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THE WORLD AFTER 9/11 : U.S. Follows Money Trails of Charities

U.S. Eyes Money Trails of Saudi-Backed Charities

By David B. Ottaway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2004; Page A01

SAN DIEGO -- Omar Abdi Mohamed, a lanky, soft-spoken political refugee from war-ruined Somalia in East Africa, had been preaching the word of Islam in the United States for the past nine years. Two things make him unusual.

In January, U.S. immigration authorities arrested him, saying they suspected him of being a conduit for terrorist funds, federal court records show. At the time, he was on the payroll of Saudi Arabia's government.


Since the Sept. 11 attacks, a number of Saudi-supported Islamic mosques -- such as the King Fahd Mosque -- have been under scrutiny. (Damian Dovarganes -- AP)

_____Correction_____
An Aug. 19 article on Saudi religious influence in the United States incorrectly reported that Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz is the son of King Fahd and joined with the king in donating $8 million to build the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, Calif. The donation with the king was made by his son, Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd.


_____Audio Analysis_____
David Ottaway David Ottaway, a Washington Post investigative reporter, explains Saudi-financed missionaries and possible ties to terrorist groups.
_____More From Series_____
Impervious Shield Elusive Against Drive-By Terrorists (The Washington Post, Aug 8, 2004)
About This Series

Nearly three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. government has begun extensive efforts to root out Islamic terrorists around the world and defend potential targets at home. This article is the second in a series that will look at the nature of the elusive enemy and the problems authorities confront in finding and bringing terrorists to justice and protecting the United States. The first article dealt with the threat of truck bombs.

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Mohamed was one of 30 Saudi-financed preachers in this country. Each month, the Saudis paid $1,700 to the 44-year-old, who taught the Koran at a run-down Somali social center here. He worked with little supervision from Saudi religious authorities 8,000 miles away. In the late 1990s, he set up a small charity to help famine victims in Somalia, and that is how his trouble began.

The charity received $326,000 over three years from the Global Relief Foundation, a private Islamic charity based in Illinois. In October 2002, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Global Relief a terrorist-financing entity linked to al Qaeda.

The collision of Saudi missionary work and suspicions of terrorist financing in San Diego illustrates the perils and provocations of a multibillion-dollar effort by Saudi Arabia to spread its religion around the world. Mohamed worked on the front lines of that effort, a campaign to transform what outsiders call "Wahhabism," once a marginal and puritanical brand of Islam with few followers outside the Arabian Peninsula, into the dominant doctrine in the Islamic world. The campaign has created a vast infrastructure of both government-supported and private charities that at times has been exploited by violent jihadists -- among them Osama bin Laden.

Nearly three years after the devastating Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a number of Saudi-supported Islamic preachers, centers, charities and mosques remain under intense scrutiny. U.S. investigators continue to look into the tangled money trails leading from Saudi Arabia to its embassy in Washington and into dozens of American cities.

At the end of one trail is Mohamed. Another avenue of interest involves the global finances of the al Haramain Islamic Foundation, a large Saudi-government-supported charity set up to propagate Wahhabism and sometimes referred to as "the United Way of Saudi Arabia." Al Haramain, which has an office in Ashland, Ore., sent Mohamed $5,000.

The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks stated in its July report that al Qaeda had relied heavily on international charities to raise money, "particularly those with lax external oversight and ineffective internal controls such as the Saudi-based al Haramain Islamic Foundation." The report added that al Qaeda found "fertile fund-raising groups" in Saudi Arabia, "where extreme religious views are common and charitable giving was both essential to the culture and subject to very limited oversight."

The Saudis say they have taken more steps than any other country to crack down on terrorist financing. They say the problem is not with their religion but with a small minority of deviants.

The Saudi government has severed ties with Mohamed, who is charged only with immigration violations, but he insists he did nothing wrong. A hearing is set for Sept. 1 in San Diego. The terrorist suspicions against Mohamed appear to rest on financial transactions that raise questions but do not provide answers, court records show. Global Relief denies it funds terrorism.

The Saudis are also shutting al Haramain offices worldwide. In June, the Treasury Department put the charity's former head in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on its list of known supporters of terrorism for providing "financial, material and logistical support to the al Qaeda network."

Wahhabism arose in the mid-18th century in central Saudi Arabia. Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahab sought to purify Islam and return it to its 7th-century roots. He preached doctrines based on a strict adherence to the literal word of the Koran. He opposed music and adornment, insisted that women be cloaked and disdained nonbelievers, even members of other Muslim sects.

Scholars of Islam find it difficult to precisely assess the impact of 40 years of Saudi missionary work on the United States' multi-ethnic Muslim community -- estimated at 6 million to 7 million. But survey data are suggestive.

The most comprehensive study, a survey of the 1,200 U.S. mosques undertaken in 2000 by four Muslim organizations, found that 2 million Muslims were "associated" with a mosque and that 70 percent of mosque leaders were generally favorable toward fundamentalist teachings, while 21 percent followed the stricter Wahhabi practices. The survey also found that the segregation of women for prayers was spreading, from half of the mosques in 1994 to two-thirds six years later.


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