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Saudi Arabia’s Dubious Denials of Involvement in International Terrorism

Filed under: Hamas, Saudi Arabia, Terrorism, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 504     5 Tishrei 5764 / 1 October 2003


  • Saudi Arabia’s past involvement in international terrorism is indisputable. While the Bush administration decided to redact 28 sensitive pages of the Joint Intelligence Report of the U.S. Congress, nonetheless, Saudi involvement in terrorist financing can be documented through materials captured by Israel in Palestinian headquarters in 2002-3. In light of this evidence, Saudi denials about terrorist funding don’t hold water.

  • Israel retrieved a document of the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) which detailed the allocation of $280,000 to 14 Hamas charities. IIRO and other suspected global Saudi charities are not NGOs, since their boards of directors are headed by Saudi cabinet members. Prince Salman, a full brother of King Fahd, controls IIRO distributions “with an iron hand,” according to former CIA operative Robert Baer. Mahmoud Abbas, in fact, complained, in a handwritten December 2000 letter to Salman, about Saudi funding of Hamas. Defense Minister Prince Sultan has been cited as a major IIRO contributor.

  • It was hoped, after the May 12 triple bombing attack in Riyadh, that Saudi Arabia might halt its support for terrorism. Internally, the Saudi security forces moved against al-Qaeda cells all over the kingdom. But externally, the Saudis were still engaged in terrorist financing, underwriting 60-70 percent of the Hamas budget, in violation of their “roadmap” commitments to President Bush.

  • Additionally, the Saudis back the civilian infrastructure of Hamas with extremist textbooks glorifying jihad and martyrdom that are used by schools and Islamic societies throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Ideological infiltration of Palestinian society by the Saudis in this way is reminiscent of their involvement in the madrassa system of Pakistan during the 1980s, that gave birth to the Taliban and other pro bin-Laden groups.


Saudi Arabia Provided the Ideological Backdrop for 9/11

Two years ago on September 11, 2001, most well-informed observers of the Middle East were shocked to hear that 15 out of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were Saudi citizens. It was equally surprising that the mastermind of the worst terrorist attack on the United States in its history, Osama bin Laden, was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. This curiosity and wonder about the Saudi role in the attack came up once more with the release of the September 11 Joint Intelligence Report by the U.S. Congress and its disclosure of what the U.S. press called “incontrovertible evidence” linking Saudis to the financing of al-Qaeda operatives in the United States.

For decades, terrorism had been associated with states like Libya, Syria, or Iran. Saudi Arabia had been a pro-Western force during the Cold War and had hosted large coalition armies during the 1991 Gulf War. Saudi Arabia had not been colonized during its history, like other Middle Eastern states that had endured a legacy of European imperialism. This background only sharpened the questions of many after the attacks: What was the precise source of the hatred that drove these men to take their own lives in an act of mass murder? The Saudis were initially in a state of denial about their connection to September 11; Interior Minister Prince Naif even tried to pin the blame for the attacks on Israel, saying it was impossible that Saudi youth could have been involved.1

Yet over time it became clearer how Saudi Arabia could have provided the ideological backdrop that spawned al-Qaeda’s attack on the United States. In a series of articles appearing in the Egyptian weekly, Ruz al-Yousef (the Newsweek of Egypt), this past May, Wael al-Abrashi, the magazine’s deputy editor, attempted to grapple with this issue. He drew a direct link between the rise of much of contemporary terrorism and Saudi Arabia’s main Islamic creed, Wahhabism, and the financial involvement of Saudi Arabia’s large charitable organizations:

Wahhabism leads, as we have seen, to the birth of extremist, closed, and fanatical streams, that accuse others of heresy, abolish them, and destroy them. The extremist religious groups have moved from the stage of Takfir [condemning other Muslims as unbelievers] to the stage of “annihilation and destruction,” in accordance with the strategy of Al-Qa’ida – which Saudi authorities must admit is a local Saudi organization that drew other organizations into it, and not the other way around. All the organizations emerged from under the robe of Wahhabism.

