Fighting Terrorism – Follow the Money

The United States’ War on Terrorism is a failure. A decade ago, Afghanistan’s Taliban consisted of a few thousand hit and run soldiers.  According to Matt Waldman, a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, in 2014, the core Taliban force was estimated at over 60,000.

Estimates of the number of Taliban killed since 2001 range from 20,000 to 35,000

But that’s not all, a decade ago, the Islāmic State (IS) didn’t exist. According to Yevgeny Sysoyev, deputy head of the Russian Federal Security (FSB), “The number of IS  militants stood at some 80,000 in mid-2015, including 50,000 in Syria and 30,000 in Iraq, which can be compared with armies of some countries,” Sysoyev said at a security conference in Sochi. “Among them about 30,000 are foreign terrorists. Most of them come from the Middle East and North Africa,” he added. About 7,000 people from ex-Soviet countries, including Russia, have joined the group,” Sysoyev said. (November 10, 2015)


The U.S. claims its airstrikes killed 20,000 ISIS fighters.

So, despite killing tens of thousands of our enemies, how have they managed to achieve such growth in their fighting forces? Every time in movies like “American Sniper” when we cheer another “score” we forget  these “kills” have mothers, fathers and extended families that love them.  For every terrorist we kill, we radicalize brothers, uncles, cousins, nephews and friends to their dead martyr’s cause of protecting their religion and country from us. Forget about crediting these groups’ great social media for their recruitment success. The real reason for their recruitment success is us.

Keys for a successful terrorist insurgency

Successful insurgencies require the following. In no particular order, they are:

  • Hatred
  • Lots of money
  • A cause to fight for

Approximately a quarter million Iraqis died because of President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Along with our efforts to wipe out the Taliban, we have provided all the hatred needed for generations.

Follow the money

Inquiring minds, or at least this mind, might ask how one of the poorest countries in the world can field an insurgency of 60,000 troops for over 13 years? Not only that, but the Taliban aren’t lacking for weaponry.  They seem to have no problem shooting down US helicopters.

All this takes money, lots of money. We can assume the 60,000 Taliban soldiers aren’t doing this for free. They also need food, supplies and munitions. Not to mention a supply system to get all these things where needed. Another major cost, typically, suicide bomber’s families receive large cash payouts.

Supposedly, the Taliban fund their activities by supplying Europe with opium. Yet even the Mexican drug cartels involved far more in the distribution channel of drugs than the Taliban can’t afford a 60,000 strong army capable of fighting the US to a draw.

In the case of the Islāmic State, equally puzzling is how some unemployed former Iraqi Republican Guard soldiers could get the weaponry and equipment needed to conquer a good chunk of Syria and Iraq?

So, where is the money coming from? According to a December 2009 US government secret memo  from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “Terrorist Finance: Action Request for Senior Level engagement On Terrorism Finance” obtained by Wikileaks, “Still, donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

One of the problems in tracking this money is that much of the Saudi terrorist funding comes from private sources. Further complicating this, in the Saudi kingdom, royal family and government spending are often intertwined.

Terrorism's lifeblood
Terrorism’s lifeblood

According to the Washington Institute, “Today, Saudi citizens continue to represent a significant funding source for Sunni groups operating in Syria. Arab Gulf donors as a whole — of which Saudis are believed to be the most charitable — have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Syria in recent years, including to ISIS and other groups. There is support for ISIS in Saudi Arabia, and the group directly targets Saudis with fundraising campaigns, so Riyadh could do much more to limit private funding.”

The Saudis are not the only middle east dictatorships funding terrorism. Other US “friends” funding terror groups targeting the US and our allies are Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Besides money, the Saudis and their allies also export a cause for these groups. Their goal is to set up Sunni caliphates (separate countries) ruled by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism. This brutal form of 1,500 year old justice calls for beheadings, cutting off limbs, offers no rights for women and death to those who question their religion. Besides the Taliban and ISIS, Boko Haram in Nigeria and many Sunni groups in southeast Asia ascribe to this form of justice. We can assume they are all receiving financial aid from the Saudis and other gulf states.

Reality check

Before going further, it is important to acknowledge that while a great many Middle Easterners hate us with a passion, the United States’ involvement in the region is just a sideshow to the main event. The real war that has gone on for centuries and is now fought in Iraq, Syria and Yemen is between Shiites and Sunnis. There is no logical reason for us being involved in this unwinnable war.

None of the participants in this war poses a threat to the United States, including ISIS. The greatest threat we face are people sympathetic to their cause living in the US taking advantage of our weak gun laws and creating mass shootings with legally purchased assault weapons.

Defeating terrorism

While we aren’t the main source of conflict in the Middle East, we can dramatically improve the survival odds for governments we set up in Afghanistan and Iraq, allowing us to gracefully exit those quagmires. We can do this by removing one of the necessary pillars for an insurgency – the money. We have given the Saudi government and the Gulf Emirates over fourteen years to cut off their terrorism funding. It is time to take matters into our own hands.

The most effective way to do this is by working with our allies and jointly slashing Saudi and the Gulf States’ incomes with an embargo on their oil.

Obviously, this extreme solution ends the happy days of gas below $2.00 gallon. But, it is the right and only thing to do if we want to effectively decrease worldwide terrorism.

Cutting off the cash would be the end of a 60,000 man Taliban army. Odds are, it will also put a real crimp in the cause they are fighting for. Who really wants the Wahhabism form of  justice if they the Saudis aren’t paying for it?

For ISIS, combined with destroying or Iraqi government recapturing their oil fields, cutting off Saudi and Gulf Emirate cash would make them much more vulnerable to their Shiite enemies. Defunding would completely change the complexion of the fight against Boko Haram and terror groups in southeast Asia. These groups get funding either through ISIS or directly from the Gulf Emirates.

Summing up

After fourteen years, we’ve learned how not to fight terrorism. What doesn’t work…

  • Killing as many terrorists as possible
  • Politely asking the Saudi Arabian government and other gulf kingdoms to stop funding terrorist groups

What has a high success probability is cutting off terrorist cash by implementing an oil embargo on countries funding terrorists. The short-term hardship experienced by the rise in fuel costs has side benefits unrelated to terrorism. The expected reduction in oil use will be good for our planet.  Countries participating in the embargo will experience economic growth as entrepreneurs  develop substitute ways to cope with less oil.

We need to come to grips with who our real enemies are in the Middle East and end the fantasy that  Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the others that fund terrorism are our friends. Selling arms and providing military protection to dictatorships that bankroll our enemies ie just plain stupid and needs to stop.

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