Thursday, July 26, 2007
U.S. Tracks Saudi Bank Favored by Extremists
U.S. Tracks Saudi Bank Favored by Extremists
Officials Debated What To Do About Al Rajhi, Intelligence Files Show
By GLENN R. SIMPSON
July 26, 2007; Page A1
JIDDA, Saudi Arabia -- In the 1940s, two Bedouin farm boys from the desert began changing money for the trickle of traders and religious pilgrims in this then-remote and barren kingdom. It was a business built on faith and trust, Sulaiman Al Rajhi once told an interviewer, and for many years he would hand gold bars to strangers boarding flights in Jidda and ask them to give the gold to his brother on their arrival in Riyadh.
Today, Mr. Al Rajhi is a reclusive octogenarian whose fortune is estimated at $12 billion. And Al Rajhi Bank grew into the kingdom's largest Islamic bank, with 500 branches in Saudi Arabia and more spread across the Muslim world.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the bank also set off an intense debate within the U.S. government over whether to take strong action against its alleged role in extremist finance. Confidential reports by the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. agencies, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, detail for the first time how much the U.S. learned about the use of Al Rajhi Bank by alleged extremists, and how U.S. officials agonized over what to do about it.
After 9/11, the Saudi monarchy pledged its full support in the fight against global terrorism. And following violent attacks inside the kingdom in the next two years, the Saudis did launch major strikes against militants operating on their soil. But the Saudi government has been far been less willing to tackle the financial infrastructure essential to terrorism. U.S. intelligence reports state that Islamic banks, while mostly doing ordinary commerce, also are institutions that extremism relies upon in its global spread.
As a result, the Bush administration repeatedly debated proposals for taking strong action itself against Al Rajhi Bank, in particular, according to former U.S. officials and previously undisclosed government documents. Ultimately, the U.S. always chose instead to lobby Saudi officialdom quietly about its concerns.
The U.S. intelligence reports, heretofore secret, describe how Al Rajhi Bank has maintained accounts and accepted donations for Saudi charities that the U.S. and other nations have formally designated as fronts for al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
In addition, Mr. Al Rajhi and family members have been major donors to Islamic charities that are suspected by Western intelligence agencies of funding terrorism, according to CIA reports and federal-court filings by the Justice Department.
A 2003 CIA report claims that a year after Sept. 11, with a spotlight on Islamic charities, Mr. Al Rajhi ordered Al Rajhi Bank's board "to explore financial instruments that would allow the bank's charitable contributions to avoid official Saudi scrutiny."
A few weeks earlier, the report says, Mr. Al Rajhi "transferred $1.1 billion to offshore accounts -- using commodity swaps and two Lebanese banks -- citing a concern that U.S. and Saudi authorities might freeze his assets." The report was titled "Al Rajhi Bank: Conduit for Extremist Finance."
Al Rajhi Bank and the Al Rajhi family deny any role in financing extremists. They have denounced terrorist acts as un-Islamic. The bank declined to address specific allegations made in American intelligence and law-enforcement records, citing client confidentiality.
In 2002, the bank sued The Wall Street Journal Europe after an article said Saudi authorities were monitoring some Al Rajhi Bank accounts at U.S. request, in a bid to prevent them from being used, wittingly or unwittingly, for funneling money to terrorist groups. The bank dropped the suit in 2005 and the Journal published a statement saying its article hadn't reported any allegation that the bank supported or financed terrorism.
Also in 2005, a U.S. judge dismissed Al Rajhi Bank from a lawsuit filed by relatives of Sept. 11 victims. The ruling said banks couldn't be held liable for providing routine services to people who turned out to be terrorists. In a statement in response to questions about suspected terrorists among its clients, the bank noted that "Al Rajhi Bank has a very large branch network, and a very large retail customer base."
U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence agencies acknowledge it is possible that extremists use the bank's far-flung branches and money-transfer services without bank officials' knowledge. The U.S. has never obtained proof that the bank or its owners knowingly facilitate terrorism, according to documents and former officials, despite what they describe as extensive circumstantial evidence that some executives are aware the bank is used by extremists. The 2003 CIA report concluded: "Senior Al Rajhi family members have long supported Islamic extremists and probably know that terrorists use their bank."
Most major banks around the world are bound by a patchwork of treaties and agreements that, in effect, require them to know their customers and report any suspicious activities to regulators. The rules are designed to fight terrorism, money laundering and narcotics trafficking. It's generally acknowledged that Saudi banks are bound by these rules, although experts differ on when compliance became mandatory.
The top counterterrorism official at the U.S. Treasury Department, while declining to comment on Al Rajhi Bank specifically, says Saudi officials haven't met a promise to create a commission to oversee Saudi charities, many of which bank with Al Rajhi. "They are also not holding people responsible for sending money abroad for jihad," says the Treasury official, Stuart Levey. "It just doesn't happen."