I can state with certainly that after a very careful reading of all the documents and texts of the official investigations linked to all acts of terror that have taken place in Egypt, from the assassination of the late president Anwar Sadat in October 1981, up to the Luxor massacre in 1997, Saudi Arabia was the main station through which most of the Egyptian extremists passed, and emerged bearing with them terrorist thought regarding Takfir – thought that they drew from the sheikhs of Wahhabism. They also bore with them funds they received from the Saudi charities.2

Thus, while some Western commentators have sought to explain the roots of al-Qaeda’s fury at the U.S. by focusing on the history of American policy in the Middle East or other external factors, a growing number of Middle Eastern analysts have concentrated instead on internal Saudi factors, including recent militant trends among Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clerics and the role of large Saudi global charities in terrorist financing. This requires a careful look at how Saudi Arabia contributed to the ideological roots of some of the new wave of international terrorism as well as how the kingdom emerged as a critical factor in providing the resources needed by many terrorist groups.


Where Wahhabism Intersects with the Muslim Brotherhood

The particular creed of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, which is known in the West as Wahhabism, emerged in the mid-eighteenth century in Central Arabia from the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab. This Arabian religious reformer sought to rid Islam of foreign innovations that compromised its monotheistic foundations, and to restore what he believed were the religious practices of the seventh century at the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors. He established a political covenant in 1744 with Muhammad bin Saud, the ruler of Diriyah near modern-day Riyadh, according to which he received bin Saud’s protection and in exchange legitimized the spread of Saudi rule over a widening circle of Arabian tribes. This covenant between the Saudi royal family and Wahhabism is at the root of modern Saudi Arabia.

In retrospect, Wahhabism was significant for two reasons. First, it rejuvinated the idea of the militant jihad, or holy war, which had declined as a central Islamic value to be applied universally. Under the influence of Sufism, for example, jihad had also evolved into a more spiritual concept. Second, Wahhabism became associated with a brutal history of political expansion that led to the massacre of Muslims who did not adhere to its tenets, the most famous of which occurred against the Shi’ite Muslims of Kerbala in the early nineteenth century and against Sunni Muslims in Arabian cities, like Taif, during the early twentieth century. These Muslims were labeled as polytheists and thus did not deserve any protection. The highest spiritual authority of Islam during this period, the Sultan-Caliph of the Ottoman Empire, regarded the Wahhabis as heretics and waged wars against them in defense of Islam.

Yet it would be a mistake to focus on Wahhabism alone as the ideological fountainhead of the new global terrorism. Modern Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and 1960s hosted other militant movements that had an important impact, as well. For reasons of regional geopolitics, King Saud, King Faisal, and their successors provided sanctuary to elements of the radical Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, and Syria. Some were provided Saudi stipends. Others were given positions in the Saudi educational system, including the universities, or in the large Saudi charities, like the Muslim World League that was created in 1962. For example, while Egyptian President Abdul Nasser had the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, Sayyed Qutb, executed in 1966, his brother, Muhammad Qutb, fled to Saudi Arabia and taught at King Abdul Aziz University in Jiddah. He was joined in the 1970s by one of the heads of the Muslim Brotherhood from Jordan, Abdullah Azzam. In 1979, both taught Osama bin Laden, a student at the university.

Saudi Arabia’s global charities, like the Muslim World League, permitted the spread of the new militancy that was forged from the cooperation between the Wahhabi clerics and the Muslim Brotherhood refugees. After 1973, these charities benefited from the huge petrodollar resources dispensed by the Saudi government, which undoubtedly helped them achieve a global reach. Abdullah Azzam headed the offices of the Muslim World League in Peshawar, Pakistan, when it served as the rear base for the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He was joined by his student, bin Laden, who with Saudi funding also set up the Mujahidin Services Center (Maktab Khadmat al-Mujahidin) for Muslim volunteers who came to fight the Red Army. After Moscow’s defeat in Afghanistan, this office became al-Qaeda.

