The Saudi Connection
How billions in oil money spawned a global terror network
Key to this evangelical tour de force were charities closely tied to Saudi Arabia's ruling elite and top clerics. With names like the Muslim World League and its affiliate, the International Islamic Relief Organization, the funds spent billions more to spread Wahhabism. The IIRO, for example, took credit for funding 575 mosques in Indonesia alone. Accompanying the money, invariably, was a blizzard of Wahhabist literature. Wahhabist clerics led the charge, causing moderate imams to worry about growing radicalism among the faithful. Critics argue that Wahhabism's more extreme preachings--mistrust of infidels, branding of rival sects as apostates, and emphasis on violent jihad--laid the groundwork for terrorist groups around the world.
Princely giving. If the Saudis' efforts had been limited to pushing fundamentalism abroad, their work would have been cause for controversy. But some Saudi charities played a far more troubling role. U.S. officials now say that key charities became the pipelines of cash that helped transform ragtag bands of insurgents and jihadists into a sophisticated, interlocking movement with global ambitions. Many of those spreading the Wahhabist doctrine abroad, it turned out, were among the most radical believers in holy war, and they poured vast sums into the emerging al Qaeda network. Over the past decade, according to a 2002 report to the United Nations Security Council, al Qaeda and its fellow jihadists collected between $300 million and $500 million--most of it from Saudi charities and private donors.
The origins of al Qaeda are intimately bound up with the Saudi charities, intelligence analysts now realize. Osama bin Laden and his followers were not exactly holy warriors; they were unholy fundraisers. In Afghanistan, Riyadh and Washington together ponied up some $3.5 billion to fund the mujahideen--the Afghan fighters who took on the Soviets. At the same time, men like bin Laden served as fundraisers for the thousands of foreign jihadists streaming into Afghanistan. By persuading clerics across the Muslim world to hand over money from zakat, the charitable donations that are a cornerstone of Islam, they collected huge sums. They raised millions more from wealthy princes and merchants across the Middle East. Most important, they joined forces with the Saudi charities, many already moving aid to the fighters.
Afghanistan forged not only financial networks but important bonds among those who believe in violent jihad. During the Afghan war, the man who ran the Muslim World League office in Peshawar, Pakistan, was bin Laden's mentor, Abdullah Azzam. Another official there was Wael Julaidan, a Saudi fundraiser who would join bin Laden in founding al Qaeda in 1988. Documents seized in raids after 9/11 reveal just how close those ties were. One record, taken from a Saudi-backed charity in Bosnia, bears the handwritten minutes of a meeting between bin Laden and three men, scrawled beneath the letterhead of the IIRO and Muslim World League. The notes call for the opening of "league offices . . . for the Pakistanis," so that "attacks" can be made from them. A note on letterhead of the Saudi Red Crescent--Saudi Arabia's Red Cross--in Peshawar asks that "weapons" be inventoried. It is accompanied by a plea from bin Laden to Julaidan, citing "an extreme need for weapons."