While presidential candidates debate their foreign policies, including how they would deal with terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State during their hypothetical presidencies, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who just returned from a trip to the Middle East, has some ideas of his own.
The trip, Casey said, “mostly focused on the challenge of trying to get more countries focused about cutting off the financial networks that support terrorism, most particularly” the Islamic State.
Casey spent time in Israel, as well as in the predominantly Muslim states of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to get a sense of what efforts these countries have made on this front. His biggest takeaway: the financial backing the Islamic State enjoys among some private Muslim citizens in the region.
“I think there’s a sharper focus on this issue than there has been in years,” Casey observed.
However, he added, there is more to be done. One of his main concerns is that countries need to do more than just investigate potential individuals financing terrorism and ensure it leads to prosecution and arrests.
This is not the first time Casey has spoken out about cutting off terrorists’ financial networks. In December 2015, he wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urging him to push the issue.
“I have pressed the [Obama] administration to use existing authorities to sanction individuals and entities that support [the Islamic State] and to target financial facilitators and infrastructure like oil tankers for airstrikes,” he wrote in the letter.
One of the most basic ways to measure how countries are doing is to see if they are members of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) — the intergovernmental body that sets international standards for combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism, Casey said. “That’s kind of the goal that these countries should strive for.”
Of the countries he visited, only Turkey is a member of the task force. He added that Saudi Arabia has started to do a lot of work in this area. Both that country and Israel are listed as observers of the task force.
“What’s happening in countries like Saudi Arabia is, they see the threat within their own jurisdiction, their own country, the threats to their government,” he explained. “That’s helping them focus attention on the problem. Even if the battlefield of Syria and Iraq might be far away, they’re seeing the inspiration of terrorism in their own countries
During his trip, Casey met with leaders including Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir, minister of foreign affairs and deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia; Hamad bin Ali Al Attiyah, Qatar’s minister of defense; and U.S. ambassadors in each country.
In Israel — specifically Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Palestinian-controlled city of Ramallah — he spoke separately with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah as well as Tzachi Hanegbi, the Knesset majority leader. He also was able to spend time in Jerusalem’s Old City, one of his favorite spots.
Casey, who travelled alone — the trip was planned too last-minute for his colleagues to join in — said the stops he made were not inconsistent with what he was expecting.
“I was happy that they seemed to have this issue in sharper focus, but it’s also evident to me they still have a ways to go,” he said. “It’s clear to me: Some of these countries — even if they wanted to do more on this issue — they are distracted by other priorities.”
Just a few of those distractions include, for Turkey the PKK — the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — as well as the Assad regime in Syria, which Turkey wants to see removed from power.
“I share that concern,” Casey added. “I think he should go and putting pressure on him to go has been difficult. For Turkey, [the Islamic State] might be the third priority.”
However, he noted, that is just his “gut feeling” based on what he knows and that is not what he was told.
Saudi Arabia too is focused on Syria and Iran; like in Turkey, the Islamic State might be a more distant priority, he acknowledged.
“You have two major countries” in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, he stressed. “We need to have them focused on [the Islamic State] and [its] financial backing.”
His meetings also extended to nongovernmental groups such as with Saudi Arabian women’s rights activists. That was a “fascinating” experience, Casey said.
He was moved by how Saudi women have to struggle for basic rights in their country, citing their fight to be allowed to drive. In December, they were able to vote in an election for the first time in the country’s history and run for office. One woman Casey met with had run for office; others were businesswomen.
“You get a sense of the challenges those individuals face, obviously,” he said. “But you also get a sense that if a society or nation is having troubles with those issues, it stands to reason these bigger policies, like terrorism financing, are going to be much more challenging.”
Marissa Stern writes for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.