Qatari crisis could ‘set a new bar’ in enforcing regional financing of terrorism

Sunday 09/07/2017
Serious challenge. Police officers search a man as he arrives to perform prayers in the village of Diraz west of Manama. (Reuters)

Washington- “There is a real potential for the GCC to splin­ter” because of the crisis between Qatar and the Riyadh-led coalition that has demanded Doha change its ways, said David Cohen, former deputy director of the CIA.

The danger in such a split, Cohen said, is that Qatar might feel it was no longer “part of the club” and would not feel compelled to clamp down on terrorist financing.

Cohen admitted that the Qataris have been “markedly worse than others in the [Gulf Cooperation Council] GCC” in addressing the is­sue of terrorist financing and sup­port, even though the problem, to a certain degree, concerns other Gulf countries as well. He said that, although Qatar had prosecuted several people in recent years and tightened some regulations, “it still has a long way to go.”

The issue was not, Cohen insist­ed, a lack of intelligence gathering. Speaking about his meetings with Qatari intelligence officials, Co­hen said it was “abundantly clear that they knew who was there and what they were doing.” However, Doha had only gone after “the low-hanging fruit,” Cohen said. “There is more fruit to be harvested.”

Cohen spoke July 6 in Washington before a gathering of invited media representatives, including The Arab Weekly. The talk was sponsored by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW). Prior to serv­ing as second-in-command at the CIA, Cohen was undersecretary of the US Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. He held both positions during the administration of former President Barack Obama.

Cohen recounted that, after the September 11, 2001, terrorist at­tacks, attention focused initially on terrorist funding from Saudi Arabia but by 2009 Riyadh had “greatly improved” its efforts and attention shifted to other GCC countries. The goal, Cohen said, was to address the issue through a multilateral frame­work between the United States and the entire GCC but “that did not work so well.”

Instead, the United States has worked with individual GCC mem­bers.

Cohen was joined in the brief­ing by Juan Zarate, chairman and co-founder of the Financial Integ­rity Network and former deputy national security adviser for com­bating terrorism under President George W. Bush. Zarate agreed that the rift between Riyadh and Qatar “poses a real danger” but said there was a potential “silver lining” in the crisis.

Although the focus is on Qatar, Zarate said, the crisis would help “set a new bar” that all GCC coun­tries should be required to meet. All GCC members “have challenges” when it comes to terrorist financ­ing. The Gulf nations have been “reactive,” Zarate said — if they are shown the information, they will act — but “we need the GCC to take ownership” of the issue.

Supporters of Qatar have argued that Doha’s cosiness with individu­als who support terrorism and ter­rorist groups — such as the Taliban — has served a useful purpose in providing a venue in which these individuals and groups can be monitored or engaged in dialogue if necessary.

Cohen and Zarate agreed that having Qatar play such a role could be advantageous at times but it should not be solely up to Doha as to who benefits from it. Cohen noted that Qatar regards itself as “the Switzerland of the Middle East” but then pointed out that the Swiss were forced to change some policies related to financial secrecy when other countries pressured them about illicit finances.

Praising his past collaboration with former Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Ab­dulaziz, Cohen expressed optimism in new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who might lack experience in matters of terrorism financing but whose push for modernisation — including signs of wanting to rein in the Saudi religious establishment — bode well for the future.

Cohen and Zarate warned that even with a great improvement in curtailing terrorism financing, ter­rorism would continue. They noted that the Islamic State and other groups have developed means of financing their operations that rely on local sources — such as smug­gling, hostage-taking for ransom, theft of resources and even taxa­tion — that will continue to provide them with the wherewithal to oper­ate.

Financing only targets centrally directed terrorism; actions by “lone wolves” will not be diminished by halting financial flows.

Ultimately, Cohen said, regional actors must address “the underly­ing causes of instability” and the failure of governance. Blocking ter­rorists’ access to financial resources is only part of the problem.