U.S. Eyes Money Trails of Saudi-Backed Charities
– Washington Post
“SAN DIEGO — Omar Abdi Mohamed, a lanky, soft-spoken political refugee from war-ruined Somalia in East Africa, had been preaching the word of Islam in the United States for the past nine years. Two things make him unusual.
In January, U.S. immigration authorities arrested him, saying they suspected him of being a conduit for terrorist funds, federal court records show. At the time, he was on the payroll of Saudi Arabia’s government.
Mohamed was one of 30 Saudi-financed preachers in this country. Each month, the Saudis paid $1,700 to the 44-year-old, who taught the Koran at a run-down Somali social center here. He worked with little supervision from Saudi religious authorities 8,000 miles away. In the late 1990s, he set up a small charity to help famine victims in Somalia, and that is how his trouble began.
The charity received $326,000 over three years from the Global Relief Foundation, a private Islamic charity based in Illinois. In October 2002, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Global Relief a terrorist-financing entity linked to al Qaeda.
The collision of Saudi missionary work and suspicions of terrorist financing in San Diego illustrates the perils and provocations of a multibillion-dollar effort by Saudi Arabia to spread its religion around the world. Mohamed worked on the front lines of that effort, a campaign to transform what outsiders call “Wahhabism,” once a marginal and puritanical brand of Islam with few followers outside the Arabian Peninsula, into the dominant doctrine in the Islamic world. The campaign has created a vast infrastructure of both government-supported and private charities that at times has been exploited by violent jihadists — among them Osama bin Laden.
Nearly three years after the devastating Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a number of Saudi-supported Islamic preachers, centers, charities and mosques remain under intense scrutiny. U.S. investigators continue to look into the tangled money trails leading from Saudi Arabia to its embassy in Washington and into dozens of American cities.
At the end of one trail is Mohamed. Another avenue of interest involves the global finances of the al Haramain Islamic Foundation, a large Saudi-government-supported charity set up to propagate Wahhabism and sometimes referred to as “the United Way of Saudi Arabia.” Al Haramain, which has an office in Ashland, Ore., sent Mohamed $5,000.
The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks stated in its July report that al Qaeda had relied heavily on international charities to raise money, “particularly those with lax external oversight and ineffective internal controls such as the Saudi-based al Haramain Islamic Foundation.” The report added that al Qaeda found “fertile fund-raising groups” in Saudi Arabia, “where extreme religious views are common and charitable giving was both essential to the culture and subject to very limited oversight.”
The Saudis say they have taken more steps than any other country to crack down on terrorist financing. They say the problem is not with their religion but with a small minority of deviants.
The Saudi government has severed ties with Mohamed, who is charged only with immigration violations, but he insists he did nothing wrong. A hearing is set for Sept. 1 in San Diego. The terrorist suspicions against Mohamed appear to rest on financial transactions that raise questions but do not provide answers, court records show. Global Relief denies it funds terrorism.
The Saudis are also shutting al Haramain offices worldwide. In June, the Treasury Department put the charity’s former head in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on its list of known supporters of terrorism for providing “financial, material and logistical support to the al Qaeda network.”
Wahhabism arose in the mid-18th century in central Saudi Arabia. Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahab sought to purify Islam and return it to its 7th-century roots. He preached doctrines based on a strict adherence to the literal word of the Koran. He opposed music and adornment, insisted that women be cloaked and disdained nonbelievers, even members of other Muslim sects.
Scholars of Islam find it difficult to precisely assess the impact of 40 years of Saudi missionary work on the United States’ multi-ethnic Muslim community — estimated at 6 million to 7 million. But survey data are suggestive.
The most comprehensive study, a survey of the 1,200 U.S. mosques undertaken in 2000 by four Muslim organizations, found that 2 million Muslims were “associated” with a mosque and that 70 percent of mosque leaders were generally favorable toward fundamentalist teachings, while 21 percent followed the stricter Wahhabi practices. The survey also found that the segregation of women for prayers was spreading, from half of the mosques in 1994 to two-thirds six years later.
John L. Esposito, a religion scholar at Georgetown University, said the Saudi theological efforts have resulted in “the export of a very exclusive brand of Islam into the Muslim community in the United States” that “tends to make them more isolationist in the society in which they live.”
The Export of Islam
The worldwide export of Wahhabi Islam began in 1962, when Saudi Arabia’s ruling Saud family founded the Muslim World League in Mecca to promote “Islamic solidarity.” The Sauds were seeking to counter the fiery pan-Arab nationalism of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was calling for the Saudi monarchy to be overthrown.
By 1982, the Saud family was feeling threatened by the Islamic revolution begun by Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and the extremism of some of its own citizens, who had temporarily seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. Again, the family turned to Dawah.
King Fahd issued a directive that “no limits be put on expenditures for the propagation of Islam,” according to Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi oil and security analyst. Saudi Arabia now had the money: Its oil revenue had skyrocketed after the 1973 oil embargo. King Fahd used the cash to build mosques, Islamic centers and schools by the thousands around the world. Over the next two decades, the kingdom established 200 Islamic colleges, 210 Islamic centers, 1,500 mosques and 2,000 schools for Muslim children in non-Islamic countries, according to King Fahd’s personal Web site. In 1984, the king built a $130 million printing plant in Medina devoted to producing Saudi-approved translations of the Koran. By 2000, the kingdom had distributed 138 million copies worldwide.
Exactly how much has been spent to spread Wahhabism is unclear. David D. Aufhauser, a former Treasury Department general counsel, told a Senate committee in June that estimates went “north of $75 billion.” Edward L. Morse, an oil analyst at Hess Energy Trading Co. in New York, said King Fahd tapped a special oil account that set aside revenue from as much as 200,000 barrels a day — $1.8 billion a year at 1980s oil prices. Saudi oil expert Obaid confirmed such an account existed in the 1980s and 1990s but said it was recently closed.
Ministry’s Far Reach
After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, radical elements in the kingdom and in the Muslim Brotherhood excoriated the Sauds for calling in the Americans to defend them. In response, King Fahd tightened control over the missionary-and-charity campaign and tried to purge it of Brotherhood influence, setting up a new Saudi-supervised charity, al Haramain.
In October 1997, the charity established its first U.S. presence when it incorporated in Ashland, Ore. It listed as its board president Aqeel Abdulaziz Aqil, who had been general manager for the charity since its founding. He operated from the Riyadh headquarters.
Everything changed for al Haramain with the worldwide crackdown on terrorist funding that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. By March 2002, U.S. and Saudi authorities had designated al Haramain offices in Bosnia and Somalia as terrorist-supporting organizations that had diverted charitable money to al Qaeda and a suspected Somali terrorist group, Al Ittihad Al Islamiya.
Two years later, on Feb. 13, 2004, IRS officials raided the Ashland office, saying there was “probable cause” that two top al Haramain officers had violated U.S. currency laws and filed false tax returns to cover the transfer of money to Muslim rebels fighting in Chechnya. (U.S. authorities so far have brought no formal charges against those officers, and the Oregon office remains open.) Aqil was fired in January. Six months later, U.S. officials designated him a terrorist supporter because of his alleged contacts with the Somali group Al Ittihad, the same organization that Omar Abdi Mohamed in San Diego is suspected of aiding.
By then, 15 al Haramain branches had been shut down, including those in Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Albania and the Netherlands.”
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