WASHINGTON — The US battle against the self-described Islamic State is being complicated by concerns that Saudi Arabia has helped support extremist Sunni elements — both spiritually and financially — even as the Saudis call themselves friends and allies of the United States.
Saudi Arabia is led by a Sunni monarchy, the same branch of Islam whose extremist elements make up the violent Islamic State. Counterterrorism experts in the US worry Saudi Arabia is not exerting enough influence to undermine the group’s terrorist acts, including the recent beheadings of two American journalists.
“The Muslim leadership in Saudi Arabia would rather spend their time writing [religious edicts] on the color of women’s fingernail polish” and has failed to deal with the crisis “inside of their religion,” said James B. Smith, the American ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2009 to 2013.
Nearly 13 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — with the reach of terrorist groups who adhere to the most violent forms of Sunni Islam as unchecked as ever — such concerns underscore a major shortcoming in the global effort to fight terrorism, current and former counterterrorism officials and diplomats say.
Saudi supporters insist the country has cracked down on the direct financial support that went to Al Qaeda-linked groups and assert that it is now other Persian Gulf monarchies, especially Qatar, helping to bankroll the most virulent of the groups fighting to topple the Syrian regime of Bashir Al-Assad — including the Islamic State.
But some US officials suspect the groups are still receiving significant support from inside Saudi Arabia.
“I think the Saudis — and there are different elements within the Saudi leadership — have been promoting some of the Sunni factions that have been challenging Assad up in Syria,” said Representative Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat who heads the bipartisan Task Force on Terrorism and Proliferation Financing.
Lynch, who has proposed legislation to declassify still-secret US intelligence information relating to Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers, cited the radical Al Nusra Front, the Syrian arm of Al Qaeda.
“I think the Saudis in some capacity have been supporting the Al Nusra Front financially,” he said. “There are probably a fair amount of Saudi citizens fighting for that group. Some of them went over to the Islamic State when they had success.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The Saudi Arabian Embassy declined requests for an interview but through its Washington public relations firm, Qorvis Communications, provided a series of fact sheets outlining its efforts to combat violent Islamists.
The Saudi government insists that the kingdom’s response — to the Islamic State and violent extremists more broadly — has been as comprehensive as any country.
It says its religious leaders have publicly condemned the Islamic State, calling its ideology “enemy number one of Islam.”
The kingdom says its security forces recently arrested dozens of alleged terrorists with reported ties to such foreign groups, it has mounted a public awareness campaign to educate Saudi citizens of about the dangers of extremism, and it is modernizing textbooks, including in Saudi religious schools.
Saudi officials also said the royal family has provided billions of dollars to help fight terrorism, including recently contributing $100 million to a United Nations counterterrorism fund and providing humanitarian assistance for Iraqi and Syrian refugees.
But there remains fierce debate about the extent of Saudi Arabia’s lingering role in fomenting Islamic extremism, and some observers believe it should be doing far more to try to combat an ideological movement for which it is at least partially responsible.
It was largely Saudi money that funded the religious schools, or madrasas, across the Islamic world that helped give birth to Al Qaeda in the 1990s, and the 19 hijackers who flew planes into New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudi.
Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute of Gulf Affairs, a Washington think tank, said Sunni extremist groups such as the Islamic State, and other Al Qaeda-linked groups, are an increasing threat. “Their power, their influence, their territory is greater than 2001,” he said, in part because the US is unwilling to pressure its Arab allies to do more.
“The policy has not changed of absolving the Saudis,” Ahmed said. “Without confronting them and putting pressure on them, terrorism will continue to grow.”
President Obama has been under fire in recent days for asserting that the United States does not yet have a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the growing threat to the region — and potentially the West — posed by the Islamic State, which now controls parts of Syria and Iraq.
For now, the Obama administration is relying most prominently on a limited air campaign to loosen some of the Islamic State’s grip in northern Iraq, while calls are steadily growing to target its forces inside neighboring Syria.
But some observers said the Saudis must play a bigger role.
The Saudis are “the only ones that can counter the ideological bent” of the group, said Chas W. Freeman, who served as US ambassador in Riyadh during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. “They have the capacity to act. Any US strategy that doesn’t find basis for finding common cause with them can’t work.”
That is difficult — but not impossible — under Islam’s structure, said W. Patrick Lang, the former of head of the Middle East and South Asia division at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“If you wish to really go after the Islamic State, a group of scholars can launch a campaign and denounce them for their view of Islam. You could attack this thing by undercutting its foundations,” he said.