Saudi Arabia’s top religious leaders have condemned terrorism financing as forbidden by Islamic law, giving added religious weight and potentially larger punishments to existing civil statutes.
But many analysts are skeptical it will amount to much. The government-appointed Council of Senior Ulema, which issued the resolution, holds little weight with those inclined to support militants. Some Saudi Arabians view their government as too eager to please the US in its quest to stop terrorism and question the religious and moral legitimacy of the monarchy. "Ulema" is an Arabic word the roughly translates as "Muslim scholar."
And Saudi officials agree that for some militants or their supporters, this stand against terrorist funding won't resonate.
“The extremists, for them it wouldn’t make a difference, because they have their own little fatwa mills where they issue fatwas left and right,” says Nail Al-Jubeir, spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington. “They’re going to issue their own fatwas saying it’s the duty of every person to help them, but it doesn’t go anywhere. They’re just talking to their own group of people.”
Still, Mr. Jubeir says the government hopes the ruling will eliminate any misunderstandings about what constitutes support for militant groups and deter people from sending financial support to such organizations.
Among some analysts, there's a view that the resolution was created to show the West that Saudi Arabia is committed to fighting terrorism, rather than to be an effective counterterrorism measure in itself.
“This is a political display of opposition to terrorist activities,” says Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “The main threat does not come from officially sanctioned contributions to groups that are regarded as militant and anti-Western. The main threat comes from private donations made by Saudi business people and wealthy individuals and the Saudi statement does not control private donations.”
Government-linked charities used to fund a number of groups accused of terrorism, but under US pressure Saudi Arabia changed its practices about six years ago and liquidated the Al-Haramain Foundation, a particular target of US ire.
The council’s resolution drew from the Koran, Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet Mohammed's life), and Islamic law. The council ruled that “the financing of terrorism; the inception, help or attempt to commit a terrorist act whatever kind or dimension is forbidden by Islamic Shariah and constitutes a punishable crime thereby.”
The resolution included citations such as: “…and help you one another in Al-Birr and At-Taqwa (virtue, righteousness and piety); but do not help one another in sin and transgression. And fear Allah. Verily, Allah is Severe in punishment. [Surah Al-Ma’idah, verse 2]
No matter how convincing the Islamic basis for the argument, most analysts say it’s unlikely to hold much sway with those likely to fund terrorist groups.
Al Azhar got there first
For one thing, Al-Azhar University in Egypt, one of the oldest and most respected Islamic institutions in the world, already holds this opinion, says Ayman Khalil, a researcher at the Arab Institute for Security Studies in Amman, Jordan.
“This is not a new position. It has always been on the agenda for Islamic scholars,” he says. “This has always been the understanding among moderate Muslims, the large majority of Muslims.”
Until the Sept. 11 attacks – which were conducted by a majority of Saudi nationals – the Saudi kingdom had been more tolerant of militant groups abroad, allowing funding to flow from Saudi charities to groups like Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since then, the Saudi leadership has taken a harder line, not least because of US pressure and Al Qaeda's repeated attacks on the monarchy.
"There is a distinction between the jihadi activities at home and jihadi activities abroad,” says Mai Yamani, an independent British academic who has written several books about Saudi Arabia.
Since 2003, when Al Qaeda bombings killed many Saudi civilians, most Saudis have been committed to stopping Al Qaeda-related violence. However, when it comes to funding militant groups in India- or Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, for instance, the line is much less clear. Many Saudis don't consider them terrorist organizations, and many clerics agree with them.
“People may try to justify [their support] and say, ‘This is not an act of terrorism. I am supporting the Muslims fighting the Indian occupation in Kashmir.’ … For them it’s sort of a religious duty to help their Muslim brothers,” says Jubeir. “But we’re saying, ‘No, you can’t, because once what these groups are doing is defined as acts of terrorism, you can’t do that anymore.’”