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Issue: 06/03/02

Release date May 20, 2002

Sneak Preview- Documents Detail Saudi Terror Links
By Kenneth R. Timmerman

Only a small portion of the documents Israel seized from Palestinian terrorist cells and governmental offices during the monthlong incursion into the West Bank has been made public, but already one Arab state and its highly paid U.S. lobbyists are crying foul. After Israeli revelations that the Saudi government had been paying blood money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, the Saudis put out the word that the Israeli documents were "false."

Not mistakenly interpreted, not taken out of context, not misleading or mistranslated, but false. "It is complete and utter nonsense that the Saudi government has been giving money to the families of suicide bombers," Saudi public-relations agent Michael Petruzzello tells Insight.

The documents come in many flavors. They include Saudi-government accounting schedules showing the amount of money paid to individual Palestinians and their families, with the names of suicide bombers and others who carried out armed attacks against Israelis highlighted in yellow, blue and pink. They include correspondence between Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Saudi government that discusses the payments. They also include a damning letter from the Saudis complaining that the Palestinians had exposed the secret financial ties by allowing the publication of a Feb. 19 report in the PA publication al-Hayat al-Jedida thanking Saudi Arabia for assisting the families of terrorists killed in attacks on Israelis.

The Israelis also captured official PA correspondence praising the bombers and a Hamas leaflet lauding a teen-age "martyr" for his "quality suicide action." The teen-ager, Natir Muhammad Mahmud Hamed, appears as No. 91 on one list of 102 Palestinians whose families received the Saudi blood money. He carried out a shooting at the Afula bus station on Oct. 5, 2001, in which three Israeli civilians were killed and 14 were wounded.

"We have several warehouses full of documents and have finished our preliminary analysis of them," Israeli military-intelligence analyst Col. Miriam Eisen tells Insight. "We will be releasing them as we are able to put them into context, not one by one."

Many of these documents were seized at the offices of the Tulkarm Zakat (Charity) Association, a nongovernmental agency that dispensed social assistance to the families of suicide bombers primarily from foreign donors, including the government of Saudi Arabia. Other foreign donors included the largest Muslim charity in the United States, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) in Richardson, Texas, whose assets were frozen in December 2001 on presidential order because of its alleged ties to terrorist groups.

The HLF frequently has been singled out by the Israelis as a major source of funding for Hamas. Last year, it raised an estimated $13 million, which it boasted of donating to charities in the West Bank and Gaza. HLF supporters, which include groups such as the American Muslim Council and the Islamic Association for Palestine, claim they merely are providing humanitarian aid for Palestinian families, much as the Saudis are doing today.

Khaled Saffuri, a former legislative director of the American Muslim Council who now heads the Islamic Institute in Washington, has met with top Justice Department officials several times since the HLF was shut down — including a private dinner with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft — questioning the breadth and manner of the FBI crackdown on Muslim charities in America. Saffuri openly boasts of his ties to the Bush White House and to top Republican strategist Grover Norquist, who cofounded the Islamic Institute four years ago.

In a meeting with Insight editors last week, Saffuri firmly denounced Hamas, Hezbollah and all other terrorist groups. He called for Arafat's ouster. Norquist, also present at the meeting, heatedly dismissed critics of his efforts on behalf of Saffuri and other Muslim leaders, some of whom have been tied to Hamas fund-raising efforts in the United States, as "bigots" and "racists spreading lies."

When he announced the closure of the HLF on Dec. 4, 2001, President George W. Bush made clear that the group had violated the law. "Money raised by the Holy Land Foundation is used by Hamas to support schools and indoctrinate children to grow up into suicide bombers. Money raised by the Holy Land Foundation also is used by Hamas to recruit suicide bombers and to support their families," Bush said.

The Israelis seized extensive correspondence between the HLF and the Tulkarm Charity Association, which the Israelis labeled "one of the power centers of Hamas in Tulkarm." The charity "also has ties with the operational apparatus of Hamas which recruits youths in order to perpetrate suicide attacks," an Israeli intelligence analysis of the captured documents states.

