In an ironic twist, an international interfaith conference set to start Wednesday in Madrid was organized by a man accused of working with a senior Al Qaeda financier and who unabashedly supports Palestinian suicide bombings.
Abdullah al-Turki is organizing the conference on behalf of the Muslim World League (MWL), where he is secretary general. The MWL was created by the Saudi royal family in 1962 to "promote Islamic unity" and spread Wahhabi doctrine. Wahhabism is an austere form of Islam that seeks to realize the faith as it was practiced by Muhammad and his Companions, barren of the innovations and traditions that arose in the centuries since.
The conference is expected to attract more than 100 people from more than 50 countries. But it is a previous Madrid venture by al-Turki that raises questions about the conference. In 1999, al-Turki was a partner in a Madrid construction project with a senior Al Qaeda financier, a pending lawsuit claims. Profits from that deal were routed to Al Qaeda cells, according to allegations in WTC Properties v. Al Baraka et. al.
The lawsuit argues that, without the financial support from the banks, charities and other entities targeted, the 9/11 attacks may not have taken place. Similar allegations were made in at least three other lawsuits. In court papers, Al Turki has disputed the lawsuit's allegations and has argued that none of his actions were intended to support terrorist activities.
Organizers of this week's gathering say it is expected to attract dozens of American-based Muslims, including Sayyed Syeed and Ingrid Mattson from the Islamic Society of North America, Ibrahim Hooper, Nihad Awad from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as well as six U.S. rabbis, including Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and Steven Jacobs of Los Angeles. In addition, John Esposito, director of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding is among a few American academics invited to attend.
Saudi King Abdullah will open the conference, the Agence France Press news service reported Monday. The audience will include World Jewish Congress Secretary General Michael Schneider and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican's point man on dialogue with Muslims.
Al-Turki said the conference will avoid contentious issues and instead serve as an opportunity "to get to know each other and to look for ways to cooperate."
At another conference organized by al-Turki in 2002, the assembled scholars of the Islamic Fiqh Academy of the MWL "stated that terrorism is not equal to Jihad," the lawsuit says. The scholars "defined a right to struggle ‘against occupiers … and those who renege on their commitments or prevent Muslims from peacefully preaching.'"
In the week following the 9/11 attacks, al-Turki told a radio interviewer that U.S. policy was responsible for the attacks.
"The attacks are a result of injustice which is carried out in the world, particularly the world which is led by the USA. They are greatly responsible for the injustice which exists in the world today," al-Turki said. He then blamed Israel, which he called "the mother of terrorism. To be able to solve the problem of terrorism in the world, it is necessary first of all to resolve the Palestinian question."
Later that year, during a news conference at the National Press Club videotaped by the Investigative Project, al-Turki was asked about Palestinian suicide bombings:
We can also reverse the question by asking the questioner: "What do you think of the, um, Israeli oppression against the Palestinian people?" Could that be called terrorism as well? Is it coming from - is it based on
religion? This is a question. In regards to the operation, we shall state that first of all, Islam is against the killing of innocent people, civilians, and non-warring people. Those who are involved in so-called 'operation' in fact were put in a very dark (unintelligible word). They have no way-no other alternative. What could be the alternative for them? They came into a state of oppression, and no hope. It's a hopeless case for them. And because there is a strong and organized terrorism being waged against them, so they have no other choice except to do what they do and we shall not look at the issue from only a religious perspective, but rather we shall look at it as a matter of aggression being forced on them, and they had no other choice except that.
Bob Blitzer, who served as the FBI's domestic terrorism chief in the 1990s, said he was troubled by a conference purported to be about interfaith dialogue being organized by a group charged with spreading Wahhabism. It's more troubling, he said, when the principal organizer is alleged in court papers to have ties to Al Qaeda.
"I'm not sure why in the world they would put someone in a responsible position in that type of forum," Blitzer said. "It sends the wrong message. People of faith are seeking rapprochement with the Muslim world. Most, or all, of these folks are going there for the right reasons. If he's the face of this, what does that say?"
Once they learn about al-Turki's alleged ties to Al Qaeda and his previous statements, Americans planning on attending the conference "should walk away and ask the king about this," Blitzer said.
That sentiment was echoed by U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC), who founded the bipartisan Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus.
"I am very supportive of interfaith dialogue and believe we need to encourage all religions to work together for peace and for the good of mankind," Myrick said. "I am encouraged by King Abdullah's initiative to promote interfaith understanding. However, I fail to understand how the goals of this conference can be achieved when the man running this summit is a suspected financier of terrorism and has made statements in the past saying that only Islam could dominate the Arabian Peninsula. Call me old fashion, but actions always speak louder than words."
In WTC Properties v. Al Baraka, et. al. al-Turki is described as having "acted as Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs for many years and clearly was in a position where he should have known about the reach of international terrorism and al Qaeda." He became a shareholder in a business that "bought real estate but did no actual construction work, although [it] list[ed] itself as a construction company. Instead, that company made direct payments to al Qaeda cells," according to the lawsuit.
Al-Turki's partner was Muhammed Galeb Kalaje Zouaydi, described in the litigation as "a high level al Qaeda financier" and a brother in law of Osama bin Laden. Spanish authorities arrested Zouaydi in 2002 for financing al Qaeda operations in Europe, the lawsuit says:
"Zouaydi was part of an international terrorist movement for global jihad which encompassed the al Qaeda network. This network channeled money directly to the perpetrators of September 11, 2001, and to similar global jihad movements planning terrorist actions in San Francisco, Bali, and elsewhere."
In the Madrid business deal, Zouaydi and al-Turki each were supposed to contribute half the money. But al-Turki stood to receive 70 percent of the profits, the WTC Properties lawsuit said.
"The Spanish scheme provided material support directly to al Qaeda operatives and the September 11, 2001 attacks. As investigations continue, additional evidence of such schemes will be uncovered," the WTC Properties lawsuit said.
Attorneys for al-Turki sought to have him dismissed from the litigation in September 2005. His inclusion is based "evidently on no basis other than that he is a Muslim who has held important governmental positions relating to Islamic affairs," his attorneys argued. They also argue that he never entered the business deal with Zouaydi despite numerous overtures from Zouaydi.
And they cite the 9/11 Commission Report, which found Zouaydi may have given money to an Al Qaeda associate in Hamburg but "no evidence that Zouaydi provided money to the plot participants or that any of his funds were used to support the plot." The High Court of Spain also acquitted Zouaydi of involvement in the September 11 attacks, according to al-Turki's lawyers.
Twelve defendants were dismissed from the WTC Properties lawsuit in January 2006 but al-Turki was not among them, court records show. His motion to dismiss is still pending.
Among those invited are Bob Edgar, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches, Rabbi Michael Paley of the UJA Federation in New York, and Rabbi David Rosen, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. Rosen told the Christian Science Monitor in an e-mail that he saw the conference as a chance to "break down ... stereotypes, suspicion, and bigotry." He added that he would have liked to see Israeli officials invited, too.
Click here for a list of invitees, but note that not all those listed will attend. Former Vice President Al Gore canceled his appearance citing a scheduling conflict.