Thus, the Saudi charities became the chosen instrument for Riyadh’s support of the continuing global jihad.3 Bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, ran the offices of the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), a Muslim World League offshoot, in the Philippines. Local intelligence agencies suspected that it served as a financial conduit to the Abu Sayyaf organization. Muhammad al-Zawahiri, brother of bin Laden’s Egyptian partner, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would eventually work for IIRO in Albania. An IIRO employee from Bangladesh, Sayed Abu Nasir, led a cell broken up by Indian police that intended to strike at the U.S. consulates in Madras and Calcutta; Abu Nasir explained that his superiors told him of 40 to 50 percent of IIRO charitable funds being diverted to finance terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Kashmir.4 Summarizing this history, former CIA operative Robert Baer wrote: “When Saudi Arabia decided to fund the Afghan mujahidin in the early 1980s, the IIRO proved a perfect fit, a money conduit and plausible denial rolled into one.”5


Ideological Roots of the New Terrorism and Its Global Export

While these developments may seem far beyond the horizon of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a careful examination of some of the worst suicide bombings by the Hamas organization against the State of Israel also leads to Saudi Arabia. As of September 2003, Saudi clerics were featured prominently on Hamas websites as providing the religious justification for suicide bombings. Of 16 religious leaders cited by Hamas, Saudis are the largest national group backing these attacks.6 The formal Saudi position on suicide bombings, in fact, has been mixed. To his credit, the current Saudi Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheikh, has condemned these acts. Yet at the same time, Saudi Arabia’s Minister for Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Saleh Al al-Sheikh, has condoned them: “The suicide bombings are permitted…the victims are considered to have died a martyr’s death.”

The Hamas-Saudi connection should not come as a surprise. Hamas emerged in 1987 from the Gaza branch of Muslim Brotherhood which, as noted earlier, had become a key Saudi ally in previous decades. When Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yasin was let out of an Israeli prison in 1998, he went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment and Crown Prince Abdullah made a high-profile visit to his hospital bedside. As late as early 2002, Abdullah was hosting Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.7 Bin Laden had made the fate of Sheikh Yasin an issue for his al-Qaeda followers as well. In his 1996 “Declaration of War,” he listed Sheikh Yasin’s release from prison as one of his demands or grievances.

Saudi support for suicide bombings has wider repercussions. Other militant Islamic movements cite Saudi Wahhabi clerics to justify their activities – from the Chechen groups battling the Russians to Iraqi mujahidin fighting the U.S. in western Iraq.8 Coincidentally, the ubiquitous IIRO was lauded by the Saudi press for its support activities in the Sunni districts of post-Saddam Iraq, as well.9 Its presence was usually indicative in other regions of Saudi identification with local militant causes. In order to evaluate the significance of these religious rulings, it is necessary to focus on the stature of these various Saudi clerical figures that jihadi movements worldwide were citing.

For example, just after the September 11 attacks, it is true that many Saudi government officials condemned them. But there were other voices as well. Shortly thereafter a Saudi book appeared on the Internet justifying the murder of thousands of Americans, entitled The Foundations of the Legality of the Destruction That Befell America. The Introduction to the book was written by a prominent Saudi religious leader, Sheikh Hamud bin Uqla al-Shuaibi. He wrote on November 16, 2001, that he hoped Allah would bring further destruction upon the United States. Al-Shuaibi’s name appears in a book entitled the Great Book of Fatwas, found in a Taliban office in Kabul. Sheikh al-Shuaibi appears on the Hamas website, noted earlier, as a religious source for suicide attacks. Attacks on U.S. soldiers in western Iraq by a Wahhabi group called al-Jama’a al-Salafiya were dedicated to his name and to the names of other Saudi clerics. Al-Shuaibi’s ideas, in short, had global reach.

The question that must be asked is whether a religious leader of this sort is a peripheral figure on the fringes of society or whether he reflects more mainstream thinking. In fact, al-Shuaibi had very strong credentials. Born in 1925 in the Wahhabi stronghold of Buraida, he was a student of King Faisal’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al al-Sheikh. Al-Shuaibi’s roster of students read like a “Who’s Who” of Saudi Arabia, including the current Grand Mufti and the former Minister of Islamic Affairs and Muslim World League secretary-general, Abdullah al-Turki. When al-Shuaibi died in 2002, many central Saudi figures attended his funeral. In short, he was mainstream. His militant ideas about justifying the September 11 attacks were echoed by Sheikh Abdullah bin Abdul Rahman Jibrin, who actually was a member of the Directorate of Religious Research, Islamic Legal Rulings, and Islamic Propagation and Guidance – an official branch of the Saudi government.