The Saudi government maintains it has been working diligently with the U.S. and others to counter terrorism. It cites its arrests of several alleged terrorist fund-raisers in recent years. The Saudis didn't respond to specific questions about their efforts to counter terrorist finance or oversee banks.
A White House statement said that "the Saudis continue to be a strong partner in the War on Terror....We have made significant progress on numerous fronts -- including the freezing of assets and the shutdown of known conduits of [terrorist] funding." A CIA spokesman said "publishing details of how our government seeks to track extremist financing" could undermine those efforts.
For the ruling Saud family, any confrontation with the Al Rajhis could be politically treacherous. To stay in power, the Sauds rely on the tolerance of clerical and business elites, many of whom view the royal family as corrupt. The wealthy Al Rajhis are a clan long at odds with the royal family. And U.S. intelligence files show the Al Rajhis also have close ties to another group critical of the royals: Saudi Arabia's conservative clerics.
The Al Rajhi empire includes hotels, housing developments, commodities trading, shipping, aviation leasing and poultry. Its core is the bank, with more than 500 branches in Saudi Arabia and other offices abroad, from Pakistan to Malaysia. For 2006, the publicly held institution reported $1.9 billion in profit and $28 billion in assets.
Sulaiman Al Rajhi grew up in the Nejd desert, the birthplace of a severe form of Islam, called Wahhabism, that forbids birthday parties, musical instruments and photographing people. In the 1940s, he and a brother, Saleh, went to the Saudi capital city. "From literally nothing -- making change on what were then the dirt streets of Riyadh -- Sulaiman and Saleh al Rajhi built the Al Rajhi Bank," Sulaiman's lawyers told a U.S. court in New York in 2005.
Sulaiman described the business in a rare interview with Euromoney magazine in 1983. With two other brothers, he and Saleh began changing money for pilgrims taking camel caravans across the desert to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. When throngs of migrant workers came to Saudi Arabia during the 1970s oil boom, the Al Rajhis helped them send their earnings home to places like Indonesia and Pakistan.
In 1983, the brothers won permission to open Saudi Arabia's first Islamic bank, one that would observe religious tenets such as a ban on interest.
But relations with the ruling family frayed. The government-controlled press in 1992 publicized Al Rajhi Bank's tangential role in an international scandal of that era, that of the bank called BCCI, U.S. diplomats reported. Then in 1994, an infant relative of the Al Rajhis died in a kidnapping. Official press accounts said the kidnappers slit the child's throat, but Saudi dissidents claimed police shot the child. Mr. Al Rajhi blamed the royal family, the CIA report says.
Although Al Rajhi Bank continued to make a show of support for the Sauds -- annual reports had flowery tributes to the royal family -- the bank began refusing to make loans to the Sauds or to finance their projects, U.S. diplomats said at the time.
With its Islamic procedures, the bank was a magnet for the clerical establishment, which grew rich from alms amid the oil boom. As the clerics' charities spread, they became entwined with Al Rajhi Bank and the conservative Al Rajhi family's own extensive financial support for Islamic causes.
There is no reliable estimate of how much the Al Rajhis have given to promote Islam over the years, but an endowment holding much of Saleh Al Rajhi's wealth gives an indication of the scale. Its Web site details nearly $50 million in direct donations within the kingdom to Islamic causes and at least $12 million in donations abroad. The overseas money went to aid embattled Muslims in Kosovo, Chechnya and the Palestinian territories and to finance Islamic instruction.
There are indications not all the giving was for such purposes. The Al Rajhi name appeared on a list of regular financial contributors to al Qaeda that was discovered in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 2002. The list was authenticated for the Federal Bureau of Investigation that year by America's top judicial witness against al Qaeda, a onetime al Qaeda business manager named Jamal Al Fadl, who is in the federal witness-protection program. He called the contributor list the "golden chain."
A 2003 German police report said Sulaiman Al Rajhi and other family members had contributed more than $200,000 in 1993 to a charity that financed weapons for Islamic militants in Bosnia, in addition to providing humanitarian aid.
The 2003 CIA report tells of efforts by two Al Rajhi brothers to keep some giving secret. It says that Sulaiman and Saleh transferred $4 million to parties in Germany and Pakistan in December 1998 using "a unique computer code to send funds at regular intervals to unspecified recipients, suggesting they were trying to conceal the transactions and that the money may have been intended for illegitimate ends."
The report says extremists "ordered operatives in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Yemen" to use Al Rajhi Bank. Mamduh Mahmud Salim, convicted mastermind of the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, was carrying records of an Al Rajhi account (number 001424/4) when arrested in Germany in 1998, German police found.
