U.S., Saudi Arabia target Muslim charity

Four branches accused of funding terrorist acts

January 23, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Penetrating deeper into a worldwide network of funding for Islamic militants, the United States and Saudi Arabia identified four branches of a Saudi-based charity yesterday as sources of millions of dollars that flowed to al-Qaida and the Taliban.

U.S. Treasury and Saudi officials called on the United Nations to crack down on the branches of the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation in Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan and Tanzania. The United Nations, if it agrees to act, would freeze the assets of the branches while imposing a travel ban and prohibiting arms transactions with members of the charity in those countries.

Treasury Secretary John W. Snow described the action as a fresh demonstration of a close anti-terrorism partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have drawn heavy criticism from members of Congress and Democratic presidential hopefuls for what they say is a failure by the kingdom to curb anti-Western extremism.

Yesterday's action served to underscore the slow process of collecting enough evidence linking Islamic charities to militants to take action against them.

Al-Haramain continues to operate in about 50 countries, including an American branch in Oregon, officials said, even though the charity has been under scrutiny since the mid-1990s. It has generated as much as $50 million a year, although officials were unable to say exactly how much, beyond "millions," moved through the branches targeted yesterday. The United States previously took action against branches in Bosnia and Somalia.

The charity's headquarters in Saudi Arabia still operates, although its director, Aqil al-Aqil, was recently ousted, apparently under government pressure. And officials note that at least one branch of the charity, in Bosnia, was shut down only to resurface under a different name.

An attorney for the Oregon branch, Lynne Bernabei, said the group no longer had any connection to the Saudi-based organization, and said its leaders had consistently opposed Islamic militants. Bernabei acknowledged that the branch was the subject of a federal tax investigation.

The announcement coincided with a White House effort to show that the Bush administration is making progress in the war on terrorism although al-Qaida's two top leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain at large.

President Bush, speaking yesterday in Roswell, N.M., said al-Qaida operatives "cannot escape the justice of America. We've got thousands of troops, thousands of brave soldiers who are chasing them one by one."

"There is no hole deep enough to hide from America," Bush said, while warning against complacency in confronting what he called "the ultimate danger."

A Treasury statement summarizing evidence against al-Haramain branches in the four countries said they had "provided financial, material and logistical support to the al-Qaida network and other terrorist organizations."

It linked the charity to the 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia, the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, a plot developed in Pakistan to carry out "devastating terrorist operations" in the United States, and the shipment of weapons to Chechen rebels.

The statement said the group had provided money to al-Qaida operatives in Indonesia and to Jemaah Islamiyah, the group thought to have bombed the Bali nightclub, killing 202. Some of the money was possibly diverted to buy weapons, the statement said.

Information on the charity's alleged militant activities in Africa dates from 1997, when "U.S. and other friendly authorities were informed that the Kenyan branch of AHF [al-Haramain] was involved in plotting terrorist attacks against Americans," the statement said.

Wadih el-Hage, a leader of the East African al-Qaida cell and personal secretary to Osama bin Laden, visited the charity's Kenya offices before the embassy attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania according to the statement.

Besides al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah, the charity is suspected of links to the Taliban in Afghanistan and to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group responsible for hundreds of attacks against Israelis, a Treasury official said.

In addition to seeking action by the U.N., Treasury added the four branches to its list of persons and groups suspected of financially supporting terrorism, which requires freezing any assets that may be found in this country.

Announcing the crackdown, Snow, the treasury secretary, said, "Our two countries send a clear message: Those who hide intentions of terror behind a veil of benevolence and charity will not escape justice from the international community,"

U.S. officials say Saudi Arabia has stepped up its cooperation against terrorism since May 12, when a deadly bombing in Riyadh alerted authorities to the major threat that al-Qaida and groups linked to it posed to the kingdom.

Adel al-Jubeir, an adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah, said, "The objective of al-Qaida is to destabilize our country, overthrow the established order, and replace it with a Taliban-like regime that can control the cradle of Islam and a quarter of the world's oil."

The kingdom has arrested more than 600 suspected militants, killed or captured many top al-Qaida leaders and destroyed scores of cells and training camps, he said. In addition, he said, it is "taking aggressive action to purge extremist thought from our society."

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