Video: Choking off al-Qaida funding

By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 1/22/2004 7:43:31 PM ET 2004-01-23T00:43:31

The United States and Saudi Arabia said Thursday they are asking the United Nations to freeze the assets of four international branches of a leading Saudi charity accused of supporting al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. 

The request for a crackdown comes against branch offices of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation located in Indonesia, Kenya, Tanzania and Pakistan, Treasury Secretary John Snow said Thursday. 

“The four branches have cloaked themselves in the virtue of charity and done so only to fund and support terrorist organizations around the world like al-Qaida,” Snow said, adding that in taking such action, “we’re waging the war against the blood money of terrorism.”

These four branches of Al-Haramain were put on notice earlier to “cease these operations,” Snow said.  Having the United Nations designate these four branches as terrorist financers “all 191 members will be obligated to freeze assets” said Tony Wayne, assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.  The U.N. designation “will help governments that have been working to fight terrorism have additional legitimacy domestically for looking at these organizations, freezing them and investigating them,” Wayne said.

The United States, separately, also will add the four branches of Al-Haramain to its own terrorist financing blacklist. That move allows the United States to freeze any assets it finds in this country of those four international branches, the Treasury Department said.  In addition, the move walls off those organizations from having access to U.S. financial system.

Earlier actions against charity
Al-Haramain has been in the terrorism spotlight before. The United States and Saudi Arabia moved jointly to freeze the assets of two other international branches of Al-Haramain in Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina on on March 11, 2002. 

In 2003 Al-Haramain, which is on record denying any link to terrorist activities, was ordered by the Saudis to cease all international operations. The charity said it complied with those orders, according to Adel Al-Jubeir, foreign policy adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. 

“When the Al-Haramain in Saudi Arabia says that it has cut off those branches, but the individuals in those branches continue to operate or re-incorporate using the same name [officials of the parent charity] have no control over them,” Al-Jubeir said. 

Saudi Arabia now bans any money from charities from leaving the country, Al-Jubeir said.  “It’s really up to the countries in which these branches operate to shut them down because they have the legal mandate to do it,” he said.

A branch of Al-Haramain operates in Oregon, but “I don’t believe there is any wrongdoing,” Al-Jubeir said. However, “we can’t investigate it — it’s subject to your laws and regulations, it’s essentially an American entity,” Al-Jubeir said.

High expectations
Critics of the Saudi royal family, including many members of Congress, are openly skeptical of Saudi Arabia’s willingness to crack down on terrorism-related activities inside its own borders.  Critics of the Bush administration say that it overlooks an unwillingness by the Saudis to wage a robust war on terrorism to maintain favorable diplomatic relationships with the oil-rich country.

But Ambassador J. Confer Black, coordinator of counterterrorism for the State Department, noted Thursday that the Saudis have arrested more than 600 terrorism suspects and continue to fully cooperate on terrorism investigations.

Al-Jubeir said his country has “done everything we can [to stem the flow of money from charities to terrorist groups], and we’re looking for ways to do more.”  He noted that Saudi charities are now banned from operating outside the country and Saudi banks are told “not to transfer a penny” from any Saudi charity to accounts outside the country. 

“This is vast,” Al-Jubeir said.  “We have stopped the collection of cash contributions in mosques and public places,” he said.  “This would be the same as America telling churches they cannot pass the tin cup during Sunday service; I don’t think you can do this in this country.”

Extent not known
Just how much money will stop flowing into the terrorism pipeline as a result of Thursday’s action isn’t clear.

“Overall, in terms of the network, Al-Haramain is responsible for the movement of millions of dollars,” said a Treasury Department official.  “ With respect to how much may be frozen with respect to the four branches, that’s unclear,” the official said. 

Al-Haramain operates in 50 countries, the Treasury Department said.

“Part of this exercise is also getting the international community to raise its antenna with respect to what accounts may exist out there, what flows of money may be transgressing international borders, and we will find out,” the Treasury Department official said.

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