U.S. al­lies let funds stream to al Qaeda in Syria

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

The United States has had lim­ited suc­cess cut­ting off fund­ing to the al Qaedalinked fight­ers and for­eign ji­hadists flow­ing into Syria — in part be­cause of a lack of co­op­er­a­tion on the part of Mid­dle East­ern al­lies, In­tel­li­gence and na­tional se­cu­rity com­mu­nity sources say.

Of­fi­cials say they are track­ing the move­ments of funds from var­i­ous wealthy in­di­vid­u­als in the Per­sian Gulf, but the gov­ern­ments of key Gulf coun­tries are re­luc­tant to crack down.

“Un­less the money is ac­tu­ally in the U.S. fi­nan­cial sys­tem, you have to point out to th­ese gov­ern­ments where the money is go­ing and try to work with them to make sure it goes to le­git­i­mate groups,” said one U.S. of­fi­cial who spoke with The Wash­ing­ton Times on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of in­tel­li­gence re­lated to track­ing such money.

“The U.S. can’t shut down bank ac­counts in Kuwait or Qatar,” the of­fi­cial said. “We can tell them, ‘Look at what this per­son is do­ing.’”

The ap­proach has worked with vari­able suc­cess over the past decade, dur­ing which U.S. au­thor­i­ties have worked closely with coun­ter­parts in such na­tions as Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Ara­bia to choke off streams of cash to al Qaeda’s core lead­er­ship in Pak­istan and Afghanistan.

But when it comes to stemming the flow of aid to Salafist and al Qaeda-linked groups in­side Syria, the strat­egy has been less suc­cess­ful — sug­gest­ing au­thor­i­ties in the Gulf now may see Amer­i­can pres­sure for such ac­tion as less wor­thy than pre­vi­ous calls to block cash to al Qaeda.

“In some na­tions where they have had suc­cess in clamp­ing down on ter­ror­ist fund­ing for al Qaeda’s core, this is a source of fund­ing that has not re­ally been clamped down on,” the of­fi­cial said.

The ex­tent to which that money is aid­ing the rise of ex­trem­ists in Syria seemed to burst open last month when 11 Syr­ian rebel groups, in­clud­ing the Nusra Front — an or­ga­ni­za­tion U.S. of­fi­cials link to al Qaeda — banded to­gether in a pub­lic re­jec­tion of the more sec­u­lar po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion groups out­side the coun­try that are re­ceiv­ing aid from Wash­ing­ton.

By call­ing for a new gov­ern­ment in Syria to be ruled by Is­lamic law, the newly formed coali­tion dealt a ma­jor blow to U.S.-led ef­forts to sup­port a demo­cratic al­ter­na­tive to em­bat­tled Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

Al­though the Is­lamic State of Iraq and the Le­vant (ISIS) — another rebel group with al Qaeda ties in Syria — was left out of the coali­tion, an­a­lysts say, it, too, is grow­ing dan­ger­ously in the war zone. As the ex­trem­ist foothold has deep­ened, so have re­ports of abuses and war crimes car­ried out by op­po­si­tion fight­ers.

A re­port re­leased last week by Hu­man Rights Watch said mem­bers of the Nusra Front and ISIS were among rebel fight­ers who killed some 190 un­armed civil­ians dur­ing an Au­gust of­fen­sive on vil­lages per­ceived to be sup­port­ing the As­sad gov­ern­ment. The re­port said 67 of the civil­ians were slain at close range while try­ing to flee.

The bot­tom line is that the land­scape of ex­trem­ist groups among the op­po­si­tion has grown in­creas­ingly com­plex over the past year, said Mouaz Moustafa, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Syr­ian Emer­gency Task Force, an ad­vo­cacy arm of Syria’s more sec­u­lar po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion that lob­bies in Wash­ing­ton for a greater U.S. role in the con­flict.

“The Is­lamic State of Iraq and the Le­vant has in­creas­ing power and in­flu­ence in places like Aleppo and Raqqa Prov­ince,” said Mr. Moustafa. “But at the same time, other Is­lamist bat­tal­ions have co­a­lesced and im­proved their or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­tures while re­ject­ing both the ISIS and the more sec­u­lar out­side po­lit­i­cal coali­tion.”

He said that “all of th­ese groups are get­ting as­sis­tance” and that the task of pin­ning down the pre­cise source of the money is dif­fi­cult. “That’s the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion,” he said.

When it comes to ISIS, said Mr. Moustafa, “you’re talk­ing about al Qaeda’s net­work, and I would as­sume most of the aid and re­sources they’re get­ting comes di­rectly from Iraq, where the sys­tem was al­ready in place to raise money go­ing back to the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq sev­eral years ago.”

Kuwait-Tur­key con­nec­tion

U.S. of­fi­cials say that sys­tem has re­lied heav­ily on the ac­tiv­i­ties of an Iran-based al Qaeda “fa­cil­i­ta­tor” named Muhsin al-Fadhli.

A lit­tle-re­ported press re­lease cir­cu­lated by the U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment last Oc­to­ber de­scribed al-Fadhli as “a vet­eran al Qaeda op­er­a­tive” who pro­vided “fi­nan­cial and ma­te­rial sup­port” to al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zar­qawi.

Zar­qawi was known for or­ches­trat­ing a se­ries of grue­some bomb­ings and be­head­ings in Iraq be­fore U.S. forces killed him in 2006. But the ac­tiv­i­ties of al-Fadhli’s net­work sup­pos­edly have car­ried forth — and have evolved to­ward tap­ping a re­serve of Kuwait-based sym­pa­thiz­ers to fund ex­trem­ist groups fight­ing in Syria.