In 2003, the religious opinions of Saudi militant clerics were turning up in Hamas educational institutions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For example, the Hamas-oriented “Koran and Sunna Society-Palestine,” that had been established in 1996 in Kalkilya, had branches in Bethlehem, Salfit, Abu Dis, Jenin, and the Tulkarm area.10 It distributed Saudi texts praising suicide attacks against “the infidels” and condemning those who dodge their obligations to join “the jihad.” The pro-Hamas “Dar al-Arqam Model School” in Gaza, that was established with Saudi aid, used texts that cited Sheikh Sulaiman bin Nasser al-Ulwan, a pro-al-Qaeda Saudi cleric, whose name is mentioned in a bin Laden video clip from December 2001. Both the “Koran and Sunna Society-Palestine” and the “Dar al-Arqam Model School” were supported by the Saudi-based World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) (see below), and were part of the “civilian” infrastructure of Hamas. Militant Saudi texts extolling martyrdom were infiltrated into schools throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, creating a whole generation of students that absorbed their extremist messages. The export of this jihadi ideology to the Palestinians was reminiscent of the Saudi support for madrasses in western Pakistan during the 1980s, that gave birth to the Taliban and other pro-bin Laden groups.


Financial Support for the New Global Terrorism

As already demonstrated, Saudi Arabia erected a number of large global charities in the 1960s and 1970s whose original purpose may have been to spread Wahhabi Islam, but which became penetrated by prominent individuals from al-Qaeda’s global jihadi network. The three most prominent of these charities were the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO; an offshoot of the Muslim World League), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, and the Charitable Foundations of al-Haramain. All three are suspected by various global intelligence organizations of terrorist funding. From the CIA’s interrogation of an al-Qaeda operative, it was learned that al-Haramain, for example, was used as a conduit for funding al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, Russia’s Federal Security Service charged that al-Haramain was wiring funds to Chechen militants in 1999.11

It would be incorrect to view these charities as purely non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or private charities, as they are mistakenly called. At the apex of each organization’s board is a top Saudi official. The Saudi Grand Mufti, who is also a Saudi cabinet member, chairs the Constituent Council of the Muslim World League. The Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs chairs the secretariat of WAMY and the administrative council of al-Haramain. All three organizations have received large charitable contributions from the Saudi royal family that have been detailed in Saudi periodicals. Indeed, according to legal documents submitted on behalf of the Saudis by their legal team in the firm Baker Botts, in the 9/11 lawsuit, Prince Sultan provided $266,000 a year to the IIRO for sixteen years.12 He also provided a much smaller sum to WAMY. In short, these Saudi charities were full-fledged GOs – governmental organizations.

The earliest documented links between one of these charities and terrorists was found in Bosnia. It is a handwritten account on IIRO stationery from the late 1980s of a meeting attended by the secretary-general of the Muslim World League and bin Laden representatives, indicating the IIRO’s readiness to have its offices used in support of militant actions.13 As already noted, IIRO has been suspected of terrorist funding in the Philippines, Russia, East Africa, Bosnia, and India. Al-Qaeda operatives became accustomed to Saudi Arabia being their source of support, in general. In an intercepted telephone conversation, a senior al-Qaeda operative told a subordinate: “Don’t ever worry about money, because Saudi Arabia’s money is your money.”14 As recently as mid-August 2003, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage admitted in Australia that “some money from Saudi private charities had gone toward funding militants in Iraq.”15

But the strongest documented cases that demonstrate the ties between Saudi Arabia’s global charities and international terrorism are related to Hamas. These ties were allegedly already in place in the mid-1990s when a Hamas funding group received instructions to write letters of thanks to executives of IIRO and WAMY for funds it had received. In 1994, President Clinton made a brief stop-over in Saudi Arabia during which he complained about Saudi funding of Hamas. These charges about Saudi Arabia bankrolling Hamas have become even more vociferous in recent years.


The Saudis’ Denials Don’t Hold Water

The Saudis have been equally vociferous in their denials. Crown Prince Abdullah’s foreign policy advisor, Adel al-Jubeir, asserted on CNN’s “Crossfire” on August 16, 2002: “We do not allow funding to go from Saudi Arabia to Hamas.” More recently, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told the Saudi daily Arab News on June 23, 2003, that since the establishment of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, the Saudi Kingdom only sends funding through the PLO. He denied that the Saudis finance Hamas.

