27 Jun 2017
The spate of terror attacks in the UK in the first half of 2017 has refocused attention on the threat of IS-inspired Islamist terrorism. It is not in dispute that some of these attackers, including the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi, travelled to Syria to receive instruction from and fight for IS. As such, the provenance of this group’s funding remains a critical component of the UK’s national security strategy, as is the funding of mosques linked to radicalisation and extremist material. However, an important inquiry into funding of Islamist terrorism in the UK may, despite calls from across the political spectrum during the general election, never release its report.
Demanded by the Liberal Democrats as their price for supporting the extension of UK airstrikes against ISIL into Syria, the inquiry was dogged from the outset by fears it would underplay the role of UK allies in the Persian Gulf in funding IS and Wahhabi mosques. The Home Office appeared to confirm these fears this week at the end of May, telling the Guardian that the contents of the inquiry’s incomplete report are “very sensitive”. Chief among the states who may be embarrassed by the report is is Saudi Arabia. Home Office sources have specifically cited Anglo-Saudi relations as the greatest barrier to publishing the report. Likewise, any request for release of the report under the Freedom of Information Act is likely to fall foul of section 27, which states that information may be exempted from release if it would or would be likely to prejudice relations between the UK and any other state.
The roots of Saudi involvement in UK extremism run deep, however, and extend across the West. In 2007 The Independent ran an extensive investigation into Saudi influence in British mosques, turning up large quantities of highly extreme material. These publications were largely Salafi in outlook, particularly based on the iteration critical to the founding of the Saudi state: the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, better known as Wahhabism. The kingdom has been funding this material since the 1970s, and authorities have cried foul in many jurisdictions, including Germany and the US (where joint censure was a rare point of agreement between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election).
Worse than that, though, is direct Saudi involvement in the atrocities committed by IS in Syria and Iraq—and perhaps beyond. IS’s ‘seed funding’ came, in large part, from wealthy donors in Saudi Arabia, according to research from the Washington Institute, but the kingdom has cracked down on those donations to substantial effect in the last few years. Much of IS’s funding now comes from taxes levied on inhabitants of lands under its control, as well as black market oil from captured wells. But prominent politicians from around the world have, in off-the-record statements, directly accused Saudi Arabia of channeling funds to the group to supplement its independent wealth. These have ranged from notable ‘gaffes’ by former Vice President Joe Biden to startling emails from Hillary Clinton, obtained by Wikileaks, accusing the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar of “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region”. Similar allegations were aired by the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2014. Closer to home, corruption investigations into Saudi arms deals in 2008 led to Prince Bandar, head of the kingdom’s national security council, threatening the UK with “another 7/7” unless the investigation was dropped. It duly was, leading to a long and controversial legal case which eventually ruled the stoppage of the SFO investigation to be legal.
Tom Brake MP, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister to urge her not to kick the report into the long grass. Speaking to KYC360, Mr Brake confirmed that he had as yet received no reply. “I will continue to press [the government] to prepare and publish the report by means of parliamentary questions, letters and debates,” he said, adding: “the British people are entitled to know whether any of our closest allies in the Middle East are funding extremist ideology here in the UK. In the interest of transparency, the report must be published now, even if it endangers lucrative arms contracts.” However, a Home Office spokeswoman confirmed to KYC360.com that a decision on the future of the inquiry had “probably not” been made “at this stage”, though the Home Office did not respond to a request to elaborate further.
It seems, though, that there is little prospect for the issue to fade away, even if the inquiry is terminated before completion, as many expect it to be. Foreign funding of mosques remains a serious issue across Europe, from Saudi funding to initiatives linked to the Erdoğan government in Turkey to the network of Deobandi conservatives based in the Indian subcontinent. Any further attacks—or even scares—which are linked to foreign-funded mosques are sure to put their financial backers in the spotlight again. Meanwhile, as IS loses territory across Iraq and Syria, further information relating to the genesis and financial backing of the group will gradually seep into the public domain. The questions raised about the trustworthiness of Western allies in the Middle East remains to be seen, but they are likely to be serious indeed.
Richard Nicholl (@rtrnicholl) is Legal Editor for a leading provider of corporate legal intelligence. He also works as a freelance political commentator and investigative journalist.
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