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Country Reports on Terrorism 2021: United Arab Emirates

(February 27, 2023)

Overview:  The United Arab Emirates (UAE) advanced counterterrorism efforts in 2021, particularly in countering terrorist financing and in the international cooperation domain.  The UAE’s Central Bank (CBUAE) imposed financial sanctions on several exchange houses operating in the UAE, and the cabinet added 38 individuals and 15 entities to the UAE’s terrorist list.  U.S. and UAE security agencies signed an information-sharing memorandum of cooperation to facilitate lawful international travel.  The UAE remains a leader in countering violent extremist narratives on a global level, supporting CVE education and participating in and hosting international fora to promote tolerance and coexistence.  The UAE continued valuable support for counterterrorism efforts as a member of the Defeat-ISIS Coalition and in Yemen against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, including support to local forces in counterterrorism operations.

2021 Terrorist Incidents:  There were no reported terrorist incidents in the UAE in 2021.

Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security:  In April, the UAE passed a law regulating donations and fundraising activities for charities with the stated aim to protect organizations from the risk of exploitation by terrorist organizations.

The State Security Directorate (SSD) in Abu Dhabi and Dubai State Security (DSS) remained primarily responsible for counterterrorism law enforcement efforts.  Local, emirate-level police forces, especially Abu Dhabi Police and Dubai Police, were the first responders in such cases and provided technical assistance to SSD and DSS.  The UAE security apparatus demonstrated capability in investigations, crisis response, and border security, and forces were trained and equipped to detect, deter, and respond to terrorist incidents.

As in previous years, the UAE worked closely with the United States, through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to improve its border security posture.  Information sharing between Abu Dhabi Police’s Criminal Investigations Division and DHS Homeland Security Investigations helped counter transnational criminal organizations and terrorist groups.  In January, the United States and the UAE signed a memorandum of cooperation that demonstrated a shared commitment to facilitating lawful international travel.  The UAE’s border security efforts have increased to further deter terrorist travel by enhancing travel document security; increasing the use of terrorist screening watchlists, including INTERPOL databases; expanding information sharing within the UAE government and with other countries; and institutionalizing the collection of passenger information on commercial flights.

Countering the Financing of Terrorism:  The UAE is a member of MENAFATF, and its FIU is a member of the Egmont Group.  The UAE is also a member of the Defeat-ISIS Finance Group and the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center.

The United States and others recognized progress the UAE has made to strengthen its domestic AML/CFT regime over the past two years.  There was a noticeable increase in public announcements of enforcement actions taken against banks, exchange houses, and law firms.  The UAE became the first GCC country to launch goAML, an AML reporting platform developed by the United Nations for FIUs to collect suspicious transaction reports.  The UAE launched a new AML Public-Private-Partnership Committee in late 2021, including representatives from the Ministry of Economy, CBUAE, the Ministry of Justice, the Dubai International Financial Center, and the Abu Dhabi Global Market.  The government created a permanent executive office for AML/CFT in February to support the UAE’s AML/CFT National Strategy.

Following the CBUAE introduction in 2020 of a mandatory registration framework for informal money transfer operators known as hawala brokers, CBUAE registered more than 50 licensed hawala brokers and referred more than 20 unregistered hawala brokers to law enforcement agencies for investigation.  In December, CBUAE imposed fines on six of the brokers under the Countering the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) regulations for failure to register on goAML.  The CBUAE published several guidance documents throughout 2021 covering topics including targeted financial sanctions, reporting requirements for licensed financial institutions (LFIs), AML/CFT guidance for exchange houses, and guidance for LFIs that provide services to cash-intensive businesses and to the precious metals and stones sector.  The UAE’s FIU signed more than 60 MOUs to enhance international cooperation and information sharing on AML/CFT issues.

The UAE updated its domestic terrorist sanctions list in September to add 38 individuals and 15 entities.  These included Türkiye-based ISIS financial facilitator Alaa Khanfurah, whom the United States designated in May, as well as the Yemen-based al-Omgy Money Exchange, which the United States designated in 2016.  In addition, the list included Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force and Hizballah facilitators and added six Nigerian nationals for financing Boko Haram.

Countering Violent Extremism:  The UAE government continued to play a leadership role in global efforts to counter terrorist radicalization and recruitment.  The UAE hosts the Sawab Center, a bilateral partnership with the United States that counters ISIS messaging online, and continued to support Hedayah, an international center of excellence for countering violent extremism based in Abu Dhabi.  With coordination and support from U.S. Embassy Abu Dhabi, Sawab collaborated with international and multilateral partners to counter online propaganda by ISIS and ISIS-affiliated organizations.  Hedayah carried out CVE programs and research projects around the world, including a U.S. Department of State-supported countermessaging effort for religious and community leaders in Tunisia.

International and Regional Cooperation:  The UAE led or was actively engaged in a range of counterterrorism cooperation efforts within international, multilateral, and regional organizations and groupings that align with U.S. and like-minded policy priorities.  Relevant UAE engagements are highlighted below:

  • Senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials met with European External Action Service counterparts in March to discuss security and counterterrorism cooperation, including continued AML/CFT coordination.
  • The UAE’s AML/CFT Executive Office hosted a team from the General Secretariat of the GCC in September to develop joint action programs among the GCC countries to combat terrorist financing.
  • The UAE is a member of the GCTF and participated in the 11th GCTF Ministerial Plenary Meeting and the 19th GCTF Coordinating Committee Meeting in October.
  • The UAE participated in the MENAFATF Plenary and Working Group sessions, held in Cairo in November.

Source: Country Reports on Terrorism 2021, U.S. Department of State, (February 27, 2023).