The Saudi Connection
How billions in oil money spawned a global terror network
Other challenges loomed. The Islamic world has always been a difficult target for Western intelligence services, and terrorist cells are among the toughest to penetrate. Following criminal money is also a tortuous task. Drawing a bead on al Qaeda combined all three challenges. The NSC task force tried to formulate what staffers called "a theory of the case." Their first questions were simple: What did it cost to be bin Laden? How much did it take to fund al Qaeda?
Terrorist acts, even the so-called spectaculars like 9/11, are relatively cheap to carry out. But the more the task force studied al Qaeda, the bigger its budget appeared. With its training camps and operations, and payments to the Taliban and to other terror groups, the amount was surely in the millions, task-force members surmised. After finding that bin Laden's inherited wealth was largely gone and his Sudanese businesses failing, the question was, where did the money come from? The answer, they eventually concluded, was Saudi charities and private donors.
The charities, by 1999, were integrated even further into the jihadist movement. In India, police detained Sayed Abu Nasir, a longtime IIRO staffer, for plotting to bomb U.S. consulates. Nasir confessed that the organization was secretly supporting dozens of jihadist training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Equally striking was the al Haramain Foundation, one of Saudi Arabia's largest, which dispensed $50 million a year through some 50 offices worldwide. U.S. officials would eventually conclude that its branches in at least 10 countries were providing arms or cash to terrorists, including those in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Somalia. In Southeast Asia, al Haramain was acting as a key source of funds for al Qaeda; in Chechnya, Russian officials suspected it of moving $1 million to the rebels and arranging the purchase of 500 "heavy weapons" from the Taliban.
There was more. In the Middle East, the CIA learned, Saudi donations were funding as much as half of Hamas's budget and paying off the families of suicide bombers. In Pakistan, so much Saudi money poured in that a mid-level Pakistani jihadist could make seven times the country's average wage. Jihad had become a global industry, bankrolled by the Saudis. Daniel Benjamin, the NSC's counterterrorism director, knew that Palestinian terror groups had used local charities, but that was nothing like what the Saudis had wrought. "The structure was not astonishing," Benjamin says. "The ambition and scale were."
This time something would be done. The NSC staff approached Vice President Al Gore, who told the Saudis that Washington wanted a meeting with their top security and banking officials. In June 1999, the NSC's William Wechsler, Treasury's Richard Newcomb, and others on the task force flew to Riyadh. They were met by a half-dozen senior Saudi officials, all dressed in flowing white robes and checkered kaffiyehs. "We laid everything out--what we knew, what we thought," said one official. "We told them we'd just had two of our embassies blown up and that we needed to deal with them in a different way."