The Saudi Connection
How billions in oil money spawned a global terror network
The CIA's Illicit Transactions Group isn't listed in any phone book. There are no entries for it on any news database or Internet site. The ITG is one of those tidy little Washington secrets, a group of unsung heroes whose job is to keep track of smugglers, terrorists, and money launderers. In late 1998, officials from the White House's National Security Council called on the ITG to help them answer a couple of questions: How much money did Osama bin Laden have, and how did he move it around? The queries had a certain urgency. A cadre of bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorists had just destroyed two of America's embassies in East Africa. The NSC was determined to find a way to break the organization's back. Working with the Illicit Transactions Group, the NSC formed a task force to look at al Qaeda's finances. For months, members scoured every piece of data the U.S. intelligence community had on al Qaeda's cash. The team soon realized that its most basic assumptions about the source of bin Laden's money--his personal fortune and businesses in Sudan--were wrong. Dead wrong. Al Qaeda, says William Wechsler, the task force director, was "a constant fundraising machine." And where did it raise most of those funds? The evidence was indisputable: Saudi Arabia. America's longtime ally and the world's largest oil producer had somehow become, as a senior Treasury Department official put it, "the epicenter" of terrorist financing. This didn't come entirely as a surprise to intelligence specialists. But until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. officials did painfully little to confront the Saudis not only on financing terror but on backing fundamentalists and jihadists overseas. Over the past 25 years, the desert kingdom has been the single greatest force in spreading Islamic fundamentalism, while its huge, unregulated charities funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to jihad groups and al Qaeda cells around the world. Those findings are the result of a five-month investigation by U.S. News. The magazine's inquiry is based on a review of thousands of pages of court records, U.S. and foreign intelligence reports, and other documents. In addition, the magazine spoke at length with more than three dozen current and former counterterrorism officers, as well as government officials and outside experts in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Among the inquiry's principal findings:
Starting in the late 1980s--after the dual shocks of the Iranian revolution and the Soviet war in Afghanistan--Saudi Arabia's quasi-official charities became the primary source of funds for the fast-growing jihad movement. In some 20 countries, the money was used to run paramilitary training camps, purchase weapons, and recruit new members.
The charities were part of an extraordinary $70 billion Saudi campaign to spread their fundamentalist Wahhabi sect worldwide. The money helped lay the foundation for hundreds of radical mosques, schools, and Islamic centers that have acted as support networks for the jihad movement, officials say.
U.S. intelligence officials knew about Saudi Arabia's role in funding terrorism by 1996, yet for years Washington did almost nothing to stop it. Examining the Saudi role in terrorism, a senior intelligence analyst says, was "virtually taboo." Even after the embassy bombings in Africa, moves by counterterrorism officials to act against the Saudis were repeatedly rebuffed by senior staff at the State Department and elsewhere who felt that other foreign policy interests outweighed fighting terrorism.