The Saudi Connection
How billions in oil money spawned a global terror network
After the Soviets left Afghanistan in disgrace, bin Laden moved his fledgling al Qaeda to Sudan, in 1992. By then a perfect storm of Islamic radicalism was gathering across the Muslim world. Some "Afghan Arab" veterans of Afghanistan now eyed radical change in their homelands, where secular and corrupt regimes held sway. Others set out for lands where they saw fellow Muslims oppressed, such as Kashmir and Bosnia. Saudis rich and poor responded with donations at thousands of zakat boxes in mosques, supermarkets, and schools, doling out support for besieged Muslims in Algeria, Bosnia, Kashmir, the West Bank, and Gaza. Millions poured in.
The Saudi charities opened offices in hot spots around the globe, with virtually no controls on how the money was spent, U.S. officials say. The donors funded many worthy projects, supporting orphanages and hospitals, and providing food, clothing, and medicine to refugees. But by 1994, Riyadh was starting to get complaints--from the French interior minister about Saudi funds reaching Algerian terrorists and from President Clinton about their funding of Hamas, whose suicide bombers were wreaking havoc on the Middle East peace process. More concerns surfaced in the Philippines, where an investigation of an al Qaeda plot to murder the pope and bomb a dozen U.S. airliners led to the local IIRO office. Its director was a brother-in-law of bin Laden's, Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, who was busily funneling cash to the region's top Islamic guerrilla groups, Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Who's who. It was Bosnia, though, that finally caught the sustained attention of the CIA. In the early '90s, the ethnic-cleansing policies of the Serbs drew hundreds of foreign jihadists to the region to help defend Bosnian Muslims. Saudi money poured in, too. Saudi donors sent $150 million through Islamic aid organizations to Bosnia in 1994 alone, the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh reported. But large sums were winding up in the wrong hands. A CIA investigation found that a third of the Islamic charities in the Balkans--among them the IIRO--had "facilitated the activities of Islamic groups that engage in terrorism," including plots to kidnap or kill U.S. personnel. The groups were a who's who of Islamic terrorism: Hamas, Hezbollah, Algerian extremists, and Egypt's Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, whose spiritual head, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, later earned a life sentence for plotting to bomb the United Nations and other New York landmarks.
In a classified report in 1996, CIA officials finally pulled together what they had on Islamic charities. The results were disturbing. The agency identified over 50 Islamic charities engaged in international aid and found that, as in the Balkans, fully a third of them were tied to terrorist groups. "Islamic activists dominate the leadership of the largest charities," the report noted. "Even high-ranking members of the collecting or monitoring agencies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan--such as the Saudi High Commission--are involved in illicit activities, including support for terrorists."
As front organizations, the charities were ideal. Some provided safe houses, false identities, travel documents. Others offered arms and materiel. Nearly all dispensed sizable amounts of cash, according to the CIA, with little or no documentation. And they were, it seemed, everywhere. By the mid-1990s, the Muslim World League fielded some 30 branches worldwide, while the IIRO had offices in over 90 countries. The CIA found that the IIRO was funding "six militant training camps in Afghanistan," where Riyadh was backing a then obscure sect called the Taliban, whose religious practices were close to Wahhabism. The head of a Muslim World League office in Pakistan was supplying league documents and arms to militants in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Another Saudi charity had begun funding rebels in Chechnya.