Yet during Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield last year, a whole array of documents was uncovered which show these repeated Saudi denials to be completely baseless. One of the strongest pieces of evidence came from a handwritten letter written in Arabic by the former Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), on December 30, 2000, to Prince Salman, governor of Riyadh and a full brother of King Fahd. Abbas complained that Saudi donations in the Gaza Strip are going to an organization called al-Jamiya al-Islamiya (the Islamic Society) which, Abbas explained, “belongs to Hamas.” He wanted the funds for Fatah.

Al-Jamiya al-Islamiya was not just a Hamas front, supporting positive social programs and secretly diverting funds to military activity. Even its showcase “humanitarian” activities were reprehensible. For example, at a kindergarten graduation involving some of its 1,600 Palestinian pre-schoolers, children wore uniforms and carried mock rifles. Others re-enacted the lynching of Israelis or other terrorist attacks. A five-year-old girl dipped her hands in what was supposed to be Israeli blood and then lifted them for the cameras. Al-Jamiya al-Islamiya posted the photographs on its website. Thus, the Saudis were not only funding the current generation of terrorism but also the next generation as well.

There were other documents linking Saudi institutions to terrorist financing. An actual IIRO document was found that detailed how $280,000 was to be allocated to 14 Hamas front groups. Former CIA operative Robert Baer has contended that the very same Prince Salman, who received Mahmoud Abbas’s letter of complaint, controlled IIRO distributions “with an iron hand.”16 There was further evidence tying the Saudis to Hamas. Checks made out to well-known Hamas fronts from the corporate account of al-Rajhi Banking and Investment at Chase Manhattan Bank were also uncovered. Al-Rajhi Banking and Investment was one of the largest Saudi banking networks which serviced the Saudi charities. Its head, Sulaiman al-Rajhi, headed the family that established the SAAR (the acronym for his name) foundation in Herndon, Virginia, which was raided last year by U.S. federal agents because of suspected terrorist links.

The Saudis were clearly uncomfortable with the Israeli discoveries. Adel al-Jubeir tried to question the authenticity of the documents. Alternatively, he attempted to misrepresent their content. Thus, on the BBC interview program “Hardtalk” with Tim Sebastian on August 15, 2003, al-Jubeir argued that Mahmoud Abbas’s letter to Prince Salman, noted above, contained no reference to Hamas, but only to undefined Islamic groups.17 Yet, in fact, Abbas made explicit reference to Hamas as a recipient of Saudi aid, in his own handwriting.

There were other conduits for terrorist funding that were disclosed. Spreadsheets from the Saudi Committee for Aid to the al-Quds Intifada were found that detailed the movement of moneys to the families of suicide bombers. Saudi spokesmen tried to distance themselves from this activity by arguing that they helped these families through “international aid organizations.” Yet it became clear from the spreadsheets that these contributions were given through a specifically Saudi organization, headed by the Saudi Minister of the Interior, Prince Naif. Indeed, at the top right-hand corner of the spreadsheets found in the West Bank, the name “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” stands out. In the words of Secretary of State Colin Powell, this kind of support “incentivized” the suicide terrorist attacks.

The Hamas case demonstrated the mode of operation of Saudi charities in support of terrorism. It was significant, as well, for those investigating other cases of global terrorism, including al-Qaeda, since very often these groups shared the same funding mechanisms. IIRO and BMI, a New Jersey-based Islamic investment bank, were involved in Hamas funding and are suspected to have financed the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in East Africa.18 As a case-study, Hamas’s funding is particularly useful to examine, since it is the best-documented case of how the Saudis used their charities to back militant activities.


Defying President Bush

Most of the documents discovered in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were dated from the year 2000. Saudi diplomats argued that after September 11, 2001, they had turned over a new leaf. For example, in December 2002, the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington released a nine-page report detailing the steps they had taken to keep better track of what the charities were doing. The Saudi report stated that since September 11, 2001, “charitable groups have been closely monitored and additional audits have been performed to assure that there are no links to suspected groups.” Were this indeed the new Saudi policy, it made sense, since President Bush had clearly stated that in the war on terrorism, states were “either with us or with the terrorists.”

