Monday, January 24, 2005

Double WAMY: Saudi Charities on a Charm Offensive

Who can forget the Saudi telethon back in April 2002, which raised about $100 million for the Palestinian intifada? The images of the telethon, which found their way onto TV in the United States, told a story that alarmists in the West had been trying to put into words for years: A well-oiled international network of charities based in the Kingdom had so inculcated the connection between militant causes and the mandatory Muslim alms tax, or zakat, that it could raise vast sums of money, and fast.

But that was three years worth of joint American-Saudi crackdowns ago. A litter of Treasury Department press releases and Saudi Washington press conferences tells the official story that has ensued since September 11. Washington and Riyadh seized assets and closed down several overseas branches of the Al Haramayn Islamic Foundation, a charity that had allegedly provided logistical and financial support to Al Qaeda in Asia and Africa. Congress has called for investigating 27 Muslim charities, and Treasury Secretary John Snow has urged American Muslims to make sure that their future "generosity is not exploited for nefarious purposes" by avoiding those charities. And in a particularly dramatic move, the northern Virginia office of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (wamy), a global foundation established in 1972, was raided by 50 federal agents in June 2004. Spokesmen for the organization--whose U.S. branch was partly founded by Abdullah Bin Laden, Osama's nephew--have denied any links to terrorist groups. (Full disclosure: I assisted the FBI in counterterrorist operations between 1994 and 1999.) Whether these joint crackdowns truly crippled the global organizations is unclear--90 other branches of wamy, including those in Saudi Arabia, are still up and running. But the publicity the wamy raid garnered appears at least to have reduced charitable giving to the group. Wamy's deputy chief told the Arab News in late October that donations to the group were down 40 percent this year, citing new restrictions and bad press. Meanwhile, Muslim nonprofits in the United States assert a post-September 11 boon in domestic giving, which they believe stems from American Muslims' fear of entanglement with law enforcement should they be caught sending money to relief groups overseas.

The Saudi charities have resolved not to take all this bad news lying down. They appear to have unleashed a new charm offensive in October just before the peak giving time of Ramadan, taking aim not at the American public but at their own wary base: wealthy Arab Muslims. And as anyone who followed the U.S. presidential campaign this year can attest, you can sure tell a candidate by the way he appeals to his base. There's an unpleasant fact at issue that American officials are still hesitant to admit: While some Muslims' generosity has truly been exploited, other Muslims genuinely support militant groups and would like to help them out financially, provided they can do so with impunity. Appealing subtly to both types of donors is the essence of the Arabic-language public relations challenge the Saudi charities now face--and the reason behind the seemingly contradictory rhetoric routinely expressed by their leadership.

"The broad Western campaign against the Islamic charitable institutions ... rests on false foundations," wamy director general Salih al-Wuhaybi told Al Hayat, an Arabic language newspaper, a few weeks back, citing a plot by "the Zionists and neoconservatives in America. They want a shake-up in the Islamic world and to sow tension between [Saudi Arabia] and other nations." (Translations from Al Hayat are mine.) His counterpart at the helm of the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), Adnan bin Khalil Basha, added, "the compassionate hand that pats the head of the orphan and wipes the tears of the poor cannot participate in the spreading of fear and terror among believers, whatever their religions may be." The U.S. Justice Department has tied IIRO branch offices to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa. To this charge, Basha offers a defense that falls short of a denial: "Saying that these institutions have transcended the limits of activity ascribed to them is a very slanderous thing to say about organizations that are governed by rules and regulations and strictly determined laws." The same paragraph quotes a pro-Saudi cleric in the United States, Jafar Sheikh Idris: "If every institution one of whose members had made a mistake were closed down and assaulted, there wouldn't remain a single institution, charitable or otherwise, on the face of the earth." After all, he goes on, some Western intelligence agencies failed to gauge the state of Saddam's weapons program, "but was the result that these agencies were disbanded? Why, therefore, make war on charitable institutions, given that what resulted from their mistakes, if mistakes were really made, is nothing compared to the results of the war on Iraq?"

The Al Hayat story spans five columns and extensively quotes leaders of several of the most established charities in the Kingdom. They line up to deny any ties to terrorism. But the piece also offers an explanation for repeated allegations to the contrary. "It is logical," opines Abd al-Rahman al-Habib, "that the first target of suspicion will be those entities that have a similar ideology but differ with [the terrorist organization] in the application of violence as a tactic." So the ends are the same but the means are different, hence the confusion by Western intelligence agencies. No militant group is mentioned by name in the piece, and only the expression "Al-Sahwa al-Islamiya [the Islamic awakening]" is used to denote the movement of Islamist resurgence, popular in the Kingdom, with which the charities identify and from which some armed groups may at one time have arisen.

The whitewashing of Saudi charities among Arabs inside the Kingdom advances somewhat every time a domestic Al Qaeda cell is busted by the government. Saudi Channel One TV in early October, for example, aired videotaped confessions of local guerillas who admitted siphoning off funds from two charities and using the money to buy weapons for attacks in the Kingdom. This proved an opportunity for wamy's director general to appear on TV shortly afterward and announce new guidelines for donating money without fear that it would be diverted to arming local militants. The groups' commitment to snuffing out armed gangs inside the Kingdom, in consort with the government, is beyond doubt.

But nagging questions persist about these charities' support for armed adventures elsewhere in the Muslim world and beyond. The very reporter who gained access to so many directors general for the Al Hayat story is Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab al-Turayri, apparently the son of Abd al-Wahhab al-Turayri--who recently joined 25 other Saudi clerics to declare their support for the insurgency in Iraq. (The father-son connection is my own inference based on Saudi Arabic nomenclature, according to which Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab al-Turayri is understood to be the son of a man named Abd al-Wahhab who hails from the clan of al-Turayri. It is a statistical improbability, given the relatively small community of clerical elites in the Kingdom, that the two are unrelated.) The statement asserts the "legitimacy of the resistance and the illegality of cooperation with the occupier against the actions of the resistance." Another signatory to the document is Mahdi Muhammad Rashad al-Hakami, a professor of Islamic legal studies who described himself, in a 2002 petition he also signed, as regional director for wamy in the Saudi province of Jazan. Yet another signatory on the Iraq petition is Salman bin Fahd al-Awdah, a superstar among Saudi clergy, whose sermons have been distributed by wamy in the United States.

The link, however tenuous, between a mainstream Saudi charity and the cause of armed insurgency in Iraq may further sully its image in the United States. But for wamy's bottom line, it's also good business. The cause to drive back the American occupier is very popular among Sunni Muslims today--at least as popular as the Palestinian Intifada was back in April 2002.

Whether American officials are fully aware of these nuances remains unclear. wamy's website recently featured a photograph of the American ambassador in Saudi Arabia, James Oberwetter, attending Ramadan festivities sponsored during the recent fast month by the organization in Riyadh. This powerful image tells potential Muslim donors that the group has cleaned up its act in the eyes of the West. Coupled with links to a message of solidarity with Iraqi insurgents, it's a compelling pitch indeed.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This piece first appeared in The New Republic Online, December 3, 2004.

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