The Blog

Prison Jihad?

How radical Islamic charities exploit their access to the prison system.

12:00 AM, Oct 12, 2006 • By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS
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BEFORE ENTERING THE COUNTERTERRORISM FIELD, I worked for a radical Islamic charity called the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation. In this capacity, I gained some familiarity with the kind of Islamic extremist literature that often finds its way into the U.S. prison system and thus influences inmates' religious education. I was, after all, one of the people responsible for distributing this literature. It's a serious problem for American society and homeland security. But first, some background on Al Haramain.

THE INTERNATIONAL AL HARAMAIN ORGANIZATION was originally formed as a private charity in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1992. It was devoted to fostering Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia's austere brand of Islam. When I worked for the group, it had offices in more than 50 countries and an annual budget of between $40 million and $50 million. Today, however, Al Haramain no longer exists as a stand-alone entity. It was merged into the Saudi National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad.

Al Haramain's terrorist connections begin with the Ashland, Oregon, branch, for which I worked. The Ashland branch has been designated a terrorist sponsor by the Treasury Department. Two directors were indicted for their roles in a money-laundering scheme that involved smuggling roughly $130,000 in traveler's checks out of the country without declaring them. Federal investigators believe that this money funded the Chechen mujahideen.

The U.S. Treasury has designated Al Haramain offices in Kenya and Tanzania as sponsors of terrorism for their role in the 1998 embassy bombings. The designation lists multiple connections between Al Haramain and the bombings, including the offices' involvement in planning the attacks, funding by a wealthy Al Haramain official, and a former Tanzanian Al Haramain director's role in making preparations for the advance party that planned the bombings. The Al Haramain branch office in the Comoros Islands was also designated because it "was used as a staging area and exfiltration route for the perpetrators of the 1998 bombings."

These were not Al Haramain's only connections to terrorism. The Afghanistan office was designated for supporting the bin Laden-financed Makhtab al-Khidemat terrorist group, and for its involvement with a group training to attack foreigners in Afghanistan after the Taliban were toppled. The Albania office was designated because of its ties to al Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The Bangladesh office was designated after an official sent an operative to conduct surveillance on U.S. consulates in India. The branch in Ethiopia was designated because of its support for al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, a terrorist group that has carried out attacks on Ethiopian defense forces. The Indonesia office was designated for its ties to the Jemaah Islamiyah and al Qaeda terrorist groups. The Pakistan office was designated for supporting the Taliban, Lashkar e-Taibah, and Makhtab al-Khidemat. And so on and so forth. The extent to which Al Haramain was compromised is as disturbing as it is undeniable.