Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Sep. 23, 2016, 11:12am

Much of the controversial history of Al Haramain Foundation (AHF) can be tied back to the evolving relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Last Friday, September 16, the name of the U.S. branch of the charity was removed from the U.S. Treasury’s OFAC SDN lists. Formally dissolved in 2004 by the Saudi government and blacklisted by the U.S. in 2008 for its “direct links” with al-Qaeda’s leadership and operatives, Al Haramain Foundation was among those Islamic charities that came into the limelight after 9/11 for their role as alleged sponsors of international terrorism. The Treasury’s move marks the unfortunate epilogue of a longstanding legal battle between U.S. authorities and the charity that leaves many questions open.

For starters, how could a foundation with a proven, long-lasting, and structural affiliation with al-Qaeda be altogether delisted as a result of a legal settlement? Funded mostly by governmental grants and individual donations, Al Haramain Foundation presented itself as a Riyadh-headquartered NGO promoting Islamic teaching across the globe through its many branches. Investigations triggered by the September 11 attacks brought up indisputable evidence that, over the years, Al Haramain’s employees and representatives had provided “financial, material and/or logistical support” to al-Qaeda’s operatives in Africa, Asia and Europe, as well as to other terrorist and extremist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, Lashkar e-Taibah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. In 2008 all of the charity’s branches were designated as terrorist entities by U.S. authorities after the U.S. had blacklisted thirteen of its branches throughout the world between 2002 and 2004. The UN followed suit, mimicking the U.S. Treasury’s efforts to counter successful attempts of the foundation’s blacklisted branches to reconstitute their ranks and to continue to operate even after the sanctions.

Even beyond AHF’s significant contribution to the al-Qaeda cadre for years, the Al Haramain Foundation case became especially known in the U.S. after the Treasury announced its decision to blacklist AHF’s Oregon-based branch on September 9, 2004. U.S. authorities found that the Oregon branch of the charity had direct links with Osama Bin Laden and had failed to report to the IRS a $150,000 donation directed to support Chechen jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda but disguised as humanitarian aid for Chechen refugees. The opaque procedures behind the U.S. investigations as well as the terrorist designation and the consequent freezing of AHF’s assets sparked a long legal battle between U.S. authorities and Al Haramain Foundation with victories and defeats on both sides. Among the most critical ones was the 2011 decision of a U.S. appeals court who deliberated that evidence surfaced during U.S. investigations was sufficient towards the terrorist designation of the foundation, but also found that AHF’s procedural due process rights had been violated by U.S. authorities who had not disclosed evidence nor had provided reasons for the investigation. The U.S. Treasury’s decision to delist AHF’s Oregon branch is nonetheless surprising. Reuters reported the statements by a lawyer for AHF, Lynne Bernabei, who publicly commented that the Treasury’s decision is “an acknowledgement that there was no basis to designate them in the first place”. The troubled legal history of the Al Haramain case suggests the opposite, and seems to reveal, once again, that a political drive may be behind the OFAC sanctioning process.

The timing of the announced delisting is, in fact, pretty curious. The move comes at a most delicate moment for the political relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, who is currently dealing with a decisive transition phase on multiple fronts of its proxy war with regional rival Iran. The U.S., on their hand, has not scaled back its support to the Saudi kingdom. Even in light of old and new incriminating evidence of U.S. military equipment used against civilians in Yemen, yesterday the U.S. Senate rejected a bill that intended to block the $1.15 billion arms sale from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia. Last week President Obama vowed to veto a bill that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for its supposed role in the attacks. The Treasury’s decision, as well, may be partly ascribed to calculated indulgence towards a case with potentially devastating political implications for Saudi Arabia, now that Saudi Arabia’s role as a major sponsor of global terrorism has attracted renewed attention.

The suspicion becomes more substantive if one reflects on another, controversial profile of Al Haramain’s activities over the years. According to Brookings expert Daniel Byman, Al Haramain Foundation has served as a critical channel of Saudi efforts to spread Wahhabism across the globe by funding charities, Islamic cultural institutes, and mosques – efforts increasingly blamed for the cultural climate that is reputed to be conducive to radical extremism and terrorism. As discussed in previous pieces, over the past thirty years Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been at the forefront of a world-wide race to spread the extremist Salfi ideology through Wahhabi petrodollars. Interestingly, the two countries share some history also in the Al Haramain Foundation case. Al Rajhi Bank, the prominent, infamous Saudi bank that has served “as the shariah bank of choice for the world’s jihadists” - remains a major correspondent bank of the Islamic financial giant Qatar Islamic Bank. Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson observed in 2007 that al-Rajhi Bank maintained at least 24 accounts and handled unusual transactions for al-Haramain Foundation. Moreover, The Washington Free Beacon reported that the Doha-based Eid Charity, a foundation with a “a history of organizational ties to terrorist groups and organizations funding terrorist groups,” recently hired Washington D.C.-based lobbyist Wendell Belew, who had previously represented Al Haramain Foundation.

It is hard to foresee how much further  the U.S. administration is willing to go in what has been labelled “its unconditional support” of its Saudi ally. Several congressmen, experts, and media are escalating pressure on U.S. authorities to re-evaluate their political and military partnership with Saudi Arabia, a necessity that becomes especially compelling “when civilians are being killed and terrorist organizations are growing stronger.” But no matter the extent of the support the U.S. will decide to grant in the future to either Middle East contender, the manipulation of international sanctioning tools such as the U.S. Treasury’s blacklists for political reasons remains something that the U.S. and the international community cannot afford.

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