Israel's claims about both groups were buttressed by an affidavit in support of shutting down the HLF filed in federal court on Nov. 15, 2001, by Dale L. Watson, assistant FBI director for counterterrorism. The affidavit itemized payments by the HLF to the Tulkarm group and named five top Hamas officials who had received the money.

Documents seized by the Israelis suggest that the substantial payments distributed to the families were a key element in recruiting suicide bombers. The one-time grants amounted to $25,000 per family from the government of Iraq, $5,300 from Saudi Arabia, $2,000 from the PA and $500 each from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

The $33,300 total payment amounts to approximately six years of the average Palestinian's annual wage. Saudi government spokesman Adel al-Jubeir acknowledged in a press conference just hours after the Israelis released the first documents that his government had provided "hundreds of millions of dollars to assist Palestinians." But al-Jubeir, until recently the deputy chief of mission at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, stressed: "We do not target suicide bombers. Support will go to every family in need. We do not ask where they come from."

In a written statement, Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan said Saudi help "includes financial assistance to the families of victims & money to restock hospitals that have no medicines, to rebuild schools, to restore electricity and telephones and to put food on the tables of thousands of starving families."

Petruzzello, speaking separately to Insight, said the Saudi government was providing an estimated $120 million per year to "international organizations such as the U.N., the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Society for distribution [to the West Bank and Gaza]. The U.S. is using the same channels. So you can't say the Saudis are giving money to suicide bombers any more than the U.S. is doing."

Congressional analysts who track the way the United States sends aid to the Palestinians flatly contradict that assertion. "With few exceptions, U.S. aid money since 1995 has been disbursed through the U.S. Agency for International Development, which chooses contractors and monitors local projects such as highways and medical centers," one analyst tells Insight.

The documents released by Israel tell quite a different story from the Saudi claims of benign humanitarian assistance. Tables listing four "payment cycles" made by the Saudi Committee for Support of Intifada al-Quds (also known as the Committee for Support of the al-Aqsa Intifada) contained the names of more than 300 Palestinian victims of the 2000-2001 uprising, many of whom were involved directly in attacks against Israeli civilians.

An Israeli military-intelligence analysis of the most recent payment schedule ($545,000 paid out via the local branch office of the Arab Bank to the families of 102 Palestinians who died in 2001), spelled out in chilling detail the biographies of 36 of the Palestinian "victims." Eight of them were identified by name in the Saudi documents as suicide bombers. The other 28 were Hamas, Fatah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad military commanders and activists directly involved in planning or executing terrorist attacks.

The documents establish clearly that the Saudi money flowed from several sources, all of them closely tied to (and in some cases directly controlled by) senior members of the Saudi royal family. The main source of funding was the Saudi Committee for Support of the Intifada, a governmental agency run by Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz. The Saudi Embassy in Washington boasted that the committee had raised more than $109.56 million for "Palestinian martyrs" during a three-day telethon in April. The biggest single donor was Alwaleed bin Talal, who pledged $27 million, including 100 deluxe four-wheel-drive vehicles — gifts that certainly would come in handy to impoverished families out shopping in refugee camps.

This is the same billionaire prince whose offer of $10 million to the city of New York was rejected by mayor Rudy Giuliani after the prince urged the United States to drop its support for Israel. Saudi King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah each pledged more than $1 million to the committee during the telethon, and King Fahd's wife, Princess Johara bint Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, pledged an additional $800,000.

Another Saudi donor organization the Israelis claim has been funding Hamas and the suicide bombers is the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO). A quasi-official entity that helped funnel billions of dollars of Saudi aid to mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan during the 1980s, the IIRO is supervised by the governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz. Among the alleged beneficiaries of IIRO funds in the 1980s were Osama bin Laden and his brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifah, as well as Iraqi terrorist Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of both the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the failed 1995 scheme known as "Project Bojinka" to crash 11 U.S. commercial jetliners into U.S. cities and airports.

