List of Early al Qaeda Donors
By GLENN R.
(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)
WASHINGTON -- A cache of al Qaeda documents seized last year by U.S. agents in Bosnia identifies some of Saudi Arabia's richest and most influential families as among the first financial supporters of Osama bin Laden, and shows how al Qaeda used charitable arms of the Saudi government.
An account of the roots of al Qaeda found on a computer used by a suspected al Qaeda front group contains a 1988 memorandum listing 20 Saudi financial backers of Mr. bin Laden -- "the Golden Chain," as the bin Laden organization called it. The list includes the families of three billionaire Saudi banking magnates, several top industrialists and at least one former government minister.
The Golden Chain list, which doesn't indicate the size of the donations, was drawn up at a time when supporting the Afghan revolt against Soviet invaders -- Mr. bin Laden's cause at the time -- was a top U.S. foreign-policy objective, as well as a Saudi national cause with deep patriotic and religious overtones. The list doesn't show any continuing support for al Qaeda after the organization began targeting Americans, but a number of the Saudis on it have been under scrutiny by U.S. officials as to whether they have supported terrorism in recent years.
Disclosure of the documents -- hundreds of pages of internal correspondence over more than a decade between al Qaeda leaders, as well as the list -- comes at an awkward moment for the Bush administration. As the U.S. approaches war with Iraq, it is relying on Saudi Arabian support, particularly use of Prince Sultan Air Base, near the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
The Golden Chain list was confirmed by U.S. officials and translated from Arabic by the Justice Department. It names billionaire bankers Saleh Kamel and Khalid bin Mahfouz, as well as the Al-Rajhi family, another banking family, and Mr. bin Laden's own brothers. A number of the Saudis on the list, including the bin Mahfouz, Al-Rajhi and Kamel families, are among those under U.S. scrutiny.
A bank controlled by the Al-Rajhi family is in litigation in the United Kingdom against the publisher of The Wall Street Journal Europe, for an article that identified the bank as being monitored by Saudi banking authorities.
The three families have long denied any involvement with al Qaeda, and Monday lawyers for the Kamel interests restated that position. An Al-Rajhi lawyer declined to comment. A bin Mahfouz family lawyer said that Khalid bin Mahfouz did make one payment of roughly $250,000 to Mr. bin Laden in the late 1980s, but he said it was done at the behest of U.S. and Saudi officials seeking support for the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union. Al Qaeda was founded in 1988, the year the list was compiled and about the time Mr. bin Laden was in transition from being a U.S. ally to its sworn enemy.
The al Qaeda documents were obtained from federal prosecutors in Chicago by French terrorism researcher Jean Charles Brisard, who persuaded the Bosnian Supreme Court to demand them back from the U.S. Mr. Brisard is a consultant to trial lawyer Ronald Motley, who is representing many victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in a civil suit against al Qaeda's alleged financial supporters.
In a recent court filing, Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for Northern Illinois, said the documents help prove "a 15-year, international conspiracy to use ostensibly charitable organizations to support violence overseas on behalf of purportedly Islamic causes."
U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have studied connections between the Al-Rajhi family and its bank to al Qaeda through corporate and bank records.
The bin Mahfouz family, also defendants in civil suits brought by terror victims, organized a Europe-based charity known as Muwafaq, or Blessed Relief, that the U.S. Treasury designated an al Qaeda front a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. The spokesman for Mr. bin Mahfouz said he hasn't seen any evidence that Muwafaq aided al Qaeda. U.S. officials maintain that the designation was justified for a variety of connections with terrorists or terrorist groups.
In addition to the donor list, the Bosnia documents show the bin Laden organization used Saudi government charities to move money and supplies and to provide logistical support. An undated memorandum on the stationery of Saudi welfare agencies Muslim World League and International Islamic Relief Organization details a meeting of bin Laden associates discussing using the league's offices in Pakistan, and saying that "attacks will be launched from them." While it isn't clear whether the memo refers to terrorism, Western and Pakistani officials have asserted that Saudi charity offices in Pakistan during the 1990s were linked to terror attacks there.
Corrections & Amplifications:
The U.S. Treasury said that a charity founded by Saudi businessman Khalid bin Mahfouz was "an al Qaeda front," but officially designated only the defunct group's former officials as terror sponsors. This article incorrectly stated that the charity was officially listed by the U.S. as a terror support group. In addition, a lawyer for Mr. bin Mahfouz said he made a $250,000 contribution to a fund to support the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, not to Osama bin Laden directly as this article quoted him saying.
Write to Glenn R. Simpson at email@example.com
Updated March 18, 2003 10:48 p.m.