John Baird, Canada's foreign minister, may be barking up the wrong tree. He has identified and targeted Iran as the threat to Canadians. However, it is the Saudi Arabia-based charities that pose the greatest threat.
A recent report by the European Parliament reveals how Wahabi and Salafi groups based out of the Middle East are involved in the "support and supply of arms to rebel groups around the world." The report, released in June 2013, was commissioned by European Parliament's Directorate General for External Policies. The report warns about the Wahabi-Salafi organizations and claims that "no country in the Muslim world is safe from their operations ... as they always aim to terrorise their opponents and arouse the admiration of their supporters."
The nexus between Arab charities promoting Wahabi and Salafi traditions and the extremist Islamic movements has emerged as one of the major threats to people and governments across the globe. From Syria, Mali, Afghanistan and Pakistan to Indonesia in the East, a network of charities is funding militancy and mayhem to coerce Muslims of diverse traditions to conform to the Salafi and Wahabi traditions.
The same networks have been equally destructive when they branch out of Muslim countries and attack targets in Europe and North America. The 9-11 attacks in the United States and July 2005 bombings in London are two examples of the deadly consequences of violence perpetrated by hardline Islamists.
Despite the overt threats emerging from the oil-rich Arab states, governments across the globe continue to ignore the security imperative and instead are busy exploiting the oil, and at times, blood-soaked riches.
The European Parliament's report though is a rare exception to the rule where in the past the western governments have let the oil executives influence their foreign offices. From the United States to Great Britain, western states have gone to great lengths to ignore the Arab charities financing the radical groups, some of whom have even targeted the West with deadly consequences.
Note that the US and other western governments have wasted no time banning charities that are deemed sympathetic to Iran, but not much has been done against the Arab charities that are financing violent and militant movements across the globe. Some Arab charities involved in financing Syrian rebels are even being facilitated by the Western governments. This could have deadly consequences for the West in the future; a lesson we have already learnt from Afghanistan.
While the recent report by the European Parliament documents the financial details connecting the Arab charities with extremists elsewhere, it is certainly not the first exposition of its kind. A 2006 report by the US Department of State titled, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report - Money Laundering and Financial Crimes, reported that "Saudi donors and unregulated charities have been a major source of financing to extremist and terrorist groups over the past 25 years."
One of the WikiLeaks documents, a cable from the US Consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, also stated that "financial support estimated at nearly 100 million USD annually was making its way to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in the region from 'missionary' and 'Islamic charitable' organizations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ostensibly with the direct support of those governments."
The European Parliament's report estimates that Saudi Arabia alone has spent over $10 billion to promote Wahabism through Saudi charitable foundations. The tiny, but very rich, state of Qatar is the new entrant to the game supporting militant franchises from Libya to Syria.
The linkage between Saudi-based charitable organizations and militants began in late seventies in Pakistan. A network of charitable organizations was setup in Pakistan to provide the front for channeling billions of dollars to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Since then the militant networks have spread globally, emerging as a major threat to international security. Charlie Wilson's War, a book by George Crile that was made into a movie, details the Saudi-militancy nexus as well as Ahmed Rashid's Taliban.
While ordinary citizens in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries have suffered the deadly consequences of militancy supported by the Wahabi and Salafi charitable organizations, the Saudi government had remained largely dormant. This changed in 2003 when militants attacked targets in Riyadh. Since then, the Saudi government has kept a close watch on the domestic affairs of charities, making it illegal to sponsor militancy, but the government has done precious little to curtail activities by Saudi charities abroad. In fact, evidence, as per the European Parliament's report, suggests that Saudi and Qatar-based charities have been actively financing militants in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Mali, and Indonesia.
Undue Saudi influence in Canada is not unknown. In 2011, The Saudi government hired a law firm to prevent Canadian media from airing a commercial by EthicalOil.org. The Canadian foreign minister was supposed to defend Canada against Saudi attempts to stifle free speech in Canada. He promised to take up the matter with Saudis in September 2011. Though, not much follow-through is reported on this.
The Harper Conservatives will serve Canadians better by identifying real threats and acting on those. Remember, 15 of the 19 hijackers who perpetrated the September 11 attacks were Saudis. The remaining four were from Egypt, Lebanon, and UAE. Not a single Iranian was involved in the attacks. While Canada should continue in its efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, it should also note that Iranians are more in line with Canadian values than Saudis. Also, it will be foolish for Harper Conservatives to ignore advice from senior Canadian officials who have privately warned the Canadian government about the Saudi nuclear ambitions.
Canadians will be better off aligning with the people, and not the governments, in the Middle East who share Canadian values of democracy, equity, and social justice. As long as the Saudi charities continue to fund militancy and chaos across the globe, Canadians must stand on guard.
A version of this article appeared earlier in Dawn.com.