Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

Key sponsors: Saudi Arabia

Governments and major donors who support the groups that perpetrate most IED attacks are not, as a rule, specifically sponsoring their use of IEDs, but rather wishing to strengthen and equip such groups in furtherance of their own strategic or political objectives.  This section will therefore consider state sponsorship of these groups in the form of money, weapons, logistical support, and sometimes manpower and training.  It should be recognised that the humanitarian aid that Arab and Islamic charities provide to civilians in conflict zones, whether directly or indirectly through favoured groups of militants, can also increase combatants’ capacity to wage war by allowing them to build support among the local population.

Having examined, in section 5, the sources of funding for the major groupings responsible for IED usage across the Middle East, Asia and Africa, in this section we will focus on the state actors and private donors placing their bets on a kaleidoscopic range of armed factions, active principally in Syria and beyond, in the context of larger regional power struggles.

Several Arab Gulf states have a long history of financing mujahideen in conflicts where Muslims or the pan-Muslim nation have been perceived as being under threat, notably in Afghanistan following the 1979 Soviet invasion.  In Syria since 2011, the context has been different: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar have been openly backing various groups fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and latterly, in some cases, against IS.  In the early stages of the Syrian civil war, these countries provided direct government funding to the Syrian rebels, supplemented by vast donations from private Gulf citizens.  As the conflict has evolved and the rising power of IS has come to be seen as a threat to GCC states’ own domestic security, the pattern of support for Salafist activity in the region has altered.

Saudi Arabia

One of the Saudi kingdom’s most outspoken critics in the United States, former Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Bob Graham, has called extremist groups like IS and AQ “a product of Saudi ideals, Saudi money and Saudi organisational support”.  The Saudis’ role in propagating Salafi thought around the world is amply covered elsewhere in this paper.  We will consider here their financial and material support for armed activity where civilians suffer disproportionately, either as ‘jihad’ or for conventional geopolitical ends.

Saudi support for Salafi-jihadism goes right to the top of the regime, including the present monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz himself.  Salman was the royal family’s main fund-raiser for jihadists in Afghanistan during the 1980s and in the Balkans in the 1990s, and was director of the Saudi High Commission for Relief in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was subsequently discovered to have had close links with senior AQ leaders.

Intervention in Syria

In Syria, once it was clear that the US was unwilling to take direct military action against the Assad regime, and with the separate prospect of Assad’s Shia ally Iran securing a nuclear deal, the Saudis started to take a more assertive position on the Syrian conflict, in partnership with Jordan and the UAE, in their increasing determination to end Assad’s rule.  From mid-2013, they began devising a plan to create a national Syrian opposition army capable of bringing down the Damascus regime, gathering together chosen Sunni rebel groups; a parallel aim was to counter the growing strength of more hardline Islamist forces.

The initial intention was to build up a force of 7,000-10,000 fighters, including over 6,000 army defectors who had taken refuge in Jordan and Turkey (this proved unrealistic).  Training had reportedly already begun in Jordan – a conduit for Saudi-funded training and arms since late 2012 – with the aid of Pakistani, French and US instructors.  A number of hawkish senior Saudi royals, however, entertained more ambitious plans to build a rebel army of 40,000-50,000 at a cost of several billion dollars, plans that were at least discussed with the foreign ministers of Jordan and the UAE, and with French President Francois Hollande in September 2013.

Logo of Jaish al-Islam

Most prominent among the new groups receiving Saudi government funding was Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam), a Sunni alliance founded that month by 43 rebel brigades and battalions in the Damascus region. Its formation closely followed the publication by the Association of Muslim Ulema in Syria of a proposal to unite Islamist rebel groups under a single Army of Muhammad, with a stated target of building up to a strength of 100,000 by March 2015 and 250,000 by March 2016.  Other alliances were also being forged at the time, in a process of fracturing and regrouping among all shades of Islamist, Sunni, non-sectarian and secular civil and military actors that still continues.

Jaish al-Islam continues to receive Saudi backing, as well as support from Qatar and Turkey.  It fights the Syrian regime, IS and some Kurdish groups, including US ally the YPG. It has toned down its earlier strongly anti-Shia rhetoric, but on the other hand has carried out extreme and controversial actions.  In November 2015, it placed Syrian soldiers and their families in cages and used them as human shields, a tactic it defended in this YouTube video:

In April 2016, the group admitted using chemical weapons in an attack on Kurdish forces in Aleppo (but said the brigade commander responsible had been disciplined).