“In ad­di­tion to pro­vid­ing fund­ing for al Qaeda ac­tiv­i­ties in Afghanistan and Pak­istan, this net­work is work­ing to move fight­ers and money through Tur­key to sup­port al Qaeda-af­fil­i­ated el­e­ments in Syria,” ac­cord­ing to the Trea­sury Depart­ment press re­lease. “Al-Fadhli also is lever­ag­ing his ex­ten­sive net­work of Kuwaiti ji­hadist donors to send money to Syria via Tur­key.”

That ex­trem­ist el­e­ments of Syria’s op­po­si­tion are gain­ing strength ap­pears to ex­pose the lim­i­ta­tions of the U.S. gov­ern­ment to block the flow of such money — or at least to per­suade part­ners in Kuwait and other Per­sian Gulf na­tions to do so.

Of­fi­cials at the Kuwaiti Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton did not re­spond to a re­quest by The Times to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.

But an ar­ti­cle pub­lished last month by For­eign Pol­icy shed some light on the sit­u­a­tion. In the ar­ti­cle, Wil­liam McCants, a for­mer se­nior ad­viser in the State Depart­ment’s of­fice of the co­or­di­na­tor for coun­tert­er­ror­ism, wrote that “the Gulf monar­chies have not been able or will­ing to stem the tide of pri­vate money their cit­i­zens are send­ing to the Salafi char­i­ties and pop­u­lar com­mit­tees.”

“Kuwait in par­tic­u­lar has done lit­tle to stop it be­cause it lacks an ef­fec­tive ter­ror fi­nanc­ing law and be­cause it can­not af­ford po­lit­i­cally to in­fu­ri­ate its al­ready an­gry Salafi mem­bers of par­lia­ment,” wrote Mr. McCants. “Qatar and Saudi Ara­bia have tried to crack down on fundrais­ing for the Salafi mili­tias but their cit­i­zens just send their money to Kuwait.”

Po­lit­i­cal storm in Tur­key

The rise of ex­trem­ists among Syria’s rebels, mean­while, has set off a po­lit­i­cal storm in Tur­key, where the lead­er­ship of the na­tion’s main op­po­si­tion party is ac­cus­ing the gov­ern­ment of Turk­ish Prime Min­is­ter Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan of sup­port­ing al Qaeda-linked groups in the nearby war zone.

Ke­mal Kil­ic­daroglu, who heads the Repub­li­can Peo­ple’s Party — or CHP, as it is known in Tur­key — de­clared in a speech last month that al Qaeda “is now un­der the pro­tec­tive wings of Er­do­gan.”

An­a­lysts say such claims are based mainly on pol­i­tics, but also partly on the ease with which ji­hadist for­eign fight­ers seek­ing to join Syria’s op­po­si­tion rebels have been able to cross the long bor­der be­tween Tur­key and its south­ern neigh­bor over the past two years.

The sit­u­a­tion prompted con­cern among some na­tional se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence cir­cles in Wash­ing­ton last month when a Ger­man news re­port was posted online that pur­ported to show for­eign fight­ers from around the world, bound for Syria, flow­ing through a ji­hadist safe house along the Turk­ish side of the bor­der.

The re­port showed footage of a gray­bearded man who, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, had ar­rived from Cal­i­for­nia to join the ji­had in Syria.

Asked about the Ger­man re­port, one se­nior U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial told The Times that “it would be in­ac­cu­rate to sug­gest the gov­ern­ment of Tur­key is help­ing for­eign ji­hadists en­ter Syria.”

“Pre­vent­ing ex­trem­ists from cross­ing the roughly 500-mile Turk­ish bor­der to join the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion is among the many se­cu­rity chal­lenges Tur­key faces,” said the of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of not be­ing named in this ar­ti­cle.

A Turk­ish gov­ern­ment source, who also asked not to be named, said the U.S. com­ment was un­sur­pris­ing “be­cause Amer­i­can au­thor­i­ties are very well aware of our op­er­a­tions against al Qaeda.”

“To claim that Tur­key is sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism is an in­sult to Tur­key,” said the Turk­ish source. “We’re try­ing to con­trol our bor­ders as much as we can.”

Oth­ers say the sit­u­a­tion is com­plex and nu­anced by Tur­key’s do­mes­tic and re­gional po­lit­i­cal strate­gies.

Hugh Pope, an Is­tan­bul-based pro­gram di­rec­tor for the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group, said the Er­do­gan gov­ern­ment may have de­lib­er­ately blurred its bor­der with Syria in or­der to pro­vide aid for hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees cross­ing into Tur­key from Syria, but dis­missed the no­tion that the Er­do­gan gov­ern­ment supports al Qaeda-linked fight­ers cross­ing the other way.

“This is cer­tainly not Tur­key em­brac­ing al Qaeda,” Mr. Pope said in an in­ter­view with The Times. “Al Qaeda has blown plenty of stuff up in Tur­key. Tur­key is an enemy to al Qaeda and has been a part­ner to the United States in aid­ing the fight against al Qaeda in all kinds of ways.”

Paul Pil­lar, a for­mer CIA of­fi­cer who now teaches at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, said that “if the Er­do­gan gov­ern­ment is re­laxed about aid get­ting into the hands of Nusra, it’s be­cause they see Nusra as one of the more ef­fec­tive fight­ers against As­sad and not be­cause this is some kind of back­door way of aid­ing what­ever par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­ogy Nusra rep­re­sents.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Be­cause of the ease with which ji­hadist for­eign fight­ers seek­ing to join Syria’s op­po­si­tion rebels have been able to cross the long bor­der be­tween Tur­key and its south­ern neigh­bor over the past two years, Tur­key’s op­po­si­tion is ac­cus­ing the gov­ern­ment of Turk­ish Prime Min­is­ter Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan of sup­port­ing al Qaeda-linked groups in the nearby war zone.

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