- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
WikiLeaks provides few revelations but many resonant reminders. The reminders put into language stark enough to reawaken the senses information that we long ago knew but had repressed. For example, take today’s multiple reminders that so-called "friendly" governments in the Persian Gulf remain cash machines for the worst people on earth, terrorist groups dedicated to the slaughter of innocents.
"More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups," declared a document that went out a year ago under Hillary Clinton’s signature, "Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide."
Other cables describe how the group responsible for the Mumbai bombings, Lashkar-e-Taiba, raise cash through Saudi front businesses, and how the Taliban and their allies work through networks in the United Arab Emirates. They report fitful progress in reducing these cash flows, the use of religious pilgrimages as cover for illicit cash transfers from the Gulf to militants and the quiet if pointed methods the United States uses to press our so-called friends for assistance.
Here we are coming up on a decade since 9/11, two years since Mumbai, bogged down in horrifyingly costly conflicts against these terrorists and the stark, perverse reality remains that the countries of the Gulf are getting rich selling us oil and then passing part of the proceeds on to bands of murderers who have sworn to attack us and our allies. They are worse than drug dealers who kill only through the deadly addiction they promote. These terror bankers and their fat, arrogant, callous royal protectors have for years placed us in double jeopardy by both promoting a different kind of dangerous addiction and then using the proceeds from that to fund efforts to kill us.
Of course, we knew all this. But if we have become so inured to it that we accept it or forget it or are complacent about it, then we have yet another reason to be thankful for the Wikidump. Because it reminds us both of the treachery of these Arab royals and the elites they empower and it also underscores that the dangers brought to light in the attacks of the past decade remain unabated. Further, they remind us that we can deploy all the military we want to whatever corner of the globe we choose, but if we do not cut off the funding at its sources the threat will live on regardless of the number, scale or scope of our battlefield victories. This is how the metastasizing terror threat has extended the al Qaeda threat to Yemen and North Africa, how LeT has emerged as a player (and what a bargain for our friends the terror philanthropists — at an annual budget of just over $5 million, the organization that wreaked havoc in Mumbai is cheaper than a small Washington think tank.)
There is an additional dimension to this reminder, of course. It is simply that the terror threat remains. Read these cables and then give me a call about how invasive your last airport search was. Or to put it in another context, perhaps it reawakens the question that was in our minds so constantly earlier in the past decade: When will they strike close to home again? Surely it will happen.
Think about it this way: al Qaeda or LeT or other terrorists see a world that has changed much since 9/11. The United States was attacked and their triumph was followed by one U.S. move after another that inflamed support for the radical cause — the invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. Then, a new U.S. president was elected who promised to get out of Iraq and adjust the United States’ stance to be more broadly acceptable to moderates in the Islamic world. He is getting out of Iraq. He is taking a middle course with Iran. He has doubled down in Afghanistan but has made his way with much more local sensitivity than his predecessor. Further, he seems to be in better shape with his allies, working more effectively with Russia and China, possibly making some gains elsewhere on his foreign policy agenda with significant victories on a New START deal and a free trade deal with Korea possible in the not too distant future.
In fact, especially if the world economy improves at all, he might very well be re-elected and have even more time to promote his moderate, more amenable agenda throughout the Middle East. However, one thing that might derail him would be a major terrorist attack on a U.S. target. Such an attack could be seen as a sign of ineffective federal policies and reflect badly on the president, impacting his political prospects negatively. Certainly, depending on the timing and target of the attack, it could have significant political consequences.
So, the question becomes: Who does al Qaeda want in the 2012 election? Will they attempt to play a role? What role do they think they can play? They haven’t in the past couple election cycles, but the risk remains clear.
Do they use the cash that continues to flow to them — from American wallets via Saudi and other Gulf bank accounts into bags of dirty money, off of which they live — to launch another attack now? Or do they wait and keep their attacks and activities focused within the region? Fight the ground war or escalate it? Throw an unexpected twist into the upcoming election campaign and possibly invite a return to something more like the Bush years or sit back and see how Obama harnesses the tail-winds incumbents enjoy?
This is not a science, of course. A terror attack could help coalesce support for Obama. And it is not easy to pull off such attacks in today’s world. We may have repressed much of what we have learned over the past decade. But not all of it. We are more prepared now. Not yet prepared to take a tougher stance with the Saudis and the other potentates of the Gulf, but we have better intelligence, heightened awareness, more men on the ground, better ability to strike, and undo plans and thus a better chance of frustrating the ambitions of the terrorists and their sugar daddies.
But until we stop the bankers — stop the flows to the bankers, seek to isolate and punish them, stop catering to them and taking their occasional "bones" of help in lieu of real concerted efforts to assist us in stopping this mortal threat, stop deluding ourselves that they are actually on some level our friends — then we would do well to remember the threats so well described in this past week’s tranches of stolen cables. But, even if we do not, we should know that other more devastating reminders will certainly soon be delivered.