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Experts See Gulf Rift Hurting Counterterror Effort

Participants attend the "No Money for Terror" conference at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, April 26, 2018. Ministers from more than 70 countries worked on ways to combat financing for the Islamic State group and al-Qaida.

As representatives from more than 70 countries met this week to strengthen efforts to fight terror financing, experts told U.S. lawmakers that resolving a crisis among the Arab Gulf states could be an effective tool to reduce such funding.

The event Wednesday and Thursday in Paris included Gulf states that have accused each other of funding terrorism.

Tensions in the Gulf region emerged last June when Qatar faced an abrupt diplomatic embargo from fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, joined by Egypt, over allegations that Doha was courting Iran and supporting Islamist extremist groups in the region.

"The rift is a distraction from the many pressing issues that face all parties involved," Katherine Bauer, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former U.S. Treasury official, told lawmakers at a joint hearing of two House Foreign Affairs subcommittees.

"The United States should continue to work to alleviate the impact of the rift on counterterrorism and other security cooperation," Bauer added.

The U.S. has thousands of military personnel at over a dozen bases in the Gulf region and works closely with the GCC countries to counter Iranian influence and fight different terror groups, particularly al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

But officials in Washington have often complained that the region remains a hotbed where terrorists obtain millions of dollars from sympathizing donors.

Bauer said the blame, which should be shared by all GCC members, is put solely on Qatar, singling out Doha for its counterterror financing deficiencies while letting other states, particularly Kuwait, have a free pass.

At the beginning of the dispute, U.S. President Donald Trump sided with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, denouncing Qatar as a "funder of terror."

"Kuwait's role as mediator in the rift risks crowding out U.S. efforts to push Kuwait to remedy its own counterterror financing deficiencies," said Bauer, adding the blockade had pushed Qatar closer to Iran.

FILE - President Donald Trump shakes hands with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, in the Oval Office of the White House, April 10, 2018, in Washington.
FILE - President Donald Trump shakes hands with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, in the Oval Office of the White House, April 10, 2018, in Washington.

Targeting center

The U.S. and GCC members established the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) last May to disrupt terror financing actions and provide support in building the required capacity to tackle terror financing networks in the region. That effort was followed by a memorandum of understanding in June between the U.S. and Qatar to help strengthen the Gulf states' fight against terror financing.

The two initiatives have helped the U.S. work with the GCC states to impose sanctions on dozens of individuals and entities accused of providing financial support to terror groups in the region — including the Islamic State and al-Qaida — particularly in Yemen.

Earlier this month, Trump welcomed Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, to the White House and praised him as "big advocate" of combating terror financing.

"We're making sure that terrorism funding is stopped in the countries that we are really related to," Trump said. "But those countries are stopping the funding of terrorism, and that includes UAE and it includes Saudi Arabia, it includes Qatar and others. A lot of countries were funding terrorism and we're stopping it."

Lingering standoff

But experts warned U.S. lawmakers that those efforts could be undermined as the standoff among the GCC members lingers.

David Weinberg, an expert with the Anti-Defamation League, told lawmakers that the dispute had also opened the door to the politicization of the terror financing list. He said some Gulf states were using the terror financing issue as a pretext to target their rivals, particularly in the case of Qatar.

"The U.S. should review the designations of individual terror financiers issued by the anti-Qatar quartet over the last year to assess whether any of those individuals not under U.S. sanctions should also be designated by the United States," said Weinberg.

"Although some of the more politicized entries on this list certainly do not meet U.S. legal standards for designation, some other entries might," he added.