- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2010

Despite some success in disrupting funding for al Qaeda, Saudi authorities face major challenges in regulating the sprawling charitable sector in their desert kingdom, according to officials there and documents.

“There are still loopholes,” said a Saudi official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak with the media. “It is still possible for - [extremist] groups to use the system for their own advantage with impunity.”

A charities commission that Saudi officials promised to establish as long ago as 2002 “hasn’t started functioning yet,” the official said, adding that the proposal had “met with resistance” from some quarters of the government who feared they would have to cede authorities to the new body. “It’s a turf issue,” the official concluded.

Earlier this month, U.S. diplomatic cables posted by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks painted U.S. officials as generally pleased with counterterrorism cooperation with the Saudis but less so with the kingdom’s actions on the terror-financing front, especially against groups other than al Qaeda.

“Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” says one cable from December 2009, adding that the groups “probably raise millions of dollars annually from Saudi sources, often during Hajj and Ramadan,” major Muslim festivals in the kingdom.

The Saudi official shared with The Washington Times a translation of a confidential assessment produced for Saudi officials in response to allegations that senior members of the royal family were involved in funding an opposition politician in an allied Muslim country.

The assessment clears the royals of involvement but shows the politician’s links to a complex web of organizations established by a network of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters, including some that have been indicted or designated as terrorist financiers by U.S. authorities.

The assessment says that “increased diligence and efforts are warranted” to prevent further “misuse [of] the Saudi charitable infrastructure,” calling the web of organizations “an example of the extent to which the Muslim Brotherhood is using moderate-seeming politicians to further its extremist agenda.”

The Muslim Brotherhood is a loose global coalition of Sunni Muslim political parties and other organizations that promote Shariah law and Islamism - a vision of Islam as not just a religious faith, but also the basis for a social and political system.

Founded in 1928 in Egypt, the Brotherhood now encompasses an array of groups, including nonviolent political parties and the Palestinian militant movement Hamas, which the U.S. government has as a terrorist group.

Some U.S. groups linked to the Brotherhood were cited as unindicted co-conspirators in the major U.S. terror-financing investigation that ended with the conviction in November 2008 of five officials of the Dallas, Texas-based Holy Land Foundation for funneling cash to Hamas.

The Brotherhood’s vision of Islam is credited as the ideological wellspring for Sunni extremist groups worldwide, including al Qaeda, and some see it as attempting to fulfill the same goals as al Qaeda - the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate - albeit mostly by open political means.

“You could call it al Qaeda’s political wing,” one former U.S. intelligence official told The Times.

The network described in the Saudi assessment includes several entities that were closed down as a result of U.S. and allied operations like the Holy Land Foundation prosecution, but also others that remain functioning despite being under investigation by U.S. and Saudi authorities.

“This network, which the authorities in the kingdom and the United States have never been able to get their arms around, continues to purposely mislead individuals” in the kingdom about the ultimate destination of the funds they are distributing, the Saudi official said.

The official said he had provided the assessment to illustrate the scale of the challenge Saudi authorities face in trying to interdict funds provided by wealthy individuals for extremists, when the money flows through a huge network of largely legitimate charities and other organizations, many of which are involved in funding nonviolent Islamist political activities.

A report earlier this month prepared for the Gulf Cooperation Council - an association of regional states - found that 86 percent of all private charitable organizations operating in the region are based in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s huge,” the Saudi official said of the kingdom’s charitable sector, adding that oversight and control of the thousands of groups involved had historically been too lax.

“The funding of terrorism is only the most pressing aspect of this,” the official said. “The Muslim Brotherhood is working on a much bigger project than terrorism - a grass-roots political Islamist movement worldwide.”

He said that Saudi officials took “a very negative view” of the brotherhood, citing public statements by senior royals.

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