When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) escalated its fight against fellow rebels in Syria late last year, private donors in the Persian Gulf were rattled. For three years, a network of clerics and Sunni politicians had funded anti-regime groups in Syria, including other jihadi factions such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhut al-Nusra – groups now at war with ISIS.
First, the donors tried reasoning with ISIS: all rebels should work together against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In October, Kuwaiti donor Mohammed Haif announced on Twitter that there had been a meeting of elders trying to reason with ISIS members and their families. Another Saudi cleric, Yousef bin Abdallah Al Ahmad, tried to broker peace between the leader of ISIS and Salafi brigade Ahrar al Sham.
But by early 2014, it was clear the talks had failed. Mr. Haif warned ISIS to withdraw from Syria. Other donors alleged sedition: ISIS is “actively seeking to burn all the gains of the Syrian jihad,” another Kuwaiti donor, the cleric Shafi Al Ajmi, wrote in a Tweet.
In the last two weeks as ISIS has seized large swathes of Iraq, however, the Gulf donor community is regrouping. ISIS’s military success appears likely to attract new support to its cause, even from former critics who want to back a winner. Yet that very military success – and the spoils that it brought to ISIS and its Sunni allies in Iraq – makes the group less dependent on outside sponsors and ultimately harder to control.
Private donors are estimated to have given hundreds of millions of dollars to Syrian rebels since 2012, much of it via Kuwait, which until last year did not have a law on the books prohibiting the financing of terror. Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also supported various anti-regime groups in Syria, though they all deny backing ISIS.
Whatever the nuances of Gulf funding of Syrian fighters, Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government is ready to believe the worst. In a strongly worded statement, Iraq’s cabinet accused Saudi Arabia of supporting ISIS and other groups in Iraq and said the Saudi government “should be held responsible for the dangerous crimes committed by these terrorist groups.”
Saudi Arabia has denied the accusations. On Wednesday, the state news agency said that Saudi deputy crown prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was meeting with the Iraqi foreign minister to discuss the regional situation.
Indeed, it and other Gulf states fear that ISIS is recruiting their nationals who may eventually target the homeland, just as Al Qaeda did in the past. Saudi Arabia named ISIS an official terrorist organization earlier this year and increased penalties for anyone caught supporting or fighting with them.
“ISIS and some of these other groups positioned themselves as enemies of the Gulf monarchies,” says Emile Hokayem, Bahrain-based senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They never miss an opportunity to attack Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states.”
Celebrating Iraqi victory
The official position of governments like Saudi Arabia is one thing. But some of the same donors who once decried ISIS in Syria are celebrating their Iraqi victory.
“What is happening in Iraq is a people’s revolution against oppression and tyranny,” Kuwaiti donor Hajjaj Al Ajmi, wrote on Twitter on June 16. A young Sunni cleric, Mr. Ajmi has spent much of the last two years traveling in and out of Syria to visit the brigades he has funded.
One reason why donors are reconsidering is the success ISIS has had in Iraq. They see the group’s rapid advance in northern and western Iraq as a broader and legitimate Sunni revolt against Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s Shiite Islamist ruling circle. Numerous tribal groups and other militias have joined ISIS to drive out Iraqi government troops from Mosul, Tikrit, and other cities.
“What is happening now on the ground in beloved Iraq is the result of the policies of oppression and exclusion, corruption” by the Iraqi government, argued a June 14 statement from the International Union of Muslim Scholars, an international Muslim Brotherhood-linked group led by Qatar-based cleric Yousef al-Qaradawi. Salafi groups in Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia issued a joint statement on June 13 accusing the Iraqi government of “turning [the country] into a failed state.”
Salafis belong to a Muslim movement that wants to restore the "pure" Islam, as they see it, that prevailed during the time of the prophet Mohamed, in the 7th century. Some Salafi's are peaceful and eschew politics, but many of the modern strain of jihadis, including Al Qaeda, also belong to the movement.
If ISIS’s advance in Iraq does attract new private donations from the Gulf, it may not be to ISIS itself, which is already flush from extortion and protection rackets in northwest Syria and Iraq’s Anbar province. Add in oil smuggling and bank raids in Iraq, and the group looks increasingly self-sufficient.
“Donor support probably hasn't been significant, at least in recent years,” says a Doha-based financial analyst, who asked not to be named. “ISIS's goal to govern, including self-financing, is what sets it apart from the others.”
Money may instead be aimed at pushing other extremist Sunni groups in Syria and elsewhere to adopt an ISIS model: Territorial control and military might, not the small, disparate cells favored by Al Qaeda's central command, which has repudiated ISIS.
“There is no doubt that the most radical people in the region will see ISIS as a successful model,” says Mr. Hokayem. “And it’s going to be very difficult for the Gulf states to keep an eye on and restrain their own citizens.”
Even Syrian opposition groups opposed to ISIS may be forced to shift. Abu Mariya Al Qahtani, a chief Jabhut Al Nusra commander in Eastern Syria,wrote on Twitter on June 11 that he would not congratulate “murders and killers” but that he did welcome “Allah’s victory” in Iraq.
If ISIS becomes the gold standard for jihadi groups, private donors could see their work sidelined.
“The groups that are most threatening are the ones who manage to move from an external financing model to and internal financing model,” says Tom Keatinge, a former banker at J.P Morgan who writes and consults on terrorism financing. “ISIS has taken that to a whole new level. The money they have is similar to the military budget of a small European country.”