So says a new report from Transparency International (TI), the leading NGO dedicated to combating corruption with more than 100 chapters worldwide. Its study, “The Big Spin; Corruption and the growth of violent extremism,” published in February 2017, looks at the rise of ISIS, the extremist groups in Libya and Nigeria, and the corruption and fall of the Iraqi army. It finds that in all these cases, corruption is an inspiration for radicalism and a cause of the breakdown of institutions that can battle extremists.
Although the TI report doesn’t say so explicitly, there’s another common thread—oil. All these entities get lots of money from petroleum and gas. As economists and foreign policy experts have long noted, oil, gas and mineral reserves can be a major cause of corruption in many developing countries. And in the Middle East and Africa we have seen time and again that oil corruption can breed terrorism. (Note that nearly all the countries initially listed on President Trump’s controversial travel ban are oil-dependent kleptocracies.) Combating oil-related corruption is clearly a U.S. national security imperative.
That’s why it’s so inexplicable—and tragic—that Congress last month blindly voted to repeal the Cardin-Lugar anti-corruption rule even as President Trump is now asking billions more dollars for defense. The Cardin-Lugar amendment, enacted in 2010 as Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, aims to curb destabilizing corruption in terror-prone countries by requiring public disclosure of the money they get from oil, gas and mineral resources. Such transparency is a key element in the battle against corruption—and it costs the taxpayer nothing. Congress wasn’t even penny-wise, and it was certainly very pound-foolish in scrapping the extractive payments disclosure rule. Preventing the rise of terrorism is a lot cheaper than battling terrorists in the streets of Mosul. As Louise Shelley, Director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government, puts it, “ISIS is supported by oil money. If you’re not reporting on oil money, you’re undermining our national security.”
Some opponents in Congress falsely argued that Cardin-Lugar was somehow part of President Obama’s alleged “war on fossil fuels.” In fact, the idea was a bipartisan one originating in Congress during the Bush administration. And the legislation was about ensuring the free flow of oil, not restricting it. The bill was originally called the Energy Security Through Transparency act, co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, and Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland. It aimed, among other things, to curb the corruption that has led to instability and production cut-offs in so many oil-producing states. By helping ensure that a country’s oil and mineral revenues go for schools and roads and irrigation, instead of into the pockets of corrupt officials, the bill also aimed to fight the poverty and hunger that often fuel violent extremism.
The TI report, completed before the recent debate over Cardin-Lugar, highlights another link between corruption and national security: corruption by governing elites is a great recruiting tool for radical anti-American groups. The Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Taliban in Afghanistan and ISIS throughout the Middle East “draw on deep public anger at the abuse of power as a means to radicalize and recruit,” according to TI. As absurd as it may seem from the outside, the violent fanatics of ISIS portray themselves as pure, moral and clean. They brand “the US and the west as corrupt, and their allies in the region as complicit in their malfeasance and moral decay,” TI says.
So when the United States turns its back on counter-corruption efforts, as Congress did in repealing the rule, it only plays into the radicals’ narrative, doing real damage to our security interests.
The chaos in Libya is a direct result of the oil-fueled corruption that flourished in the country throughout the 42-year rule of Muammar Gaddafi. Oil money paid for Gaddafi’s nuclear and chemical weapons programs. It also helped corrupt the entire Libyan state, which according to TI, fragmented into “tribal-based ‘popular committees’ that carried out governance, legislation and decision-making.” When the Arab Spring swept away the weak central government, tribal militias took over, and “their possession of armaments and oil returns made them powerful and influential,” according to TI. Many of the resulting “stateless states” within Libya are linked to “regional or international networks such as Al Qaeda and ISIS,” the report notes.
Similarly, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has vast oil reserves but has been mired in poverty and instability for decades because of corruption. Oil scandals are commonplace. Currently, for instance, the government says it will prosecute oil giants Shell and Eni of Italy in a $1.2 billion scandal. Since 2009 it has been plagued by the vicious Boko Haram Islamist insurgency (its name is often translated ‘Western education is forbidden’) that has claimed 20,000 lives and displaced 2.3 million people. The fundamentalist sect has preyed on the grievances of the poor Muslim population in the country’s northeast, where, despite the nation’s vast oil wealth, 60 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, according to TI. As elsewhere, the militants link government corruption to Western influence. Boko Haram has lashed out at Western targets, such as a 2011 terrorist attack on a U.N. building in Abuja that killed 25 people.
Not only does corruption fuel Nigeria’s terrorism and violence, it has hobbled the government’s ability to fight the militants. According to TI, “Corruption also hollowed out the military, leaving troops ill-equipped and without the incentive to tackle Boko Haram effectively.” This is an echo of what happened in Iraq in 2014, when a 30,000-strong force of the Western-trained and equipped Iraqi army was routed by a mere 1,300 ISIS fighters in the battle for Mosul. While there were plenty of tactical mistakes and intelligence failures by government forces, an Iraqi parliament investigation found a deeper problem, according to TI: “Senior officers…were more focused on amassing personal fortunes through corrupt practices, including embezzlement of public resources and extortion of those under their command, than on maintaining an effective fighting force and assessing intelligence accurately.”
The TI report concludes that while many violent extremists are grounded in ideology, their movements flourish “when officials profit from the misery of the many…and when economic opportunity is skewed in favor of the connected few.” That’s why anti-corruption measures like Cardin-Lugar should be viewed as key components of a broad national security strategy, not as pesky rules to be jettisoned on a whim. As the director of TI’s Defense and Security program, Katherine Dixon, noted when Congress announced it was planning to undo the Cardin-Lugar regulation, “The attempt to repeal this legislation is gambling American lives to save international businesses the task of filling out forms. The link between corruption and development is simple: corrupt leaders that siphon state funds and resources away from vulnerable populations bring about weak states and public unrest, creating fertile ground for terrorists and organized crime. If we want our corporations to support responsible governance, they too must be responsible. If the government believes US companies deserve a level-playing field abroad, they should lead the fight to raise international standards – not participate in an all-out-race to the bottom.”
The TI report is an example of the growing view among some military and national security experts that anti-corruption programs should assume a higher priority in our security policy. More and more it is becoming clear that corruption threatens democracies, and it threatens global security. Likewise, when America doesn’t stand up to corruption, we lose credibility with the publics in other countries and surrender the moral high ground that has been so important to American leadership around the world.
America’s military leaders understand better than anyone that we can’t overcome global threats just with guns and tanks. When President Trump recently proposed a massive spending cut for development assistance and diplomacy, 121 retired generals and admirals wrote Congress to object: “Many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone – from confronting violent extremist groups like ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa to preventing pandemics like Ebola and stabilizing weak and fragile states that can lead to greater instability…. The military will lead the fight against terrorism on the battlefield, but it needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism – lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness.” Clearly, anti-corruption measures, like Cardin-Lugar, must be part of this all-important civilian effort to keep Americans safe.
Jay Branegan is a Senior Fellow at The Lugar Center.