

“Our adversaries will either become more technologically savvy or they will regress to methods that don’t leave a paper trail,” said John Pistole, FBI deputy director, at an Oct. 22 American Bankers Association seminar on terrorist financing.


Mindanao Muddle


Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2007

In the more than two weeks since an explosion rocked Manila’s largest shopping center, the Glorietta Mall, speculation has been rife about who or what was responsible for the blast. The local press blames terrorist groups, while foreign inspectors say it might have been an accidental gas explosion. But the mere possibility that it was a deliberate attack sheds an unwelcome light on the government’s ineffectual battle against terrorism. Confronted with a complex array of active threats, Manila is eschewing a coordinated game plan in favor of something resembling a county fair’s whack-a-mole game — confronting one threat at a time, while another pops up, and grows.

The greatest unrest is centered in the southern provinces, home to the bulk of the Philippines’ Muslim population, and four different terrorist groups. Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah has maintained training camps there since the mid-1990s, and while its goal of establishing a regional caliphate has dimmed, the camps do provide JI a rear area to regroup from its activities elsewhere in the region. Abu Sayyaf, another terror organization with some international links, has been sporadically active in these provinces since 1991 with an eye to ostensibly establishing an independent Islamic state.

Then there are the homegrown Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an Islamist group fighting for an independent homeland, and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a secular group whose members are increasingly disillusioned with the peace agreement they signed with the government nearly 11 years ago. Both hope to achieve an independent homeland, but have been unable to get more than offers of autonomy.

Fighting all of these groups at the same time is devilishly hard, not least because they also fight amongst themselves, making conflicting demands of the government. For example, the MILF and MNLF aren’t on speaking terms owing to a dispute over the legitimacy of a political settlement reached between the Philippine government and MNLF in 1996. The MNLF leadership considers the group the only true representatives of the Bangsamoro people of the region and views the 1996 agreement between it and Manila as binding. MILF, which currently has more men under arms, considers MNLF a bunch of corrupted, un-Islamic sell-outs. Meantime, the secular MNLF still claims the Malaysian state of Sabah, and claim the Islamic MILF “sold out” for the group’s willingness to tolerate Malay sovereignty over the state. Both cooperate to a varying degree with the Abu Sayyaf.

Over her seven-year term, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has focused most of her attention on offensives against Abu Sayyaf, which have been marginally successful. With considerable U.S. military assistance, training and operational intelligence, the Philippine military was able to concentrate their meager resources in Basilan and Jolo. Few expected the Philippine military to sustain the offensive against Abu Sayyaf over the past 16 months, but it has. Since August 2006, six known leaders with bounties on their heads have been killed, including Ismin Sahiron, Abu Solaiman and the group’s nominal leader, Khadaffy Janjalani.

A number of mid-level Jemaah Islamiyah operatives have been arrested, too. Even though two of the 2002 Bali bombers are still at large and working with Abu Sayyaf, they are not adding real value to the terrorist group, as they are constantly on the run. The JI training facilities in central Mindanao are clearly smaller than they were even a few years ago. Overall, the southern Philippines today is a much less hospitable operating environment for terrorists than in the past.

But while the international terror threat may have abated for now, the Philippines’ homegrown insurgent groups, the MNLF and the MILF, have become frustrated with their respective peace processes, and 2006-07 saw an alarming number of cease-fire violations.

Blame goes to a lack of attention from President Arroyo’s administration and deep divisions within her government between hardliners in the armed forces and the congress who oppose further autonomy concessions, and advocates of peace within the cabinet. Earlier this year, President Arroyo’s chief negotiator, Silvester Affable, quit in frustration.

To see what this means in practice, take first MILF, which has been fighting for an independent Islamic state since 1978 and now controls swaths of central Mindanao. While the government first entered into talks with MILF in 1997, progress has come in fits and starts. Talks broke down in September 2006, over a dispute of what constitutes MILF’s “ancestral domain.”

In 1995-96, MILF apparently abandoned its demand for an independent homeland and accepted an autonomy agreement in the closed-door negotiations. But the two sides can’t agree on what that territory, called the “Bangsamoro Juridical Entity,” will entail. MILF claims some 1,200 villages, plus the five provinces and two cities “ceded” in the 1996 agreement the government reached with MNLF. The government offer encompasses roughly half of that area. Neither have they agreed on how to govern the BJE: Manila proposes “enhanced autonomy,” while MILF wants full autonomy.

As the peace talks have stalled, the ceasefire has unraveled. The number of skirmishes increased 18% this year compared to the same period last year, prompting the Malaysian peace monitors to threaten to pull out.

Meanwhile MNLF has tried in vain to get Manila to re-engage in talks to address the sections of its own accord that have not been implemented. In January, the Philippine government refused, citing the ongoing discussions with MILF. Little wonder that in March and April, two separate MNLF units took up arms and attacked Philippine military forces (including a camp where U.S. Special forces are based) in Jolo and Zamboanga. These units have now joined Abu Sayyaf, nearly quadrupling their ranks to roughly 300-400.

The last point aptly illustrates the perils of Manila’s multipronged approach to its multipronged terror threat. The government is trying to distinguish between different terrorist groups, negotiating with some and taking military action against others. But, for example, it becomes harder and harder to argue that MNLF poses a political problem and Abu Sayyaf a policing problem when the two groups are willing to cooperate with each other. On the other side of the same coin, it’s difficult if not impossible to negotiate with MILF and MNLF for the same patch of land when the two won’t talk to each other.

Rather than trying to tackle each problem group individually, President Arroyo must come up with a comprehensive plan for peace in Mindanao for all the Moro groups, not the whack-a-mole policies in place today. The government must create a peace process that reconciles the 1996 MNLF agreement and the ongoing BJE framework, and create a power-sharing structure, perhaps at the federal level, for the contending Moro groups. All branches of the Philippine government must be committed to the full implementation of agreements that they sign and not water down the autonomy agreements. Policing must continue, but the government must be careful not to let operations against one group spill over, in order not to put pressure on the fragile cease-fires.

The Philippines’ terror situation remains in flux, and the groups, while not having formal ties, often cooperate with one another. Sadly, there are spoilers on all sides. This island nation is likely to remain the soft underbelly for regional security for some time to come.

Mr. Abuza is professor of political science at Simmons College, Boston, and the author of “Political Islam and Violence in Indonesia” (Routledge, 2006).