Yet just weeks before the newest Saudi assurances were provided on terrorist financing at a news conference in Washington, one of the top leaders of Hamas, Khaled Mashal, had been invited to Riyadh for a WAMY conference. So while in Washington the press corps was told that there were no longer any ties between the Saudi charities and “suspected groups,” in Riyadh, one of the three main Saudi charities was hosting the leader of one of the “suspected groups,” Hamas, that had been labeled by the U.S. government as an international terrorist organization. According to a captured Hamas document that detailed Khaled Mashal’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he actually had been invited by Crown Prince Abdullah himself. While Hamas had refused at the time to stop its suicide attacks, nonetheless, Saudi officials reassured Mashal of continuing support.

These discrepancies between Saudi declarations and realities on the ground have been found elsewhere. In a June 12, 2003, news conference in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir announced that al-Haramain “would be shutting down all of its foreign offices.”19 Yet on July 5, 2003, Jane Perlez reported in the New York Times from Jakarta, Indonesia, that al-Haramain put its large headquarters in a Jakarta suburb up for rent and simply “moved to a smaller house down the block.”20 In another case, the al-Haramain office in Ashland, Oregon, was still up and running in September 2003, though its lawyer argued it did not receive funds from its main office in Riyadh.21

A new context for the issue of Saudi funding of terrorist groups was created when President Bush issued the “Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” on April 30, 2003. Besides requiring difficult measures by Israelis and Palestinians alike, the first phase of the new Bush administration plan specifically called on Arab states to “cut off public and private funding and all other forms of support for groups supporting and engaging in violence and terror.” In short, Saudi Arabia had to come under the roadmap, as well. Meeting the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Bahrain at Sharm el-Sheikh on June 3, 2003, President Bush announced that they had committed themselves to use all means to cut off assistance to any terror group.

It might have been expected that Saudi Arabia would adhere to this firm U.S. policy and not defy President Bush. After all, Crown Prince Abdullah had made a commitment to President Bush at Sharm el-Sheikh. Moreover, on May 12, 2003, Saudi Arabia itself was struck by a triple suicide bombing that led to 35 fatalities, including 9 Americans. Having denied that there was an al-Qaeda presence in the Saudi kingdom, the Saudi government began uncovering al-Qaeda cells and munitions in Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, Jiddah, and in the northern al-Jawf area. After providing the ideological and financial basis for the growth of al-Qaeda and its sister organizations, including Hamas, the Saudis found that the fire they had ignited was coming back to burn them as well.

Unfortunately, while the Saudis appear to be taking their own domestic threat seriously, there is no indication that they have scaled back terrorism financing abroad. For example, on June 26, 2003, David Aufhauser, the General Counsel to the Treasury Department, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and still described Saudi Arabia as “the epicenter” of terrorist financing. That was more than a month after the Riyadh bombings. More than two months after the bombing, on July 31, 2003, John Pistole, the Acting FBI Director for Counterterrorism, was asked about Saudi efforts to stop terrorist financing. Pistole, who praised the level of Saudi cooperation with the FBI on investigating the Riyadh bombings as “unprecedented,” could only say with respect to Saudi moves against terrorist financing, “the jury’s still out.”

This has been borne out by the Israeli experience with Hamas. The Israeli national assessment is that Saudi Arabia today funds more than 50 percent of the needs of Hamas, and the Saudi percentage in the total foreign aid to Hamas is actually growing. U.S. law enforcement officials agree.22 Some Israeli estimates of the Saudi portion of the Hamas budget have been put at 60-70 percent.23 Saudi Arabia continues to aid the families of suicide bombers. It helps dual-use charities and charities that funnel funds directly to military activities against Israel. Indeed, in August 2003, the Hamas spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yasin, thanked IIRO and WAMY for their assistance during a public address in the Gaza Strip.

On June 29, 2003, Hamas agreed to a temporary truce with Israel called a hudna, but at the same time vigorously sought to rebuild its operational infrastructure, including an effort to increase the quantity and quality of Qassam rockets launched against Israelis towns. Muslim writers have argued in the past that a hudna is to be maintained until the balance of power improves for the Muslim side. Funding Hamas clearly jeopardized efforts to reach a full-scale cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians and increased the likelihood that Hamas would escalate its militant actions. By August 28, 2003, Hamas was able to launch one of its new extended-range Qassam rockets, developed during the hudna, a distance of nearly six miles, striking the outskirts of Ashkelon. The hudna had already collapsed.

