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The mystery of how the Islamic State makes its millions

By Sunanda K Datta-Ray
November 28, 2015 12:39 IST
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Not with standing the Western nations’ zeal to wage a war against the group, unless its source of funding is known and curbed, its rampage will likely continue, observes Sunanda K Datta-Ray 

An official American review described the terrorists who call themselves the Islamic State as “probably the best-funded terrorist organisation” the United States had ever confronted. But mystery surrounds the source of funds of an organisation that has become a byword for massacres and public beheadings and is treated as civilisation’s sworn enemy.

Islamic State was responsible for attacking a resort in Tunisia, causing the Russian jet crash over Sinai and the carnage in Beirut and Paris. Lord Ashdown, better known as Paddy Ashdown, former Liberal Democratic Party leader, dropped a bombshell on the eve of David Cameron’s dramatic declaration about bombing IS into extinction when he said in effect that some of the British prime minister’s closest West Asian allies were supporting the brutal adversary.

The only religion Islamic State respects is the harshly literal interpretation of the Quran that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab developed in the 18th century. Two years ago, the European Parliament identified Wahhabism as the ideological basis of Islamist terrorism the world over. Wahhabism inflicts harsh punishment on anyone who wanders from its austere teachings. It is equally rigorous with those who transgress its social codes.

Wahhabism is Saudi Arabia’s state religion. The Saudis can, if they choose, flog their women for driving a car, throw people into jail for 10 years for peacefully highlighting human rights issues, and put to death those guilty of blasphemy.

But the report that the Saudis have spent more than $100 billion on promoting Wahhabism in the mosques and schools they build and finance worldwide and through the textbooks they publish is less easily ignored.

A recent Freedom House report noted that Saudi exports of books and teachings “propagate an ideology of hate towards the ‘unbeliever’, which includes Christians, Jews, Shi’ites, Sufis, Sunni Muslims who do not follow the Wahhabi doctrine, Hindus, atheists and others.”

The suspicion is that Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s al-Thani sheikhs indirectly finance IS. They may not actually send money but may not be unaware of rich people who do so. These donations are believed to have started as part of the campaign to topple Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. That aim united Britain, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Each had its own axe to grind.

The Western nations cited Assad’s human rights abuses. Turkey wanted to control rebellious Kurds. Saudi Arabia and Qatar saw ousting Assad as necessary to cut Shi’ite Iran down to size. Priorities and time scales have changed since then. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are still in the 10-nation coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria, but it is significant that the Saudis have not played an active role in the war during the last three months. Qatar effectively withdrew a year ago.

Ashdown mentioned Cameron undertaking a report on the Muslim Brotherhood to oblige the Saudis, who wanted the organisation branded terrorist. Apparently, its conclusions turned out to be different. “That report has never been published because it came to a conclusion unhelpful to the Saudis.” The implication is that Cameron suppressed the report at Riyadh’s bidding.

Saudi influence has always been a subject of controversy. People noted long before Ashdown’s charges that Margaret Thatcher draped herself in black from head to toe almost like a burqa to visit Riyadh. There were dissatisfied murmurs recently when the Union Jack flew at half-mast to mourn the death of the Saudi king. The kingdom is not only a British and American ally; it is a valuable buyer of Western arms. But Hillary Clinton is quoted as calling Saudi Arabia the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”.

Not that Islamic State is totally dependent on Saudi monarchs and Gulf sheikhs. It is thought to export oil worth about a million dollars every day via Turkey and Iran. Ransom from kidnappings earned an estimated $20 million (Rs 132 crore) last year. The eight million people, who live in IS-controlled Syria and Iraq, are taxed heavily. Non-Sunnis pay special taxes. IS is also reported to earn handsomely from selling antiquities from the ancient temples and monuments it destroys.

A phrase that is reiterated amidst the froth and fury of Britain working itself up to wage war is that bombing the group’s headquarters, Raqqa town in north Syria, will cut off the serpent’s head. But the throbbing drums of war cannot altogether drown out quieter voices murmuring that IS will continue undaunted until the mystery of how it is financed is exploded and the source of funding stemmed.

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Sunanda K Datta-Ray
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