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CRS: Saudi Arabia: Terrorist Financing Issues

Authors: Christopher M. Blanchard, and Alfred B. Prados
September 14, 2007

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Overview

The attacks of September 11, 2001, fueled criticism within the United States of alleged Saudi involvement in terrorism or of Saudi laxity in acting against terrorist groups. One area of particular concern is the suspicion that public or private funds may be flowing from Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries to finance international terrorist activity.

Reliable figures on the amount of money originating in or passing through Saudi Arabia and ending up in terrorist hands generally are difficult to obtain, for several reasons. First, the relatively small amounts of money required for terrorist acts can easily pass unnoticed. Second, the structure of the Saudi financial system makes financial transfers difficult to trace. Personal income records are not kept for tax purposes in Saudi Arabia and many citizens prefer cash transactions. Third, Muslim charitable contributions (zakat) are a religious obligation, constituting one of the five “pillars of Islam.” Contributions are often given anonymously, and donated funds may be diverted from otherwise legitimate charities. Moreover, Saudi funding of international Islamic charities is reportedly derived from both public and private sources which in some cases appear to overlap, further complicating efforts to estimate the amounts involved and to identify the sources and end recipients of these donations.

This report reviews allegations of Saudi involvement in terrorist financing together with Saudi rebuttals, discusses the question of Saudi support for Palestinian organizations and religious charities and schools (madrasas) abroad, discusses recent steps taken by Saudi Arabia to counter terrorist financing (many in conjunction with the United States), and suggests some implications of recent Saudi actions for the war on terrorism.

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