By Scott Chipolina

Scott Chipolina is a graduate of Durham University with a background in International Relations and the Middle East. He has recently been interested in the impact of financial crime on international security. Here he discusses the relationship between extremist ideology and the financing of terrorism.

How are terrorist organizations funded?

Terrorist financing is often approached alongside money laundering, where the proceeds of criminal activity are disguised as a legitimate product and integrated into the financial system. However, terrorist financing can reverse this process. If terrorist organizations are the beneficiaries of criminal activities, they also exploit legal sources of financial profit. I illustrate here some methods of financing legitimate sources from Saudi Arabia and discuss the impact of Salafism (an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam) on the financing of terrorism in the region.

The official status of terrorist financing in Saudi Arabia:

Networks originating in Saudi Arabia would provide financial support to terrorist groups operating in the Kingdom, the Middle East and around the world. This is in line with the authorities’ claims that the sources of terrorist financing and terrorist activity come from legal sources through the collection of donations, suspicious contributions or direct supplies (FATF, 2010, p.19).

How do these funds reach organizations?

Following the findings of the FATF, terrorist groups benefit from multiple forms of donations, contributions and supplies from legal sources. A major Saudi example is given by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. King Salman proved to be “the man of the Saudi financial center to support fundamentalist supporters in war zones abroad” (Weinberg, 2015). Asked about the beneficiaries of the charity groups he chaired, the king replied: “I have … chaired several groups (of charity) and I know that the funds are used in good actions, and this is not is not the responsibility of this kingdom if there are people who turn these good deeds into bad deeds “(King Salman, quoted by Malik, 2002).

Because of Saudi Arabia’s attempts to stop the financing of terrorism, people working in finance avoid direct transfer of funds from the point of origin to its final destination. Instead, they exploit the inability of other jurisdictions to mitigate the financing of terrorism and thus transfer funds through weaker networks: “Saudi donors are encouraged to send their money to Kuwait, long considered to be one of the most permissive environment for the financing of terrorism in the Persian Gulf “(Boghardt, 2014).

Many private donors also exploit the influence of social networks to raise funds, which is a useful follow-up to some Salafist justifications of the Saudis for the financing of terrorism. Preacher Muhammad al-Arifi, known for harnessing the power of social networks in this regard, is using the Syrian civil war not as a “struggle for democracy, but rather as a jihad in the name of Sunnism against a polytheist Alawite regime that leads a large-scale war against Islam as part of a Shiite regional conspiracy led by Iran “(International Crisis Group, referenced in The European Parliament, 2012, p.9).

Saudi Arabia, Salafism and Terrorist Financing:

Terrorist financiers in Saudi Arabia have been very selective about the beneficiaries they were targeting and, in recent times, attention has shifted to Syria. Two reasons are related to Salafism. First, Saudi Arabia’s priority in the region is to control the growth of Iran and Shiite Islam, the main ideological threat to the legitimacy of the Sunni-inspired Kingdom. To achieve this, funds from Saudi Arabia were donated to Salafist terrorist organizations in direct conflict with the Assad regime in Syria and supported by Iran.

However, the financing of terrorism in the region also has an impact on Sunni dynamics. Since Saudi kingship is based on Sunni-inspired hegemony, support from outside Salafist organizations could eventually undermine Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy. Therefore, beneficiaries are often groups that “reject the Islamic State’s commitment to global jihad, focusing instead on establishing a theocratic state in Syria only” (Ellison, 2016).

This is shown by the support given to Jaysh al-Islam in recent years. This group was supported because it has historically excluded “Al-Qaeda affiliates such as the Islamic State in Iraq as well as the Islamic units of Al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, but it includes more of non-jihadi and salafist Islamic units “(Black, 2013). Saudi funders believe that funding for some Salafist groups is a prudent measure even if these groups are not reliable partners in the long term.

The Saudi choices are therefore tainted with inherent obstacles highlighted when one considers the relations between the different Salafist groups. First, there are Salafists known as Quietists, who abstain from any political commitment or violence. Then, the “revolutionary” salafists who distinguish themselves from the jihadist salafists, the third group, by rejecting an approach of jihad perceived as too elitist: “this model aims to use the power of mass mobilization to wage a long battle against the West and local leaders. Jihadists would no longer fight the battle in the name of the Muslim masses, as they do today, but rather with them “(Awad, 2016). The challenge inherent in Saudi Arabia lies in the fluidity with which individuals can identify with these Salafist currents. As McCants asserts, “Quietists, activists, jihadists and other groups are all composed of the same theological DNA and, therefore,” this is not a big conceptual leap from Quietism to Jihadism. (McCants & Olidort, 2015). In short, the malleability of these distinctions undermines Saudi Arabia’s ability to isolate Salafist groups that may “interest” them, others. Olidort, 2015). In short, the malleability of these distinctions undermines Saudi Arabia’s ability to isolate Salafist groups that may “interest” them, others. Olidort, 2015). In short, the malleability of these distinctions undermines Saudi Arabia’s ability to isolate Salafist groups that may “interest” them, others.

An alternative for Saudi Arabia remains the promotion of a “free market of ideas” within Sunni Islam. This could indeed enable non-Salafist groups to find ways of countering the threat of legitimacy that the Salafist jihadist groups like the Islamic State represent for the Kingdom. Such a strategy is an alternative to the dilemma of facing the Shiite threat posed by Assad in Syria, backed by Iran, and supporting groups that, in the end, could be a Sunni challenge to the religious foundations of Iran. Saudi state.


Understanding the mechanisms of terrorist financing allows us to understand the potential of terrorist group violence and mitigate the threat as soon as possible. To emphasize the importance of this issue, let us realize that Al Qaeda’s estimated expenditures for 9/11 have been calculated at about $ 400 / 500,000 (Carlstrom, 2011). In the face of this threat, it remains essential to take into account the ideological motivations manifesting itself in support of 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, LP (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 New Rebel Force Train. 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: