In March 2002, Federal terrorism investigators descended upon a group of Saudi-backed executives operating out of northern Virginia. The government hauled away truckloads of files and computer hard drives from the "SAAR Network," a web of dozens of related companies with interlocking officers, directors, and corporate headquarters.
The Treasury Department suspected the group was laundering money for al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
Now over a year after the raids, many are asking whether the Justice Department will hand down indictments or clear the targets' names. While the government has revealed very little about the lengthy probe, documents recently made public in terrorism trials across the nation shed new light on the subjects of this ongoing terrorism investigation.
At the center is SAAR Executive Yaqub Mirza. Mirza has been publicly linked to the alleged financing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad through his organizations International Institute of Islamic Thought and Safa Trust. He was also a director of Ptech, the Boston-based software company raided by a terrorism task force last year for its connections with designated al Qaeda financier Yasin Kadi. Mirza has denied wrongdoing.
In light of the new documents, investigators are revisiting the financial activities of two SAAR affiliated Islamic charities, the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), and its sister organization Sana-Bell, Inc.
IIRO, SANA-BELL & THE GOLDEN CHAIN
Red flags have been raised by the fact that Sana-Bell's Washington, D.C. branch was founded by two known al Qaeda financiers, Saleh Kamel and Ibrahim Afandi. Yaqub Mirza is also listed as a founding trustee.
Kamel and Afandi are members of the Golden Chain, a group of wealthy Gulf patrons that donated millions of dollars to Osama bin Laden. Former al Qaeda operatives have explained how Golden Chain financiers would donate funds earmarked for bin Laden by way of the Saudi evangelical charity the Muslim World League. Both Sana-Bell and IIRO are operational arms of the Muslim World League.
The Golden Chain was established at the time of al Qaeda's formation in 1988; Sana-Bell's DC branch was organized only months later.
AL QAEDA IN BOSNIA
In the 1990's, IIRO and Sana-Bell spearheaded the relief effort for the Bosnian Muslims. On 1996 U.S. tax forms, IIRO listed $4.5 million in total grants and allocations; $3.9 million went to "Emergency relief supplies (medical supplies) to International Islamic Relief in Bosnia."
A newly released 1996 CIA report explains that "nearly one third of the Islamic NGOs in the Balkans have facilitated the activities of Islamic groups that engage in terrorism." In fact, Osama bin Laden once explained that he felt it was important to assist the Bosnians in an effort to establish a base of operations in Europe, from which al Qaeda would have easy access to Western nations. Without surprise, IIRO relief worker identity cards were found on the bodies of dead mujahedeen fighters in Bosnia.
SULAIMAN AL-ALI: CORRUPT LEADER OR TERROR FINANCIER?
The U.S. based activities of Sana-Bell and IIRO first caught the attention of terrorism investigators in 1997 when FBI agents raided the offices of their operational leader, Sulaiman al-Ali. In a 33-page affidavit alleging money laundering and fraud, FBI Special Agent Valerie Donohue concluded that, "[I]IRO holds itself out to the public as a charitable organization, but has disbursed significant sums of money in ways that do not appear consistent with a charitable mission."
Federal agents alleged that al-Ali laundered over $1 million dollars through Global Chemical Corporation, a Chicago-based chemical manufacturer. The president of Global Chemical is currently serving a 51-month sentence for fraud.
According to his former business partners, al-Ali was a wealthy and influential figure in Saudi Arabia. As a member of IIRO's executive committee, he solicited donations directly from the Saudi Royal family.
Tax filings reveal that from 1992 to 1998 al-Ali invested millions of dollars in shadowy real estate deals operated by the private Islamic investment bank BMI, Inc. BMI's backers include two Specially Designated Terrorists (Musa Marzouk and Yasin Kadi) and two bin Laden brothers. Sana-Bell later filed a lawsuit against al-Ali and BMI for $3.7 million that disappeared. Despite years of running Sana-Bell's finances, Yaqub Mirza and Sana-Bell argued that al-Ali lacked authority to transact on Sana-Bell's behalf.
To terrorism investigators following the money trial, Sana-Bell's sudden break with al-Ali and BMI is troubling. Sana-Bell executives first questioned al-Ali's financial activities on August 18, 1998, only eleven days after the East African embassy bombings. Court filings explain that BMI was contacted by a top Muslim World League official from Saudi Arabia, described as "the Pope of the Muslim[s]," and instructed to "cancel the validity of [al-Ali's] signature in regard to all of our accounts with your firm."
According to a sworn statement filed by FBI Special Agent Robert Wright, a BMI accountant confessed that he feared money he transferred overseas might have helped finance the attack.
OTHER AL QAEDA LINKS
Investigators are probing other connections between Sana-Bell head Sulaiman Al-Ali and al Qaeda.
In a 1991 tax filing, al-Ali disclosed that he had a "strong relationship" with Lajnat al-Dawa, Kuwait, an agency involved in "assisting the Afghan Refugees in Pakistan." Lajnat al-Dawa has since been listed by the Treasury Department as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) as a result of their financial and operational support of al Qaeda. September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and his older brother Zahed headed the Lajnat al-Dawa operations in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Lajnat al-Dawa's sister organization, Lajnat al-Alam, was identified in the 1996 CIA report as a supporter of Arab mujahedeen training camps in Bosnia.
Saudi officials have told reporters that Sulaiman al-Ali was arrested by authorities upon his return to Saudi Arabia in October 2000. Shortly after, he was released on bail. Saudi officials could not confirm if any legal action followed.
As the Saudis are unlikely to make al-Ali available to U.S. investigators, perhaps Yaqub Mirza or his personal files can help fill in some of the missing links.
— Matthew Epstein is an attorney and senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism think tank established in 1995.