In 2000, the CIA report says, Al Rajhi Bank couriers "delivered money to the Indonesian insurgent group Kompak to fund weapons purchases and bomb-making activities."
A U.S. intelligence memo dated Nov. 16, 2001, says a money courier for Osama bin Laden's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, traveled on a visa that the bank had obtained for him. The memo adds, however: "Reporting does not indicate whether bank management was witting" of the courier's terrorist connections.
Al Rajhi Bank maintained at least 24 accounts and handled unusual transactions for Al-Haramain foundation -- a charity that Treasury officials say has acted as a front for al Qaeda in 13 countries -- until the Saudi government ordered the charity shut down in late 2004, according to intelligence and law-enforcement reports. The United Nations has designated top officials of Al-Haramain foundation as terrorists, and most of its offices now are closed.
According to a federal indictment in Oregon, a top Al-Haramain official in 2000 carried $130,000 in $1,000 traveler's checks from Portland to Riyadh and deposited them with Al Rajhi -- funds the indictment says were for the ultimate benefit of al Qaeda fighters in Chechnya. The indicted official, Soliman Al-Buthe, now works for the city of Riyadh. In an interview, he confirmed carrying the checks and depositing them with Al Rajhi Bank but said that they weren't for al Qaeda and that he did nothing wrong.
[Adnan Khalil Basha]
A Jidda-based charity called the International Islamic Relief Organization, or IIRO, arranges for donors to send their donations directly to the Al Rajhi Bank. The IIRO's chairman, Adnan Khalil Basha, says the charity is "absolutely apolitical" and has elaborate spending controls to prevent illicit diversions. The charity says it works with Al Rajhi Bank simply because its fees are low and its service is best.
However, the U.N. has labeled two of the IIRO's branches and some of its officials as al Qaeda supporters. In 2004, the IIRO solicited donations through Al Rajhi Bank for the Iraqi city of Fallujah, then largely under the control of insurgents and the base of the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who led al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The IIRO's workers oversaw construction of a trauma clinic in an insurgent-controlled area of Fallujah. The U.S. saw the clinic as a haven for insurgent fighters, and Marines destroyed it in November 2004. That was "a big tragedy for us," says the IIRO's chairman, Mr. Basha.
He denies the charity had any involvement with the Iraqi insurgency. Charity officials complain that the U.S. has produced no evidence of their alleged ties to terrorism.
Two years earlier, federal agents raided the Virginia offices of a network of charities funded by Sulaiman Al Rajhi that worked closely with the IIRO and that -- according to Justice Department court filings -- provided funds to Palestinian terrorists. No charges have been filed.
A year after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. authorities began to lament the lack of Saudi action in taking down terrorists' financial infrastructure. A November 2002 CIA report said the Saudi government "has made little independent effort to uncover terrorist financiers, investigate individual donors, and tighten the regulation of Islamic charities," largely because of "domestic political considerations."
The report advised against a noisy confrontation: "A key factor for continued successful counterterrorism initiatives with the Saudis, whose society is by tradition private, closed, and conservative, will be to ensure that their cooperation with the United States is handled discreetly and kept as much as possible out of the public eye."
The U.S. began to rethink that approach after an al Qaeda attack in Riyadh in May 2003 that killed 26 people, including nine Americans. Deputies from the National Security Council, CIA, Treasury and State departments debated a proposal for legal and political action against Al Rajhi Bank, including the possibility of covert operations such as interfering with the bank's internal operations, according to Bush administration documents and former U.S. officials.
One idea kicked around was "listing or threatening to list" Al Rajhi Bank as a supporter of terrorism. Such a listing can be done if recommended by a committee representing the Treasury, State and Defense departments and the CIA and NSC, and signed by the president. The designation bars U.S. companies from doing business with the named entity. A U.S. designation also normally is forwarded to the U.N., and if that body puts the name on its own terrorist-supporter list, all member states are obliged to freeze the entity's assets.
Other ideas U.S. officials discussed included enlisting friendly countries to step up scrutiny and regulatory action against the Al Rajhis. The CIA report said that "a successful effort against the Al Rajhis would encourage efforts against other donors, or at a minimum, would discourage private funding of Al Qaeda."
Ultimately, the Bush administration again chose merely to continue privately exerting pressure on the Saudis to stiffen their oversight.
Write to Glenn R. Simpson at email@example.com
The News: U.S. intelligence reports say Islamic extremists often use Saudi Arabia's Al Rajhi Bank to move money. The bank has denounced terrorism and denies any role in financing extremists.
The Issue: A confrontation with Al Rajhi would be politically difficult for Saudi monarchy, and U.S. isn't satisfied with its efforts to curb the financial infrastructure essential to terrorism.
Result: U.S. has periodically debated taking action on its own against the bank, but chosen instead to lobby the Saudis quietly about its concerns.
Posted by lmurx at 4:42 AM