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Funding Terror, Saudi Style

Thanks to its cozy relationship with the Saudi royal family, the Bush administration is unwilling to target Saudi banks that fund Al Qaeda.
 
 
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Having a quarter of the world’s oil reserves may mean never having to say you’re sorry to Washington. Instead, when Newsweek reported in December that checks from the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States had been sent to associates of two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Saudi and Washington officials revved up their spin machines.

When the reports surfaced, Haifa bint Faisal, wife of Saudi ambassador Bandar bin Sultan, acknowledged that she sent nearly $150,000 to the wife of a Saudi living in San Diego. The recipient, Majeda Ibrahin Dweikat, signed over some of the checks to a friend whose husband, Omar al-Bayoumi (with Dweikat’s husband), helped hijackers Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi find housing in San Diego, open bank accounts, get Social Security cards, pay expenses and arrange flying lessons in Florida.

U.S. authorities suspected days after Sept. 11 that al-Bayoumi, by then in Birmingham, England, had helped the hijackers. The British arrested him and, in a search of his house, found phone records showing calls to two diplomats at the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Lacking conclusive evidence, they released him, and he is now believed back in Saudi Arabia.

U.S. authorities continued to investigate his connections. FBI spokesman Ed Cogswell told In These Times that the bureau had discovered the bint Faisal money transfers when it examined al-Bayoumi’s accounts. (Records would have included the check endorsed to al-Bayoumi’s wife.) Bint Faisal insists she did not knowingly aid the terrorists -- that she did not even know the woman -- but was only giving charity to Dweikat, a thyroid patient, whose husband had written seeking funds to pay medical bills.

Yet the revelation again raises questions about U.S. policy, which has consistently supported the Saudi oil monarchy in spite of its refusal to cooperate with the United States in investigations of terrorist attacks against Americans.

The links between bint Faisal’s powerful Saudi family and financing of terrorism are even more extensive, however. The trails of both Omar al-Bayoumi, the man who aided the hijackers, and that of the financial network of bint Faisal’s family each lead to Osama bin Laden.

According to a 1996 U.S. State Department report, al-Shamal Islamic Bank in Khartoum, Sudan, was capitalized by bin Laden and wealthy members of Sudan’s National Islamic Front. Bin Laden invested $50 million in the bank. Mohammed al-Faisal, bint Faisal’s brother, is an investor and board member at al-Shamal.

Al-Shamal appears to have been a bin Laden bank of choice. Al-Qaeda members had accounts in al-Shamal, according to testimony during U.S. trials surrounding the 1998 attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. One al-Qaeda collaborator, Essam al-Ridi, recounted how bin Laden transferred $230,000 from al-Shamal to a bank in Arizona to buy a plane to fly Stinger missiles from Pakistan to Sudan.

One of the bank’s three founding members and major shareholders is Saleh Abdullah Kamel. A major financial and media power in the Arab world, he is in addition the chairman of the Dallah al-Baraka Group (DBG). Al-Bayoumi was assistant to the Director of Finance for Dallah Avco, a DBG company that works with the Saudi aviation authority. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the United States believes the Dallah al-Baraka Bank, another DBG company, was also used by al-Qaeda.

Mohammed Al-Faisal is president of Dar al-Mal al-Islami (DMI), the House of Finance of Islam. This Geneva-based bank is charged with distributing subsidies of the royal family in the Muslim world. DMI, founded in 1981 and with assets of an estimated $3.5 billion, also has connections to the bin Laden family: Its 12-member board of directors includes Haydar Mohamed bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s half-brother, and Khalid bin Mahfouz, whose sister Kaleda is one of Osama bin Laden’s wives. (Bin Mahfouz was indicted by the United States in the notorious BCCI banking scandal, which defrauded depositors of $9 billion, and in 1995 paid a $225-million fine.)

DMI and al-Shamal are not the only banks that link al-Faisal to Osama bin Laden. Al-Faisal’s DMI is also a major shareholder of al-Taqwa, the bank registered in the Bahamas and based in Switzerland that was shut down last November after Washington blacklisted it as a centerpiece of bin Laden’s financial network. The United States has not, however, blacklisted al-Shamal.

These banking connections are compounded by long-standing questions about the function of some Saudi charities. At a December press conference in Washington, Saudi adviser Adel al-Jubeir said, "We have not found a direct link or support from the Saudi charities to terrorist groups."

Despite al-Jubeir’s claims, one major Saudi charity -- the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), which directs millions of dollars a year to fundamentalist movements -- has strong connections to bin Laden. A 1999 Jordanian intelligence report, obtained by In These Times, said that Islamic Relief, "used by bin Laden’s men,"was active in the Balkans, Chechnya, Azerbaijan and Kashmir.

In Sept. 2001, after the terrorist attacks in the United States, Britain’s Charity Commission took the IIRO off its list of registered charities on grounds it did not function as one. It is not, however, on the U.S. terrorist blacklist.

The administration treads gingerly in targeting institutions that could lead to the Saudi royals and influentials. In December, Sens. Bob Graham (D-Florida) and Richard C. Shelby (R-Alabama) accused the Bush administration of refusing to declassify information that showed possible Saudi Arabian financial links to terrorists because it didn’t want to embarrass the Saudis and endanger its political ties. Shelby, sworn not to reveal classified material, said the information could involve "a lot of their leaders and probably even the royal family."