In one internal IIRO report captured by the Israelis, the organization listed 14 Islamic committees in the West Bank and Gaza to which it had distributed $280,000. All 14 organizations "are known to be identified with Hamas," the Israelis claim. The IIRO report notes that the Saudi money had been earmarked for the families of victims, including those killed in attacks on Israelis, "as well as the Hamas-identified committees/bodies themselves." The Saudi support for Hamas and its affiliated charities didn't always suit Arafat and the PA. In a separate letter to Prince Salman dated Jan. 1, 2001, a top Arafat aide, Abu Mazen, complained that the Saudi money was not reaching the families of the "martyrs," but was going directly to Hamas.

"I wish to inform you," wrote Mazen, "that [Arafat] phoned me and asked to pass on to you his request to mediate and intervene and express his opinion about what is happening in our homeland. The Saudi committee responsible for transferring the contributions to beneficiaries is sending large sums to radical committees and associations, including the Islamic Association which belongs to Hamas & and brothers belonging to the Jihad in all areas. This has a bad effect on the domestic situation and also strengthens these brothers and thus has a bad impact on everybody."

Saudis Buy Friends, Influence in Washington

The Saudi government is paying large sums to hire Washington public-relations (PR) and lobbying firms — some of them with solid Republican Party credentials — to burnish its image post-Sept. 11.

The biggest winner has been Qorvis Communications, a Washington "spin shop" that formally registered as a foreign agent for the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia on March 6. Qorvis declared that it had received $3,797,078 for its services prior to registration, according to records at the Department of Justice.

Qorvis Managing Partner Michael Petruzzello calls his firm "nonpartisan," but it has teamed with one of Washington's best-connected law firms, Patton Boggs, a lead Qorvis investor. Handling the Saudi account are Patton Boggs partners Jack Deschauer, a former legislative counsel for the U.S. Navy during the George H.W. Bush administration, and Ed Newberry, a longtime staff member of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va). The firm is receiving $100,000 to "educate Congress and staff on issues that are important to the Saudis," says Kevin McCauley of the industry newsletter, O'Dwyer's PR Daily.

Just after the Sept. 11 attacks, McCauley adds, the Saudis hired the PR firm Burson-Marsteller and spent $2.5 million to buy national newspaper ads to counter the negative image of Saudi Arabia as the home of 14 of the 19 al-Qaeda hijackers.

More recently, the Saudis have worked with former Republican campaign strategist Chris Wilson, a Qorvis partner, to conduct focus groups to craft "soft" TV spots aimed at improving public perceptions of the desert kingdom. Although the spots were rejected by the Weather Channel and some cable operators as "inappropriate," a Qorvis executive tells Insight the advertising campaign had been a success. "Things are starting to turn around," he observes. "The polling numbers are coming back to pre-9/11 levels."

Fred Dutton, who was a White House adviser to President John F. Kennedy, is the dean of registered Saudi agents in Washington and has fought PR battles before. "This is probably a $10 million campaign," he tells Insight. "But that's peanuts in our politics. For every dollar the Saudis are spending, the American Jewish community is spending $10 to influence politicians and public opinion."

Testament to a Suicide Bomber

Abd al-Karim Omar Muhammad Abu Na'asah was No. 17 on a list of 102 Palestinians whose families received a one-time payment of $5,300 from the Saudi Committee for the Support of the al-Aqsa Intifada and is identified in a table bearing the insignia of the Royal Saudi government as the perpetrator of a "suicide operation in Afula." Here is how the Israelis described him in an intelligence analysis that accompanied the captured documents:

"Born in Jenin, in the past served as a policeman in the Palestinian Police in Jenin. An activist of Fatah/al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, directed by the Fatah senior leadership (Abd al Karim Aweis). He was recruited for the Afula suicide attack by Haj Ali Safuri, commander of the PIJ [Palestine Islamic Jihad] military-security apparatus in Jenin.

"The attack was carried out in the city market in Afula on 27 November 2001. Two Israeli civilians were killed in the attack and 50 were wounded, nine severely. Responsibility for the attack was claimed jointly by the PIJ and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades."

According to captured documents, the expenses of this suicide attack were paid for by the PIJ secretary, Ramadan Shalah, who resides in Damascus, where he directs his organization's terrorist attacks against Israel.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.