The Saudi government yesterday outlined plans to dismantle all international charity organizations operating in the kingdom and place their holdings under a new commission in what officials said is an effort to stop the flow of funds to terrorist groups.
The charities to be dissolved include the al Haramain Islamic Foundation, one of the largest and most influential Saudi charities, whose chairman is the Saudi minister of Islamic affairs.
At a joint news conference with Saudi officials, the U.S. Treasury Department also announced that it had designated the longtime chief of al Haramain as a financier of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Under the leadership of Aqeel Abdulaziz Aqil, fired two months ago by the Saudi government's clerical authorities, al Haramain became a principal organization "providing support for the al Qaeda network and promoting militant Islamic doctrine worldwide," according to findings released by the Treasury Department.
Though they took no action against Aqil, the Saudis joined with the United States yesterday in designating five al Haramain branch offices -- in Afghanistan, Albania, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the Netherlands -- as terrorism financiers. Information about those entities and Aqil will be forwarded to the United Nations for inclusion on an international list of sponsors of terrorism.
Two al Haramain branches abroad were previously designated as financiers of terrorism, and a small al Haramain office in Oregon was raided by U.S. authorities earlier this year on suspicion of tax evasion and money laundering.
The United States has long pressured the Saudis to reform oversight of its wealthy charities. Government officials generally agree that in the past year there has been significant progress in the desert kingdom's war on terrorism, including financial oversight as a series of deadly terrorist attacks has been conducted on Saudi soil.
Frances Townsend, White House deputy national security adviser for terrorism, who has been working closely with the Saudi government to crack down on terrorism funding, told reporters in a conference call yesterday: "The Saudis have been frankly very aggressive about this. They have committed to financial transparency and auditing."
The new commission, previously announced by the Saudis in March, will be made up of prominent Saudi citizens who will for the first time audit all overseas donations, said Adel Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah. The Saudi National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad will be responsible for more than $100 million given yearly to charity groups.
The commission also will restart the flow of charitable funds that has been suspended for the past year.
U.S. experts on terrorism financing praised the actions, but some said the Saudis need to crack down harder on prominent Saudis such as Aqil who are suspected of supporting al Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist groups.
"Regulatory actions are nice and good and should be applauded, but they don't go far enough. What you really have to do is put people in jail. But it's exactly that, going after the elites, that is something the Saudis have not done," said former National Security Council official Lee Wolosky, who co-directed a task force on terrorism financing at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Townsend turned aside criticism that the kingdom has shied away from pursuing wealthy and prominent citizens thought to bankroll terrorists. Jubeir said that the kingdom is investigating Aqil's activities, and Treasury official Juan Zarate, speaking on the conference call with Townsend, said he believes that a Saudi investigation of Aqil "is going to come to fruition fairly soon."
"It was under the cloak of charity that Aqeel al-Aqil used the al Haramain organization to benefit himself and al Qaeda," Zarate said earlier at the news conference, held at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
Jubeir said that Aqil continued to send money to al Haramain branches abroad after the government suspended overseas charitable donations last year. He has been under investigation since September, Jubeir said, but is not being designated a terrorism financier by the kingdom because doing so "would prejudice the outcome" of the probe. "When the investigation is complete we will take the appropriate steps," he said.
Aqil's assets, described by Zarate as totaling "tens of millions of dollars," have been frozen by the Saudis and he is barred from international travel. Al Haramain raised as much as $40 million to $50 million a year, Jubeir estimated.
The statement released by Treasury said that Aqil, while ousted in March from his post, "may still be in a position to exercise control" over the charity. According to the Treasury Department, he ordered al Haramain employees to continue operations that supported al Qaeda, even after the Bosnia office was designated in 2002 a terrorism financier by the United States and Saudi Arabia.