In the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, several U.S congressmen asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to determine to what degree Saudi sources engaged in support and funding Islamic extremism. On September 16, 2005, the GAO responded with a lengthy report entitled Information on U.S. Agencies' Efforts to Address Islamic Extremism.[1]

The report presents a mixed picture. It describes cooperation received by U.S. agencies such as the Defense Department, State Department, Treasury Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development but does not comment on the sincerity or effectiveness of Saudi efforts. While the GAO takes pains to differentiate the Saudi government from individuals, there is very little discussion of whether Saudi officials merely use individuals as a way to advance an extremist policy but still maintain plausible deniability with the West.

While the GAO report is more descriptive than analytical, it does suggest that, more than four years after 9-11, U.S. government efforts to counter Islamic extremism are hampered by the lack of a common definition of Islamic extremism. Likewise, determining progress in the fight against Islamic extremism is made more difficult because most U.S. agencies still do not specifically analyze or report on the problem.—The Editors.

Saudi Support for Extremism

A number of sources have reported that Saudi private entities and individuals, as well as sources from other countries, are allegedly financing or supporting Islamic extremism. However, U.S. agencies are still examining Saudi Arabia's relationship, and that of other sources in other countries, to Islamic extremism. For example, in July 2005, a Treasury official testified before Congress that Saudi Arabia-based and funded organizations remain a key source for the promotion of ideologies used by terrorists and violent extremists around the world to justify their agenda. In addition, according to State's 2005 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Saudi donors and unregulated charities have been a major source of financing to extremist and terrorist groups over the past 25 years. In July 2003, a former State Department official testified before Congress that a Saudi-based charity, al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, had allegedly financed assistance to the Egyptian terrorist group Gamma al-Islamia. In May 2004, the same former State official also testified that some half dozen of the most visible charities, including two of Saudi Arabia's largest, the International Islamic Relief Organization and the World Muslim League, have been linked to supporting Islamic terrorist organizations globally. In addition, a former Treasury official identified Wa'el Hamza Julaidan as a senior figure in the Saudi charitable community who provided financial and other support to several terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda operating primarily in the Balkans. Moreover, the 9-11 Commission report states that al-Qaeda raised money in Saudi Arabia directly from individuals and through charities.

According to the 9-11 Commission report, despite numerous allegations about the government of Saudi Arabia's involvement with al-Qaeda, the commission found no persuasive evidence that the government of Saudi Arabia as an institution, or senior officials within the government of Saudi Arabia, knowingly supported al-Qaeda. The agencies we reviewed also told us that the threat of the global propagation of Islamic extremism is emerging not only from Saudi sources but also from sources in other countries, such as Iran, Kuwait, and Syria, as well as from indigenous groups within some countries. A current Defense Department official and a former Treasury official told us that Iran currently poses a larger threat in this regard than does Saudi Arabia. In addition, indigenous groups have been a source of support for Islamic extremism. For example, the State Department terrorist list includes the Filipino group Abu Sayyaf, Algeria's Armed Islamic Group, the Palestinian group Hamas, the Kashmiri militants of Harakat ul-Mujahedeen, Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

To address Islamic extremism, the government of Saudi Arabia has announced and, in some cases, undertaken domestic educational and religious reforms; legal, regulatory, and institutional reforms with the assistance of State and Treasury; and political reforms. However, U.S. agencies do not know the extent of the Saudi government's efforts to limit the activities of Saudi individuals and entities that have allegedly propagated Islamic extremism outside of Saudi Arabia. …

Conclusions

Recognizing that the global propagation of Islamic extremism represents a growing threat to U.S. interests, U.S. agencies are implementing a variety of efforts to identify, monitor, and counter its support and funding. Agencies' efforts focused on Saudi Arabia but also attempt to address the propagation of Islamic extremism worldwide. Despite the lack of a common definition for Islamic extremism, several agencies are working to counter it by addressing the underlying conditions that facilitate extremism—for example, through programs aimed at humanitarian assistance, educational reform, economic assistance, public diplomacy, and governance, including the promotion of democracy and respect for human rights.

Determining the resources that agencies have committed for these efforts is complicated by the fact that the agencies do not disaggregate data for some of their activities addressing Islamic extremism from their broader efforts or goals, such as force protection, counterterrorism, and public diplomacy. However, since the attacks on the United States in September 2001, some agencies' officials told us they have been devoting increasing resources to addressing the global propagation of Islamic extremism. Moreover, since the May 2003 bombing in Riyadh, the government of Saudi Arabia, with some assistance from the United States, has announced and, in some cases, reportedly undertaken a number of reform efforts to address Islamic extremism, including educational, religious, legal, and political reforms.

[1] International Affairs: Information on U.S. Agencies' Efforts to Address Islamic Extremism, GAO-05-852 (Washington: D.C.: United States Government Accountability Office, Sept. 2005).