State Dep’t: Obama Was Not Suggesting Countries Like Qatar, Turkey Are Helping ISIS

By Patrick Goodenough | August 20, 2014 | 8:12 PM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Qatar's Khalid al-Attiyah meet in Paris on Saturday, July 26, 2014, for talks on Gaza (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

( – President Obama’s reference to the need for Middle East governments to work against the “cancer” of jihadist terrorism was not intended to signal suspicion that some were supporting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday.

Speaking during a daily press briefing dominated by the brutal murder of U.S. journalist James Foley at the hands of the terrorist group, Harf fielded questions about whether countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were enabling ISIS in various ways.

She said the U.S. had no information that they were, although the U.S. was working with regional governments “where we believe there are private citizens funding ISIL to get them to clamp down even further to cut off those sources of funding.”

A reporter noted that a German government minister on Wednesday accused Qatar – the government, not private citizens – of funding ISIS.

“We don’t have evidence that governments are supporting this group,” Harf said. “I’ve said that over and over and over again in this briefing room.”

In his statement Wednesday on the death of James Foley, Obama said, “From governments and peoples across the Middle East there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer, so that it does not spread.”

If the U.S. doesn’t have evidence of government involvement in funding, Harf was asked, why did Obama mention governments in that context?

“You’re reading something into that statement that I don’t think is actually there,” Harf said, adding that Obama was simply saying all countries need to come together to fight ISIS.

“We don’t have evidence that governments are financially supporting ISIS, okay? But we need all the governments in the region to work together to fight ISIS in any way.”

She said Obama’s comment was “not intended for any specific country.”

He was saying that “this is not about the United States and what we do; this is about countries in the region coming together to fight a shared threat.”

“I think that’s the point he was trying to make and was not singling out any country or any specific thing with that statement.”

Ending a visit to Saudi Arabia, President Barack Obama shakes hands with the Governor of Riyadh Prince Khalid Bandar bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud at King Khalid International airport in Riyadh on Saturday, March 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

‘Substantial and sustained funding’

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, all Sunni countries dedicated to the ousting of Syrian President Bashar Assad, are widely viewed as supportive of rebels fighting to topple him – including some that are jihadist in outlook.

A senior U.S. Treasury Department official in a speech last March voiced concern about reports that the Qatari government was supporting “extremist groups operating in Syria.”

A former head of Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence agency angered Riyadh last month when he suggested that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar were turning a blind eye to “substantial and sustained funding” going from their countries to ISIS.

Many of the foreign fighters who have joined ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria – an estimated 12,000 in total, Harf said Wednesday – are believed to have reached the conflict zone by crossing from Turkey. A U.S. Treasury designation this year noted that “funding and foreign fighters” were moving through Turkey to support al-Qaeda-affiliated elements in Syria. (ISIS, while disavowed by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, has its roots and inspiration in al-Qaeda.)

When a reporter said during the briefing that ISIS-bound foreign fighters cross borders of countries “friendly” to the U.S. like Turkey, Harf said the U.S. was working with such countries to clamp down the flow of fighters into Syria and Iraq.

Asked whether such countries had been lax in controlling their borders, she said, “I’m not going to say that,” adding that “it’s a tough challenge, it really is.”

Asked how confident she was that some Arab governments were not funding ISIS, Harf said, “I can only tell you what evidence we have or don’t have.”

The U.S. was talking to regional governments “about how we can all do more to cut down on the financing for ISIL.”

Asked whether those governments in the course of such conversations deny funding the group, she said “I don’t have details of those conversations to read out to you.”

Harf described Saudi Arabia as “an incredibly close counterterrorism partner” and said the Turks too was very focused on the threat.

“We’re talking to them as a NATO ally and partner about how they can help in the fight, how they can help cut off the foreign fighter flow.”

And Qatar?

“We’re having the same conversations,” she said.

A reporter said there was a suspicion, in countries ranging from Russia to Iran to Israel, that the Saudis, Qataris and Turks “are not really fully on board in this fight. Would you – you would reject that?”

“Well, look, we’re talking to them every day about what more we can all do. We know there’s more that needs to be done,” Harf said. “We know this is a long-term fight, and we know it’s a tough one. So we’re having those conversations.”

Another reporter stated that “many nations, in the name of charity, or god, or Islam” give money to charity groups that end up in the hands of terrorists.

“I know there are a variety of ways these groups end up with money and we look at any way we can to really starve them of these resources,” Harf said.

ISIS “does not operate in the name of any religion,” she added. “The president was very clear about that and I think the more we can say that and underscore that point I think the better.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow