By Osmund Agbo
On the 5th of June 2017, the Middle East nations of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and United Arab Emirate announced that they had severed ties with Qatar, a fellow member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). They were later joined by Jordan while a host of other non-GCC nations including Mauritania, Djibouti, Maldives, Israel and the Comoros stood behind in solidarity. In the ensuing diplomatic face-off, Qatar-registered planes and ships were banned from utilizing those nation’s air spaces and sea routes. Saudi Arabia even went a step further to block Qatar’s only land crossing.
The State of Qatar was accused of supporting terrorism. But the issue in that conflict is not just about Qatar’s culpability or lack of it. The big question is whether the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a nation regarded as the birth place of Wahhabism, the reformist doctrine that underpins puritanical Islam, is in any position to lay such an accusation. Islamic charities tied to both Riyadh and Doha have frequently been accused of sponsoring radical madrassas that serve as a breeding ground for jihadist and so play a key role in terror financing globally.
Located on the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, Qatar has a population of 2.6 million of which a little over 300,000 are Qatari citizens and 2.3 million, expatriates, according to a 2017 census figures. It’s the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and in terms of income, the country has the 4th highest GDP per capita in the whole world. Consequently, Qatar has had an oversized influence in world politics in general and Arab politics in particular, establishing its global media network, Al Jazeera, in November 1996.
Qatar’s influence peddling has not always been for good. It has been alleged to sponsor Islamic movements with links to terrorism and did at least agree to supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. The nation was also accused by Israel of supporting Hamas as well as funding rebel groups such as al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front. As a small country, Qatar believes that for its security and in order to carve its own identity as distinct from being seen as an appendage of Saudi Arabia, it needs to cultivate and nurture certain types of alliances.
In its strategic alliance with the United States, the Al Udeid Air Base, located west of its capital Doha, is home to the largest US military installation in the Middle East. Established in 1996 and covering an area of 24 hectares, the base can accommodate close to 100 aircraft as well as drones and at some point, played host to an estimated 11,000 American and coalition service members. It was also not by accident that during the peace talk between the US and Afghan Talibans brokered by the Trump’s White House, the latter favored Qatar mediating rather than any other country on earth. Qatar is also friendly with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch enemy in the region and was one of the main reasons that made the Kingdom lead the coalition to punish it. But to be fair, it’s not only money from the Middle East that funds terrorism.
When northern Mali fell into the hands of terrorists made up of local jihadists and supported by foreign militants, many believed that it was simply a direct consequence of NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya which sent thousands of well-armed fighters across the Sahara to Mali and the rest of Africa. While that may be partially true, no mention, however, was made of a great many other nation states who continue to water the seed of insurgency globally, unwittingly or intentionally.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar who also goes by the name “The One-Eyed,” is an Algerian jihadist known as the leader of a terrorist organization that operates mostly in North and West Africa called the Al-Mulathameen, a group he founded in December of 2012. Born in northern Algeria, Belmokhtar at the age of 19, traveled to Afghanistan in 1991, to fight alongside the Mujahideen against the communist government in the Afghanistan civil war, following the withdrawal of Soviet troops. It was there that he honed his skills as a terrorist and lost his left eye while mishandling explosives.
Upon his return to Algeria, Belmokhtar joined a group called the Islamist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in 1992. The group which later rebranded as Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) had a goal to overthrow the Algerian government and institute an Islamic state. As the military commander, Mokhtar Belmokhtar was quick to realize that without funding, the group operations would be grounded. He established an elaborate smuggling network for drugs, diamonds, stolen cars, covering most of southern Algeria and used the proceeds to buy weapons and supplies for his groups. But that was until he discovered an easier and a much more lucrative option; kidnapping for ransom.
In 2003, 32 European tourists made up of 16 Germans, 10 Austrians, 4 Swiss, a Dutchman and a Swede went missing in the UNESCO-listed Tassili N’Ajjer region of southeast Algeria. Initial report was that they lost their way but it was later confirmed that they were abducted by members of Belmokhtar’s GSPC terror cell in the Algerian Sahara Desert. The families of the victims were frantic and the German Foreign Minister held several talks with the Algerian President. Few weeks later and following a raid of the terrorist hideout by the Algerian Army, 17 out of the 32 hostages were freed. The other remaining 15 were led by the terrorists across the desert to the neighboring Mail and were later released after a huge ransom payment were made by the German authority.
Quoting one account of what transpired, “The German official charged with delivering this cargo arrived here aboard a nearly empty military plane and was whisked away to a secret meeting with the president of Mali, who had offered Europe a face-saving solution to a vexing problem.” But in all, three suitcases filled with cash to the tune of 5 million euros, officially disguised as humanitarian aid to Mali’s poor were delivered to the terrorist. The suitcases were reportedly loaded onto waiting pickup trucks and driven hundreds of miles north into the Sahara Desert.
The United States of America and to a certain extent Britain have a long-standing policy of not paying ransom to kidnappers. But that is not the case with others. Whereas many European governments deny paying ransom, an investigation by The New York Times a few years ago found that Al Qaeda and its affiliates took in revenue in excess of $125 million from kidnappings since 2008 and in one particular year alone $66 million was paid out. At the time, a United States Treasury Department reported a total of around $165 million in ransom payment over the same period.
Mr. Belmokhtar’s success in kidnapping business has turned northern Mali into a Mecca of sorts for aspiring jihadists and since 2004, many radicalized youths from across North and West Africa flock to Mail to get trained in the art. Kidnap for ransom has become such a lucrative business for terror groups and from those proceeds, their operations across the globe are bankrolled. Al-Qaeda for example is said to own a “how-to” operational manual that explains the process from the actual kidnap all the way to the nitty-gritty of negotiating ransom payments.
In its early years, Al Qaeda’s operational fund came mostly from affluent donors in oil rich middle eastern countries but later on, counter-terrorism officials discovered that the bulk of money the group used for its recruitment, training and arms purchases actually came from Europe in form of ransom payments.
Money is the oxygen that nurtures as well as sustains global terrorism and unless the issue of financing is effectively tackled, all pretensions to addressing the problem is but a waste of precious time. As long as those paying for the spread of extremist ideology go unpunished, there would be thousands of willing buyers in a world where the global poverty rate has gone up.
Across the globe, the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) leads and coordinates the world body’s approach to prevent and counter terrorism and violent extremism which is good. Its Security Council Resolution 2462 (2019) under Chapter VII, seeks to address some new avenues of terrorist financing, including but not limited to targeting the nexus between terrorists and organized crime groups. It’s also tackling fundraising through kidnapping for ransom. The reality, however, is that the effort hasn’t really moved the needle much in this fight.
On the home front, there is no doubt that funds from foreign donors and their local collaborators have continued to pour in to support the efforts of the Islamic State of West Africa (ISWAP), an increasingly emboldened terrorists group whose goal is to conquer Nigeria and turn it into a Muslim theocracy. Sadly, many months after Abubakar Malami’s Ministry of Justice informed Nigerians of being in possession of a list of sponsors of terrorism, nothing else has been said or done about it. Every passing day, the prospect of Nigeria becoming another Afghanistan gets more real. This indeed is a very interesting time.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]