In December 2015, the group participated in a conference in Riyadh that led to the formation of the High Negotiations Committee for the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (HNC).  Jaysh al-Islam’s political leader, Mohammed Alloush, was appointed as the HNC’s chief negotiator, but resigned in May 2016 after the HNC suspended peace talks with the Assad regime over worsening conditions on the ground in Syria.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has continued to supply its client groups in Syria with weapons and money.  It recently emerged that it has increasingly been turning to the Balkans to buy up arms and explosives, shipping or airfreighting them to military bases in the kingdom for onward transport to Syria. Since the escalation of the Syrian crisis in 2012, eight central and eastern European countries (Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Montenegro, Slovakia, Serbia and Romania) have approved €1.2bn ($1.34bn) of weapons and ammunition exports in total to Saudi Arabia (accounting for two-thirds of the total), Jordan, the UAE and Turkey.  The purchases appear to be escalating, with some of the biggest deals approved in 2015.

Arms export licences were granted despite fears from experts and within governments that the weapons could end up with the Syrian armed opposition, arguably in breach of national, EU and other international agreements.  An investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) has found that eastern and central European weapons and ammunition, identified from videos and photos posted on social media, are now being used by Western-backed Free Syrian Army units, but are also in the hands of fighters from Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, IS and pro-regime factions in Syria, and by Sunni forces in Yemen.  An arms control researcher at Amnesty International commented that “the evidence points towards systematic diversion of weapons to armed groups accused of committing serious human rights violations”.

This arms supply line opened in the winter of 2012 with dozens of cargo planes loaded with Saudi-purchased Yugoslav-era weapons and ammunition leaving Zagreb bound for Jordan.  Soon after, the first footage of Croatian weapons emerged from Syria.  Since 2012, BIRN and OCCRP say, €806m worth of weapons and ammunition exports were approved by the eastern European countries to Saudi Arabia, and Jordan secured €155m worth of export licences, while the UAE acquired €135m and Turkey €87m.

Jeremy Binnie, the Middle East arms expert for the publication Jane’s Defence Weekly, said: “The militaries of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE and Turkey use Western infantry weapons and ammunition, rather than Soviet-designed counterparts. It consequently seems likely that large shipments of such materiel being acquired by – or sent to – those countries are destined for their allies in Syria, Yemen and Libya.”

The graphic below tracks the routes of cargo flights identified as likely carrying arms from the Balkans to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the past year:

Washington has also bought and delivered large quantities of military materiel from central and eastern Europe for the Syrian opposition, in an attempt to counter the spread of IS.  Since December 2015, three cargo ships commissioned by the US military’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM), in charge of the covert supply of weapons to Syria, have left Black Sea ports in the Balkans for the Middle East, according to American procurement documents and ship tracking data.

Arms bought by the Saudis, Turks, Jordanians and the UAE for Syria are routed through two military operation centres (MOCs) in Jordan and Turkey, according to former US ambassador to Syria Robert Stephen Ford.  The weapons are then transported by road to the Syrian border or airdropped by military planes.  The Saudis are also known to have airdropped materiel, including what appeared to be Serbian-made assault rifles, to their allies in Yemen.

The Saudis and Turks are also known to have provided weapons directly to Islamist groups not supported by the US and who, in some cases, are fighting MOC-backed factions.  In early 2015, Saudi Arabia and Turkey agreed to actively support the combined Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) command structure for jihadist groups in Syria that includes Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa and other hardline Islamist rebels, and constitutes an extremist rival to IS.  The Saudis have been sending material support in the form of arms and money, with the Turks facilitating its passage. The border villages of Guvecci, Kuyubasi, Hacipasa, Besaslan, Kusakli and Bukulmez have been favoured routes, according to rebel sources, at least until some of this border territory changed hands recently.

As it hardened its position against IS, in September 2014 Saudi Arabia became one of the first Arab states to take part in the US-led campaign of airstrikes against IS in Syria.  It is worth remembering, however, that although Saudi Arabia is deeply hostile to IS, regarding it as a threat to its own security, it is nevertheless not displeased by gains made by IS in Syria at the expense of Bashar al-Assad and by extension his Iranian backers, whom it regards as the real enemy.  By February 2016 Saudi officials were suggesting that the kingdom might be prepared to send ground troops to fight IS in Syria, and announced that it would send combat aircraft and soldiers to Turkey to participate in the US-led coalition against IS.  It then trumpeted a massive military exercise, “Ra’ad al-Shamal” (“Northern Thunder”) near Kuwait and the Iraqi border, an announcement some saw as an empty boast directed principally at Tehran.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia remains embroiled in Yemen, fighting in support of the internationally recognised government against Shia Houthi rebels and IS militants, while apparently remaining sympathetic to AQ forces based there.  The Saudi-led coalition of mainly Sunni Muslim states in Yemen, including the UAE, was criticised for allowing AQAP to thrive in Yemen and maintain a lucrative stronghold in the port city of Mukalla for over a year before finally forcing the group to abandon it in April 2016. A freelance journalist in Yemen reported, however, that many of the AQAP fighters who retreated from Mukalla made their way to the Yemeni province of al-Bayda.  According to the U.S. Treasury, a Yemeni who reportedly once acted as AQAP’s emir in al-Bayda was Abdel Wahab al-Humayqani, whom the United States declared a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2013.  In 2015, Humayqani conducted media interviews from Riyadh and was even hosted in the studio as a guest of Saudi state TV.

Combating the Financing of Terrorism

There is little doubt that Saudi Arabia has made progress in clamping down on terrorist financing in recent years.  In June 2014, after undergoing successive evaluations since 2010 and gradually remedying a long list of deficiencies, it was recognised by the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENAFATF) as having an effective AML/CFT (anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism) system in place, which is “largely compliant” with FATF core and key recommendations.

Only after considerable pressure from the international community did Riyadh eventually pass legislation criminalising financial support of terrorist organisations.  On January 31, 2014 the Saudi authorities promulgated the Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing (“the terrorism law”) passed by the Council of Ministers in December 2013. The law defines the crime of terrorism financing as:

“Any act involving collecting, providing, receiving, allocating, transporting or transferring of funds or proceeds, wholly or partially, for any individual or collective terrorist activity, organised or otherwise, within the kingdom or abroad, directly or indirectly, from a legitimate or illegitimate source; carrying out for the benefit of such activity or its elements any banking, financial or commercial transaction; collecting, directly or through an intermediary funds to be utilised for its benefit; promoting its ideologies; arranging for training sites; sheltering its members or providing them with any type of weapons or forged documents; knowingly providing any other means of support and financing as well as any act that constitutes a crime within the scope of the agreements mentioned in the appendix to the International Convention on the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism and as defined in said agreements.”

On February 3, two days after the terrorism law came into force, the king issued Royal Decree 44, which criminalises “participating in hostilities outside the kingdom” with prison sentences of between three and 20 years.  And on March 7 the Interior Ministry issued further regulations designating an initial list of groups the government considers terrorist organisations, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Houthi group in Yemen, along with “Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Daesh [the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham], Jabhat al-Nusra, and Hezbollah inside the kingdom”.

A legal assessment of the terrorism law by Professor Michael Newton of Vanderbilt University School of Law, commissioned by the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, detailed its severe implications for human rights in the Saudi kingdom. He noted that the legislation cites violence as an essential element of terrorism only in relation to attacks on Saudis outside the kingdom or on board Saudi means of transport.  Inside the kingdom, “terrorism” can be non-violent – consisting of “any act” intended to, among other things, “insult the reputation of the state”, “harm public order” or “shake the security of society”.  The interior ministry regulations include other sweeping provisions that the authorities can use to criminalise virtually any criticism of the government and its understanding of Islam.  Since coming into force the legislation has been used against several human rights defenders, lawyers and activists, who have been tried and sentenced under its provisions for non-violent activities.

On the other hand, the Saudis have also been serious about tackling their increasingly troubling domestic terrorist threat.  Following a series of IS-linked security incidents inside the kingdom in 2015, the authorities swept up hundreds of suspects in a series of arrests across the country.  With between 1,500 and 2,000 Saudi citizens estimated to be fighting with IS in Iraq and Syria, the authorities have reason to fear the potential instability they may cause when they eventually return.

The 2014 terrorism law charged the Ministry of Interior with establishing Correction and Rehabilitation Centres “to provide care to persons detained for or convicted of any of the crimes provided for in this law, facilitate their integration in the community, enhance their patriotism and correct any misconceptions they have”.  It thus reaffirmed the government’s commitment to the decade-old deradicalisation programme mentioned in section 4.2.

At the same time, the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC), which had previously mostly heard cases relating to AQ members, has had an increasingly heavy IS-related workload.  Since April 2015 most of those convicted in the SCC have been linked with IS.  Here is a small, illustrative sample of some recent sentences: ­

  • One Saudi sentenced to 11 years in prison for facilitating terrorists’ passage through border checkpoint in exchange for money (August 2015)
  • One Saudi sentenced to 9 years in prison for exploiting the Dawa Office to fund terrorism (October 2015)
  • One Saudi sentenced to 19 years in prison for pledging allegiance to IS (December 2015)
  • One Saudi sentenced to 10 years in prison for fighting with IS and funding terrorism (November 2015)
  • Three Saudis sentenced to prison for several years each for seeking to travel to conflict areas for fighting, including Yemen and Syria (January 2016)
  • One Saudi sentenced to 7 years’ imprisonment in absentia for fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra (January 2016)
  • One Sudanese sentenced to 9 years in prison for pledging allegiance to IS, among other charges (March 2016)
  • One Saudi sentenced to 9 years in prison for tweeting support for IS (March 2016)

As of January 2016, the Interior Ministry was conducting pre-trial investigations for 532 suspects in IS terrorist plots.

Meanwhile, the more stringent oversight of financial institutions in Saudi Arabia, and also in its neighbour and ally the UAE, has won praise from the US Treasury Department after years of irritation, and focused the spotlight more sharply on the laxity of Qatar and Kuwait regarding the flow of donations to armed groups and designated terrorist organisations.  However, unregulated fundraising through social media allows donors in Saudi Arabia to route their contributions through the less regulated Gulf states.

This is well illustrated by the work of Dr Abdullah Muhammad al-Muhaysini, a popular Saudi cleric who has exploited this fundraising loophole and continued to use his high-traffic social media presence to raise funds for the new Islamic Front, formed by some of the leading Syrian insurgent groups.  Using Twitter and YouTube, al-Muhaysini’s fundraising campaign is able to operate for two reasons.  First, al-Muhaysini directs potential donors to phone numbers in Kuwait and Qatar, from which they receive instructions for sending funds.  Second, unlike most financiers, who remain based in the Gulf while making regular trips to northern Syria, al-Muhaysini actually relocated to Syria in September 2013, an action that has raised his profile.  Like many other rebel financiers, he is also involved in legitimate charity work.  He actively supports Jamia Rahma, a charity based in Mafraq, Jordan, which provides services to Syrian refugees.

In October 2013, al-Muhaysini announced a new fundraising campaign to finance the jihad in Syria, entitled “Wage Jihad With Your Money”.  A poster for the campaign, shown here, was circulated on jihadi websites and on Twitter, with three telephone numbers listed at the bottom. One is a Qatari number, and the other two are numbers in Kuwait. A separate Twitter feed dedicated to the campaign is also advertised.  Donors are offered “silver status” if they give the equivalent of $175 to buy 50 sniper bullets (prices are quoted in Kuwaiti, Saudi and Qatari riyals), or “gold status” for giving twice that amount to purchase eight mortar rounds.

And in a 2014 tweet appealing for funds to buy rockets, al-Muhaysini directed supporters to phone numbers in Qatar and Turkey:

Al-Muhaysini has sometimes used funds to offer bounties on Syrian regime tanks and vehicles. In November 2015, for example, he promised the Syrian lira equivalent of $675 to any rebel destroying a “regime war machine” in the south Aleppo countryside.  In the flyer shown here he can be seen personally announcing to “the heroes of the anti-tank brigades” that a bounty of 150,000 lira will be paid to anyone who destroys a regime war machine – at minimum a 14.5mm technical [pickup truck carrying a mounted machine gun] – on the south Aleppo front.

As of October 2016, al-Muhaysini’s Twitter account had more than 56,000 followers, his YouTube videos were regularly getting thousands of views, and his Facebook page had more than 30,000 likes.

This post is part of the report, “Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use”. To see the sections of the report please go here. This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.