There was one exception to these disturbing trends. On August 18, 2003, the Saudi government adopted its first money-laundering law, which, in theory, could be used to block terrorist financing. The law contained steep fines and long jail terms for violators. But it was too early to determine whether the law would be enforced or would just remain on the books. In the past, Saudi counter-terrorist initiatives proved to be mostly empty rhetoric. U.S. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow praise the Saudi decision to clamp down on terrorist financing during a visit to Jiddah on September 17, 2003, yet there was little evidence to indicate that this was any more than an attempt to acknowledge Saudi intentions in the absence of any tangible results.

Very simply, past Saudi commitments to take effective measures against terrorist financing or incitement to violence have been half-hearted, at best. At a June 12, 2003, news conference, Adel al-Jubeir announced with great fanfare that Saudi Arabia had fired several hundred clerics and suspended more than a thousand for preaching intolerance.24 Yet within weeks, the Saudi deputy minister for Islamic affairs flatly denied that the move against the clerics had anything to do with curbing extremism. Whatever the reason why the clerics were disciplined, the Saudi governmental message to the mosques has not been sufficiently clear: U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan noted: “We have noticed lately in influential mosques the imam has condemned terrorism and preached in favor of tolerance, then closed the sermon with ‘O God, please destroy the Jews, the infidels, and all who support them.'”25 In short, all dimensions of the supposed Saudi war on terrorism look incomplete.

The Saudis have faced domestic terrorism before. It is instructive to recall that in 1995, Saudi Arabia’s National Guard headquarters was struck by pro-bin Laden forces. Yet, domestic threats in the mid-1990s did not cause the Saudis to halt their assistance to jihadi groups abroad, like Hamas or the Taliban. Riyadh appears able to draw a distinction between acts of domestic subversion and international terrorist activities, which are seen as part of the global jihad. Saudi spokesmen frequently ask how they could support an organization that intended to harm them. Yet that it is the essence of the “Faustian bargain” (to borrow an expression from former CIA director James Woolsey) that they apparently struck in the 1990s: al-Qaeda could strike globally and the Saudis would pay them to leave the royal family alone.


Need Zero Tolerance for Terrorist Funding

This analysis was intended to disclose the critical role of Saudi Arabia in providing ideological and financial support for the new terrorism. While most of the evidence presented here comes from the specific case of Hamas, the modus operandi adopted in the Hamas case is probably applicable to other parts of the global terrorist network as well. This is especially true of the critical role of Saudi Arabia’s global charities in sustaining many similar militant organizations from Indonesia to central Russia. While Saudi spokesmen have provided repeated assurances that they have cleaned up these activities, their denials with respect to terrorist funding do not stand up against the documented evidence that has accumulated in the last two years.

The Saudi government faces hard dilemmas. It has recently taken disciplinary action against some of its most extreme religious leaders. But traditionally, the Saudis need the backing of their clerics to legitimize their regime; that is the heart of the Saudi-Wahhabi covenant that dates back to the eighteenth century. Yet the Saudis also need the ultimate protective shield provided by the United States. In order to sustain this, they have spent huge sums of money for public relations firms and influence-brokers. But the time has come to tell the Saudis that they have to make a choice. After September 11, there has to be zero tolerance for terrorist funding and other forms of terrorist support.

The stakes involved are not just a question of public relations or Arab-Israel point-scoring in Washington. The West needs to come to an understanding with the Islamic world based on mutual respect and tolerance. The radicalization of the Middle East being promoted by the Saudis undermines that goal and threatens to substitute instead a vision of perpetual militancy and conflict. For that reason, what is at stake is nothing less than the security of the United States and its allies, as well as the question of whether the Middle East moves in the direction of hope and peace or relapses into a state of continuing strife.

