— A court in the United Arab Emirates has handed down sentences to seven men convicted of operating an al-Qaida linked terror cell within the country and channeling funds to militants fighting the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
According to prosecutors, the group tried to recruit UAE citizens to the al-Nusra Front militant group in the hope they would provide additional financial backing for its cause.
The defendants had also been accused of attempting to carry out bomb attacks in the Emirates and abroad.
A Palestinian tried in absentia was given a life sentence for organizing the cell, while six other men, all of Arab origin, were given seven-year prison terms. Two others were acquitted of all charges.
All of the men pleaded innocent, but the verdict by the Federal Supreme Court is final and not subject to appeal.
The case comes amid growing concerns among Gulf Cooperation Council countries over the rise of fundamentalist groups in the Middle East and the security risks they could pose at home.
It is estimated that private Sunni donors from the Gulf have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to militias and anti-Assad groups in Syria, including organizations like al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is also capturing territory and battling security forces in Iraq.
The director of the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center Foundation
, Christian Koch, said the Gulf's rulers have condemned the unauthorized financing.
"Certainly the GCC governments have made it very clear they oppose any kind of funding going to these groups. There have been numerous measures put in place over the last decade trying to control the kind of money that moves around, but of course the state cannot control everything," he said.
Dozens of Emiratis and Egyptians have been jailed in past months for links to the Muslim Brotherhood, a group outlawed in Egypt and many parts of the Gulf and accused of trying to overthrow regional monarchies.
Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
, pointed out there have been several cases against Islamists who allegedly promoted violence in the UAE.
"The UAE has been one of the more pro-active Gulf states in fighting Islamist groups since the start of the Arab Spring, and the UAE views Islamist groups as its most menacing domestic threat," said Boghardt.
Boghardt and other analysts said the strengthening of ISIL in Syria and Iraq could lead to additional terrorism threats for the GCC.
ISIL considers the Gulf’s ruling families as illegitimate rulers of Muslims who should be replaced. Koch said militants saw the regional bloc, particularly the UAE, as an attractive target for terrorist attacks.
"It is a relatively open society that has 90 percent of its population being composed of foreigners, including a large amount of Westerners. If attacks can be carried out in that country it would certainly send a strong message about the potential instability of the GCC states, so I can see why they would target a country like the UAE, but I also know the GCC states are fully aware of this," he said.
Gulf nations have been spending increasing amounts to keep peace within their borders.
The latest Global Peace Index shows the UAE spent $11.7 billion last year to prevent and contain violence, about 4.3 percent of national GDP, while Saudi Arabia spent more than $87 billion.