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

Sheik said his ministry "supervises" charities abroad to "make sure their funds go to the right places" and also provides religious books and scholars for Saudi-supported Islamic centers, schools and universities. But it has "no direct responsibility" for them, he said.

Sheik is the direct supervisor of one charity supported by the Saudi government, al Haramain, which added an entirely separate army of 3,000 missionaries to the 3,884 on the ministry payroll.


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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Al Haramain's annual budget, $40 million to $60 million, paid for mosques, schools, Korans, wells, food and Saudi-approved veils, as well as scores of health clinics and orphanages in some of the poorest corners of the world. It operated in 50 countries.

In October 1997, the charity established its first U.S. presence when it incorporated in Ashland, Ore. It listed as its board president Aqeel Abdulaziz Aqil, who had been general manager for the charity since its founding. He operated from the Riyadh headquarters.

Everything changed for al Haramain with the worldwide crackdown on terrorist funding that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. By March 2002, U.S. and Saudi authorities had designated al Haramain offices in Bosnia and Somalia as terrorist-supporting organizations that had diverted charitable money to al Qaeda and a suspected Somali terrorist group, Al Ittihad Al Islamiya.

Two years later, on Feb. 13, 2004, IRS officials raided the Ashland office, saying there was "probable cause" that two top al Haramain officers had violated U.S. currency laws and filed false tax returns to cover the transfer of money to Muslim rebels fighting in Chechnya. (U.S. authorities so far have brought no formal charges against those officers, and the Oregon office remains open.) Aqil was fired in January. Six months later, U.S. officials designated him a terrorist supporter because of his alleged contacts with the Somali group Al Ittihad, the same organization that Omar Abdi Mohamed in San Diego is suspected of aiding.

By then, 15 al Haramain branches had been shut down, including those in Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Albania and the Netherlands.

In his interview with a Washington Post reporter in March, Sheik defended the charity. His ministry's own investigation did not find "any major mistakes" by the charity's leadership, except by its director, Aqil.

"The mistakes of individuals should not be attributed to the whole institution," Sheik said.

In June, however, the Saudi government announced that al Haramain was being closed down and that the Islamic affairs ministry would be stripped of its role as the main overseer of missionary work. A government-run commission under the Foreign Ministry now has that responsibility.

But the commission does not oversee the three other major Saudi-based-and-financed charities -- the Muslim World League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Relief Organization. Also independent of the commission is at least one private Saudi charity, al-Muntada al-Islami. The charity, based in London, works primarily in Africa and publishes an English-language Islamic monthly, Al-Jumuah, which is distributed in the United States.

These four Saudi charities recently formed a U.S.-based trade group, the Friends of Charities Association, and hired the Belew law firm in Washington to represent their interests.

In the United States, Saudi Arabia's infrastructure of preachers and money started as a bulwark against the spread into American mosques of radical Shiism, which surged after Khomeini deposed the shah of Iran.

"Many countries in the West asked Saudi Arabia to get involved in these [Islamic] centers because at that time Saudi Arabia was considered moderate," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Faisal said in an interview in March. The Americans "felt comfortable with the presence of the Saudis," he said.


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