Recently, the FATF undertook a review of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to combat terrorism financing. The resulting report identified a number of serious deficiencies. Saudi Arabia is now required to present an action plan outlining how it will address these problems before it can be admitted to the task force. It is important that the kingdom not be admitted until it has shown demonstrable progress in addressing these concerns.
Terrorism financing originating in Saudi Arabia has been a significant source of funds for international terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda. As the report noted, however, the Saudi authorities have focused their counterterrorism efforts almost exclusively on threats from within the kingdom, while doing little to tackle those outside the country’s borders. According to the task force, only 10 percent of Saudi counterterrorism cases concern offenses committed outside the kingdom, and these prosecutions focus largely on offenses in the Middle East.
“Given that the support for external terrorist groups is a major . . . risk for the country,” the task force noted, “the overall number of cases pertaining to raising funds inside Saudi Arabia and transferring them outside the country is low.” The report also found that “Saudi Arabia has not yet tackled the risk of financing of terrorism by third-party and facilitators, and the financing by individuals for terrorist organizations outside the country.” A 2009 diplomatic cable from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, later published by WikiLeaks, described Saudi Arabia as “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” The task force also raised concerns that the kingdom is not sanctioning individuals or requesting legal assistance from other states in a manner that effectively counters the serious threats of terrorist financing in Saudi Arabia.
If Saudi Arabia wishes to appropriately address the risk of terrorist financing, it must prosecute not just the foot soldiers but also the financiers who fuel terrorism around the world. To do so in an effective manner, the Saudi authorities must amend their counterterrorism decrees. As the task force notes, the “overly broad definition of terrorism” in these decrees means that the authorities may “divert attention and resources to specious cases from more important cases.”
This concern was highlighted in a submission by Ni Aolain, the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism and one of the co-authors of this op-ed. That report concluded that there is clear evidence that a significant number of individuals who have committed no crime — much less acts of terrorism — have been wrongfully tried under the kingdom’s counterterrorism decrees in its Specialized Criminal Court. At the same time, there are grounds for concern that a significant number of individuals implicated in supporting internationally recognized terrorist groups have been released only to return to terrorist activity. Given the risk of radicalization in prison, it is important that Saudi authorities cease prosecuting innocent people for criticizing the kingdom and release those who have been wrongfully convicted.
While Saudi Arabia has made progress in reforming its laws and prosecuting alleged acts of terrorism, the reasons cited above strongly suggest that this progress is, at least in part, illusory. To admit Saudi Arabia to the task force before it has addressed these shortcomings would send the message that what counts is a high number of prosecutions, regardless of their merits. The nation should not be admitted to the task force until it has amended its counterterrorism laws to focus on terrorism and demonstrated progress in prosecuting terrorism financing outside the region.