Scott Chipolina is a recent Durham University postgraduate with an academic background in International Relations and the Middle East. Of late, he has been focusing on the impact of financial crime on international security. Here, he addresses the relationship between extremist ideology and the financing of terrorism.

How Are Terrorist Organisations Funded?

Terrorism-funding is often discussed alongside money laundering, where the proceeds of criminal activity are disguised as legitimate and integrated into the financial system. Terrorism-funding however, can reverse this process. While terror organisations are beneficiaries of criminal activity, they also exploit legitimate sources for financial gain. Here, I illustrate some methods of funding from legitimate sources emanating from Saudi Arabia, and discuss the impact Salafism (an ultra conservative branch of Sunni Islam) has on terror-financing in the region.

The Formal Status of Terrorism Financing Saudi Arabia:

‘Networks originating in Saudi Arabia are said to provide financial backing for terrorist groups that operate in the Kingdom, the Middle East and around the world. This is in line with the indication of the authorities that the sources of funds used to finance terrorism and terrorist activities come from legal origins through the collection of donations, suspicious contributions and direct provisions.’ (FATF, 2010, p.19)

How Do Funds Reach Organisations?

In accordance with the FATF’s view, terror groups benefit from multiple forms of donations, contributions and provisions which originate from legal sources. One major Saudi example of this comes through King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. King Salman has proven to be ‘Saudi Arabia’s financial point man for bolstering fundamentalist proxies in war zones abroad’. (Weinberg, 2015) When asked about the beneficiaries of charity groups he has chaired, he responded with the following: ‘I have … chaired several (charity) groups and I know that (the funds) are used in good deeds, and it is not the responsibility of the kingdom if there were people who turn those good deeds into evil ones.’ (King Salman, quoted by Malik, 2002)

As a result of Saudi Arabia’s attempts to halt terrorism-funding, financiers also avoid moving funds from origin to destination. Rather, they exploit other jurisdictions’ inability to mitigate terrorism financing and move funds via less robust networks: ‘Saudi donors are encouraged to send their money to Kuwait, long considered one of the most permissive terrorism financing environments in the Persian Gulf.’ (Boghardt, 2014)

Many private donors also exploit the influence of social media in order to raise funds, and this provides a useful segue into some Saudis’ Salafi justifications for financing terror. Preacher Muhammad al-Arifi, who is known for harnessing the promise of social media in this regard, does so by capturing the Syrian Civil War not as a ‘fight for democracy but rather a jihad on behalf of Sunnism against a polytheistic Alawite regime waging full-scale war against Islam as part of a broader Iranian-led regional Shiite conspiracy.’ (International Crisis Group, referenced in The European Parliament, 2012, p.9)

Saudi Arabia, Salafism & Terrorism Financing:

Terrorism financiers in Saudi Arabia have been cautiously selective about their intended beneficiaries, and in recent times, attention has turned to Syria. There are two Salafi-related reasons for this. First, Saudi Arabia’s regional priority is managing the growth of Iran and Shi’ite Islam, the foremost ideological threat to the Kingdom’s Sunni-inspired legitimacy. To achieve this, funds emanating from the Saudi Kingdom have reached Salafi terror organisations in direct conflict with the Iranian-backed Assad regime in Syria.

However, funding terrorism in the region also impacts upon Sunni dynamics. As Saudi royalty is predicated upon Sunni-inspired hegemony, supporting external Salafi organisations could ultimately undercut Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy. Consequently, beneficiaries are often groups that ‘reject the ISIS commitment to a global jihad, focusing instead on the establishment of a theocratic state in Syria alone.’ (Ellison, 2016)

This is indicated by support for Jaysh al-Islam in recent years. This group appeals as it has historically excluded ‘al-Qaida affiliates such as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, but embraces more non-jihadi Islamist and Salafi units.’ (Black, 2013) Saudi Arabian financiers calculate that funding certain Salafi groups is a prudent move even if such groups are not wanted partners in the long term.

Saudi choices are, therefore, marred with inherent obstacles that are underlined when we consider the interrelations between distinct Salafi groups. First, there are Salafi ‘quietists’, who abstain from political engagement or violence. Second, Salafi ‘revolutionaries’, who differ from Salafi ‘jihadists’, the third group, by rejecting a perceived-elitist approach to jihad: ‘This model aims to use the power of mass mobilization to fight a long battle of attrition against the West and local leaders. Jihadists no longer would fight the battle on behalf of the Muslims masses, as they do today, but rather with them.’ (Awad, 2016) The inherent challenge facing Saudi Arabia remains the fluidity with which individuals can identify with these strands of Salafism. As McCants argues, ‘“Quietists,”, activists, jihadists, and other Salafis are all composed of the same theological DNA’, and thus, ‘…it is therefore not a big conceptual leap to go from quietism to jihadism.’ (McCants & Olidort, 2015) In summary, the malleability of these distinctions undermines Saudi Arabia’s ability to isolate preferred Salafi groups over others.

An alternative for Saudi Arabia remains promoting a ‘free market of ideas’ within Sunni Islam. This could allow avenues for non Salafi groups, thus counteracting the legitimacy threat that Salafi-jihadist groups like the Islamic State present to the Kingdom. Such a strategy provides an alternative to the dilemma between facing the Shi’ite threat presented by Iranian-backed Assad in Syria, and supporting groups which, ultimately, may provide a Sunni challenge to the religious foundations of the Saudi state.


Understanding the mechanics of terrorism-funding allows us to understand groups’ potential for violence and mitigate the threat early. To underline the importance of this issue, consider that al-Qaeda’s estimated expense for 9/11 has been calculated at a mere $400,000-$500,000. (Carlstrom, 2011) When facing this threat, it remains vital to consider the ideological motivations that manifest in the support for terrorist groups.


1. Financial Action Task Force (2010): Mutual Evaluation Report. Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. FATF [Online].
Available at:

2. Weinberg, D. (2015): King Salman’s Shady History. Foreign Policy Magazine [Online]. Available at:

3. Malik, A. (2002): Saudi Tycoon Defends Muslim Charity. The Intelligencer [Online]. Available at:

4. Boghardt, L. P. (2014): Saudi Funding of ISIS. The Washington Institute [Online]. Available at:

5. European Parliament. Directorate-General for External Policies. (2013): The Involvement of Salafism/Wahhabism in the Support and Supply of Arms to Rebel Groups Around the World. European Parliament [Online]. Available at:

6. Ellison, D. (2016): FPI Bulletin: Saudi Arabia and the Syrian Civil War. Foreign Policy Initiative [Online]. Available at:

7. Black, I. (2013): Syria Crisis: Saudi Arabia to Spend Millions to Train New Rebel Force. The Guardian [Online]. Available at:

8. Awad, M. (2016): Revolutionary Salafism: The Case of Ahrar Movement. Hudson Institute [Online]. Available at:

9. McCants, W. & Olidort, J. (2015): Is Quietist Salafism the Antidote to ISIS? Brookings Institute [Online]. Available at:

10. Carlstrom, G. (2011): Interactive: How Much Did 9/11 Cost the US? Al Jazeera [Online]. Available at: