On Sunday in Saudi Arabia, President Trump announced an agreement to sell his hosts at least $110 billion worth of weapons and expressed an eagerness to ally with Sunni autocrats against Shiite Iran, which he accused of fueling the fires of sectarian conflict and terrorism in the region.
Whether the arms deal clears Congress, which has blocked sales in the past, remains to be seen, and experts believe the ultimate amount actually sold to Saudi Arabia may be far lower. Nevertheless, some analysts suggested that Trump’s visit and the deliverables he promised could pay dividends on counterterrorism. My research on counterterrorism partnerships suggests that we should be skeptical.
In his speech, Trump identified areas where he sought greater efforts from Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region: “starving terrorists of their territory, their funding and the false allure of their craven ideology.” Success on these fronts, he said, would be the basis for defeating the terrorists.
These demands are not new. They fit squarely within the framework of U.S. counterterrorism objectives since the Sept. 11 attacks. See, for example, the three counterterrorism strategies — from 2003, from 2006, and 2011 — produced by the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
I spent the past several years studying counterterrorism cooperation with six Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, for a forthcoming book that explores what the United States can expect from these partners. Based on what I’ve found, Trump’s visit is unlikely to yield more cooperation from the kingdom or other Sunni autocrats than America already receives. In some cases, the course he charted could do more harm than good.
1) Denying terrorists haven. Trump demanded that every country in the region must ensure that terrorists do not find sanctuary on their soil. He also made clear that he wanted Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to play a larger role in policing their region. Trump is not the first president to make this plea. Whether a country actually comes through depends on the threats that terrorists pose to it and the utility they offer.
Saudi Arabia is a perfect example. It did not take al-Qaeda seriously after 9/11 because it did not view the group as a major threat. This changed only after al-Qaeda began launching attacks inside the kingdom in 2003. Since then, Saudi authorities have been ruthlessly committed to keeping their house in order.
The Saudis will continue to do so because it is in their interests, not because America sells them arms or takes their side against Iran. This goes for other countries in the region, too. The provision of security assistance or sale of weapons can act as a force multiplier when a country is already taking action. However, most of the weapons the United States will sell to Saudi Arabia are not suited for domestic counterterrorism efforts.
Trump administration officials claim that the arms deal would help the Saudi military contribute more to regional security measures. Since 9/11, the United States has increasingly sought more regional counterterrorism cooperation from various partners. The coalition against the Islamic State, which includes more than 60 countries, is the most recent example.
The kingdom has made meager contributions to this coalition despite viewing the Islamic State as a threat. Here’s why: Domestically, the Saudis are committed to combating the Islamic State. Regionally, however, Iran is the greater concern. Saudi Arabia has invested considerably more blood and treasure in fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen than they have contributing to the coalition against the Islamic State.
Trump cited this intervention as an example of Saudi contributions to regional security. In reality, it has contributed to a humanitarian disaster in Yemen — and created space for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to expand, recruit and bring in money.
In other words, the Saudi intervention has actually set back U.S. counterterrorism objectives. Selling Riyadh more weapons without extracting some agreement to pursue a political solution to the conflict in Yemen simply gives away already limited leverage.
2) Blocking funding for terrorist activities. Trump called for stripping terrorists of their access to funds. On Sunday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced the creation of the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, a collaborative effort between the United States and Persian Gulf nations to combat terrorist financing. Initiatives like this one are welcome, but the devil is in the execution. The same calculus that dictates whether a state takes the fight to terrorist groups also informs whether it commits to dismantling a supportive infrastructure that enables terrorist financing.
Again, Saudi Arabia is a good example of the possibilities and limits of cooperation.
For decades, Saudi Arabia championed charitable giving for extremist causes. After Saudi leaders committed to combating al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the kingdom, they also began working harder to stanch the flow of money to the group internationally. The Saudis have made similar efforts vis-a-vis the Islamic State. Yet the government has also continued to nurture elements of the infrastructure that supports the wider jihadist movement.
Today the kingdom’s citizens remain one of the greatest sources for extremist financing. This is unlikely to change. To begin with, attempts to dismantle this funding infrastructure could increase threats to internal stability. In other words, the Saudis’ threat perceptions militate against too much action. Moreover, the financing infrastructure that exists has some utility. Seriously curtailing the flow of private money would reduce Saudi influence in places where the recipients operate.
3) Combating extremist ideology. Trump renewed the call for a war of ideas but singled out Iran as stoking “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” without mentioning the Saudi kingdom’s culpability. Trump both absolved the Saudis of guilt for exporting Wahhabism, which forms the theological foundation for the Islamic State’s ideology, and actively reinforced a major Saudi rationale for doing so.
There’s a notable omission
Trump did not talk about intelligence cooperation, a key aspect of counterterrorism. U.S.-Saudi intelligence cooperation expanded considerably once the Saudi authorities began taking the al-Qaeda threat seriously. Since then, the kingdom has helped to thwart several major AQAP plots against the United States and its Western allies.
Intelligence cooperation has been relatively insulated from the vagaries of the wider bilateral relationship, according to current and former U.S. officials I’ve spoken with. However, because intelligence cooperation is built on trust, there is a danger that revelations that Trump revealed highly classified information provided by a key ally to Russia could lead Saudi Arabia to scale back the information it shares. If so, arms sales are unlikely to alter this calculation.
Most partners support U.S. counterterrorism efforts in some ways and hinder them in other ways. A core challenge for American leaders is to maximize gains and minimize costs. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia may have gone relatively smoothly in the moment, but it is questionable whether this will actually produce any positive and sustainable outcomes on counterterrorism.
Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as a senior adviser for Asian and Pacific security affairs at the Defense Department. You can follow him on Twitter at @StephenTankel.