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Saudi National Charities and the
Financing of International Terrorism

International Islamic Relief Organization
World Assembly of Muslim Youth
Charitable Foundations of
Headed by Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheikh
(Grand Mufti, Saudi Cabinet Member)
Chairman of Constituent Council of World Muslim League
Headed by Sheikh Saleh bin Abdul Aziz Al al-Sheikh
(Minister of Islamic Affairs, Saudi Cabinet Member)
Chairman of WAMY Secretariat
Headed by Sheikh Saleh bin Abdul Aziz Al al-Sheikh
(Minister of Islamic Affairs, Saudi Cabinet Member)
Chairman of al-Haramain Administrative Council
Receives Donations from
Saudi Royal Family
Receives Donations from
Saudi Royal Family
Receives Donations from
Saudi Royal Family


Documented link to Osama bin Laden in 1989, when al-Qaeda founded, on IIRO stationery U.S. WAMY office in Northern Virginia under investigation (past director, Abdullah bin Laden) Finances al-Qaeda operations in Southeast Asia
Bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, runs Philippines offices – conduit to Abu Sayyaf WAMY-Hamas connection noted in 1996 al-Haramain closed down by Bosnian government for “financing the activities of terrorist organizations”
Muhammad al-Zawahiri, brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri (#2 in al-Qaeda), employed in Albanian office WAMY funds I’tilaf al-Khir of Sheikh Qaradhawi which directs money to Hamas Azerbaijan closes down al-Haramain for Chechen terrorist activities
Kenya blacklists IIRO WAMY hosts Hamas, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 2002 al-Haramain employees arrested in Albania
IIRO employee implicated in planned terrorist attack in India al-Haramain closed down in Somalia
IIRO in Pankisi Gorge (Georgia) conduit to al-Ansar in Chechnya
Documented IIRO funding of Hamas, on IIRO stationery


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1. Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch Series – No. 446 – Saudi Arabia, December 3, 2002.
2. Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch Series – No. 526 – Saudi Arabia, June 20, 2003.
3. Robert Baer, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude (New York: Crown Books, 2003), p. 141.
4. Steven Emerson with Jonathan Levin, “Terrorism Financing: Origination, Organization, and Prevention: Saudi Arabia, Terrorist Financing and the War on Terror,” testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, July 31, 2003.
5. Baer, Sleeping with the Devil, p. 141.
7. Ain al-Yaqeen, February 1, 2002.
8. Lt. Col. Jonathan D. Halevi, “Who is Taking Credit for Attacks on the U.S. Army in Western Iraq? Al-Jama’a al-Salafiya al-Mujahida,” Jerusalem Issue Brief 3-3, August 5, 2003;
9. Stephen Schwartz, “Saudi Mischief in Fallujah,” Weekly Standard, June 23, 2003.
11. Sharon LaFraniere, “How Jihad Made Its Way to Chechnya,” Washington Post, April 26, 2003.
12. Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, “A Legal Counterattack,” Newsweek, April 16, 2003;
13. Glenn Simpson, “List of Early al-Qaeda Donors Points to Saudi Elite,” Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2003.
14. Sebastian Rotella, “A Road to Ansar Began in Italy,” Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2003, as cited by Matthew A. Levitt, testimony before the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Senate Judiciary Committee, September 10, 2003.
15. The Australian, August 14, 2003.
16. Baer, Sleeping with the Devil, p. 167.
17. “Have the Saudis Learned Their Lessons?” BBC News, August 15, 2003;
18. Matthew Epstein and Ben Schmidt, “Operation Support-System Shutdown,” National Review, September 4, 2003.
19. June 12, 2003.
20. Jane Perlez, “Saudis Quietly Promote Strict Islam in Indonesia,” New York Times, July 5, 2003.
21. Steve Miller, “Oregon Group Thrives Despite al-Qaeda Tie,” Washington Times, September 15, 2003.
22. Don Van Natta, Jr. with Timothy L. O’Brien, “Flow of Saudis’ Cash to Hamas is Scrutinized,” New York Times, September 17, 2003.
23. Arieh O’Sullivan, “Israeli Intelligence Officials Dismiss Abbas’s Denial of Saudi Aid to Terrorists,” Jerusalem Post, August 11, 2003. A “senior security official” was reported to have stated that the amount was 70 percent. Ha’aretz, July 29, 2003.
24. James Dao, “Saudis Fire Clerics Who Preached Intolerance,” New York Times, June 13, 2003.
25. Lisa Beyer, “Inside the Kingdom,” Time, September 15, 2003.

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Dore Gold is President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Previously, he served as Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations (1997-1999). He is the author of Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (Regnery, 2003). This Jerusalem Viewpoints is an updated version of his testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs of July 31, 2003, and is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on September 18, 2003.