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U.S., Saudis Block Assets of Charity Group

The Al Haramain foundation funded terrorists, officials say. Riyadh is creating a commission to monitor donations and spending.

June 03, 2004|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. and Saudi officials moved Wednesday to block some assets of a major Saudi charity with links to the Riyadh government, saying the group and its former leader had financed Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in at least five countries in recent years.

Saudi officials said the asset freeze was part of a renewed and comprehensive crackdown against the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, which funnels vast sums of Saudi donations to Islamic causes around the world but has also been accused of financing terrorist activities since its inception in the early 1990s.

At a news conference in Washington, Saudi officials said they were also dissolving all charities based in Saudi Arabia that give money overseas -- including Al Haramain -- and folding them into a new government-monitored national commission with tight controls over fund-raising and spending.

The announcement came as Saudi authorities killed two militants in the mountainous western border region, whom they linked to a deadly attack last weekend on the oil hub of Khobar. Twenty-two people, including one American, were killed when suspected Al Qaeda gunmen attacked a housing complex for foreign workers, seized hostages and then escaped during a shootout with security forces.

"As we have seen from the attacks in Al Khobar this past weekend, Al Qaeda is trying to destabilize our economy and our government," said Adel Jubeir, the foreign affairs advisor to Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah. "But their barbaric actions grow more desperate while the resolve of our people to uproot them grows stronger."

Jubeir described the actions taken against the charities as proof of that resolve and said the new controls over charitable giving would force the Al Qaeda terrorist network to seek other avenues of support.

Specifically, the United States and Saudi Arabia designated Al Haramain's branches in Afghanistan, Albania, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the Netherlands as having provided financial, material and logistical support to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

Separately, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a similar finding against Aqil Abdulaziz Aqil, a Saudi who was until recently the director of Al Haramain worldwide.

In doing so, the two governments blocked the assets of Aqil and the five charity offices, requiring banks to freeze the entities' assets.

The U.S. and Saudi officials also said they would ask that the five affiliates be added to a similar blacklist of terrorist financiers compiled by the United Nations, which would prompt a global search for their assets.

Juan Zarate, the Treasury Department's deputy assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crime, said Aqil and the actions of the five Al Haramain branches had been vital to Al Qaeda, "fueling and facilitating their efforts to carry out vile attacks against innocent individuals and the civilized world."

U.S. and Saudi officials have blocked the assets of Al Haramain entities twice before. They designated the group's branches in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia as sponsors of terrorism on March 11, 2002, and in January, the U.S. extended the designation to Al Haramain branches in Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan and Tanzania.

Al Haramain officials have denied playing any role in the financing of terrorism.

Several senior U.S. counter-terrorism officials say the group has direct ties to at least one ranking Saudi official and indirect links to several others.

Jubeir disputed such links and said Al Haramain's headquarters in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, had little control over its branch offices. Jubeir, like other Saudi and U.S. officials, confirmed that some of those branch offices had provided significant sums to Al Qaeda operatives to finance attacks, buy weapons and fund recruiting efforts and training missions, either through corruption by local leaders or infiltration by terrorist operatives.

Recently, Al Haramain dismissed Aqil, who had headed the organization since it was founded 13 years ago. Aqil's dismissal came after pressure from U.S. authorities.

Dennis Lormel, who was until recently the FBI's head of counter-terrorism financing, praised Saudi officials Wednesday for taking action against Al Haramain and for creating the national charitable commission.

"The Saudis were reluctant all along to ever do anything against them. They always wanted one more level of proof," Lormel said. "So for them to come this far, in terms of shutting down Al Haramain and instituting this [oversight] mechanism, that's great."

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