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

John L. Esposito, a religion scholar at Georgetown University, said the Saudi theological efforts have resulted in "the export of a very exclusive brand of Islam into the Muslim community in the United States" that "tends to make them more isolationist in the society in which they live."

The Export of Islam

The worldwide export of Wahhabi Islam began in 1962, when Saudi Arabia's ruling Saud family founded the Muslim World League in Mecca to promote "Islamic solidarity." The Sauds were seeking to counter the fiery pan-Arab nationalism of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was calling for the Saudi monarchy to be overthrown.

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)

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.
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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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The family also saw the export of Islam, which they call "Dawah," as a sacred duty. Their land was the birthplace of Islam and their kingdom host to the religion's two holiest mosques, in Mecca and Medina.

Western diplomats stationed in Riyadh liken the Sauds' fervor to the zeal of the United States' own fundamentalist sects. "For Saudi Arabia to stop Dawah would be a negation of itself," said Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador to the kingdom. "It would be like Bush telling Evangelical Christians to stop missionary work abroad."

In the 1960s, the kingdom was sparsely populated and still relatively poor. It had no trained foot soldiers to run the Muslim league. So the royal family enlisted scores of Egyptian teachers, scholars and imams belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, a highly secretive movement of political activists dedicated to restoring Islamic rule over secular Arab societies.

By 1982, the Saud family was feeling threatened by the Islamic revolution begun by Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and the extremism of some of its own citizens, who had temporarily seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. Again, the family turned to Dawah.

King Fahd issued a directive that "no limits be put on expenditures for the propagation of Islam," according to Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi oil and security analyst. Saudi Arabia now had the money: Its oil revenue had skyrocketed after the 1973 oil embargo. King Fahd used the cash to build mosques, Islamic centers and schools by the thousands around the world. Over the next two decades, the kingdom established 200 Islamic colleges, 210 Islamic centers, 1,500 mosques and 2,000 schools for Muslim children in non-Islamic countries, according to King Fahd's personal Web site. In 1984, the king built a $130 million printing plant in Medina devoted to producing Saudi-approved translations of the Koran. By 2000, the kingdom had distributed 138 million copies worldwide.

Exactly how much has been spent to spread Wahhabism is unclear. David D. Aufhauser, a former Treasury Department general counsel, told a Senate committee in June that estimates went "north of $75 billion." Edward L. Morse, an oil analyst at Hess Energy Trading Co. in New York, said King Fahd tapped a special oil account that set aside revenue from as much as 200,000 barrels a day -- $1.8 billion a year at 1980s oil prices. Saudi oil expert Obaid confirmed such an account existed in the 1980s and 1990s but said it was recently closed.

Ministry's Far Reach

After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, radical elements in the kingdom and in the Muslim Brotherhood excoriated the Sauds for calling in the Americans to defend them. In response, King Fahd tightened control over the missionary-and-charity campaign and tried to purge it of Brotherhood influence, setting up a new Saudi-supervised charity, al Haramain.

As part of this effort, the Saudis created an Islamic affairs ministry in 1993 that was intended to be the key institution for exporting Wahhabism. The ministry, officially known as the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowment, Call and Guidance, is led by Saleh Sheik, a direct descendant of Ibn Abdul Wahab.

The goal of moderating Brotherhood-like militancy was only partly successful. Saudi scholars and sources say the ministry has become a stronghold of zealots.

The Islamic affairs ministry is located in a nondescript concrete-and-glass structure in the Malaz district of Riyadh, near the city's old airport. There, in an interview at his office in March, Sheik said the ministry meets weekly to "coordinate the Islamic policies of the different ministries outside the country."

The ministry's outreach is formidable. It pays the salaries of 3,884 Wahhabi missionaries and preachers, who are six times as numerous as the 650 diplomats in Saudi Arabia's 77 embassies. Ministry officials in Africa and Asia often have had more money to dispense than Saudi ambassadors, according to several Saudi sources. The Islamic affairs officials also act as religious commissars, keeping tabs on the moral behavior of the kingdom's diplomats. In the United States, a 40-person Islamic Affairs Department established in the Saudi Embassy in Washington became something of an independent body, with little supervision from the often absent ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Sheik estimated the Islamic affairs ministry's budget at $530 million annually and said it goes almost entirely to pay the salaries of the more than 50,000 people on the ministry payroll . That figure does not include the hundreds of millions of dollars in personal contributions made by King Fahd and other senior Saudi princes to the cause of propagating Islam at home and abroad, according to a Saudi analyst who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The real total spent annually spreading Islam is between $2 billion and $2.5 billion, he said.

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