STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF ISLAM
How Saudi wealth fueled holy war
Charity leader funded fighters to spread and defend Islam
By Tribune staff reporters Sam Roe, Laurie Cohen and Stephen
February 22, 2004
The mission was indisputably military, but the man calling the shots was not a captain with the army or a general back at command headquarters. He was the person helping finance the battle: Adel Batterjee, a wealthy Saudi businessman aiding the operation 2,000 miles away from his home in
This was not the only battleground in which Batterjee played a major role. During the past two decades, he has financed Muslim fighters in some of the world's most volatile areas, including
Batterjee stands at the forefront of one of the great religious movements of our time. Since
Much of what the Saudi money has done in the name of the world's fastest-growing religion is admirable and within the bounds of mainstream philanthropy.
But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, with 15 of the 19 hijackers proving to be Saudi citizens, questionable practices by Saudi charities have come to light--practices such as Batterjee's use of charitable dollars to fund Islamic military operations.
Also of concern, and not only to Westerners, is the ultraconservative brand of Islam that the Saudis embrace and often seek to export. Some Muslim organizations have gone so far as to refuse Saudi money, on the grounds that they do not accept the Saudi version of Islam.
The Saudis have arrested 600 terrorism suspects, removed dozens of preachers for extremism, restricted the flow of donations overseas and even banned a tradition central to Saudi identity: the collection of alms in mosques.
Today, the practices of the charities remain largely mired in ambiguity, with extensive investigations by
Drawing on court, charity and intelligence documents, the Tribune has detailed the rise and fall of Batterjee's charity, Benevolence International Foundation, providing insight into how Saudi charities work, the power they wield in spreading Islam and how one used its assets to wage war.
The tale of Batterjee's organization, which closed in 2002, spans 20 years, four continents and many battlefields.
At Batterjee's side was Enaam Arnaout, a passionate and shrewd man whose job was to run the day-to-day operations of the charity without tipping off authorities. In pursuit was star federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who had vowed not to personally try a case for a year but changed his mind and went after Batterjee's charity.
Batterjee, who declined to be interviewed for this report, advocates armed confrontation in the name of Islam--not just to defend the religion but to spread it as well.
In a book he published in 2002, portions of which were translated by the Tribune, he writes that "the pinnacle of Islam" is jihad, which he defines as use of force for religious purposes. Muslims, he states, are in a "vicious confrontation" with their "enemies, including the Jews, the Christians, the Hindus and idol worshipers from the East and West."
Such views are controversial among Muslims, reflecting the growing debate over Islam's place in the modern world and the role of militants in shaping the religion.
New power brokers
On a Wednesday night in Jiddah, a bustling port along the
Also present were the mutawain, or the religious police. Five of them--three in long white robes and two in brown police uniforms--slowly patrolled the mall corridors, looking for unmarried couples talking, women not properly covered by the traditional black gown and stores not shutting promptly at prayer time.
When a middle-age woman walked out of a jewelry store with her hair partially uncovered, the police quickly encircled her. Looking annoyed, the woman adjusted her black scarf and moved on.
Such contradictions abound in Jiddah--Adel Batterjee's hometown--and in
Women are not allowed to drive, but they can become doctors. Record stores sell American rap music, but authorities use felt-tip pens to black out women's shoulders, legs and cleavage on each CD cover.
Though many Saudis are fabulously wealthy, many others are poor and live in drab apartment buildings. A volatile oil market and a population boom have dropped the per capita income to only $7,000.
Religion, more than anything, defines Saudi life. The country is home to Islam's two holiest sites,
Islam is not just the dominant religion in
For much of the past 100 years, the people of
Then, in 1938, oil was discovered--the largest known reserves in the world.
The Saudis launched a major modernization effort, constructing schools, highways, apartments and hotels. Entire towns rose from the desert, and by 1973,
But even as the Saudis were being recognized--and reviled--in the West as the world's new power brokers, they were quietly pursuing another path to influence: They were using their newfound wealth to spread Islam around the world.
But it was in
A wealthy Saudi businessman named Osama bin Laden also aided the Muslim fighters, as did the
Among the first journalists to report on the fighters was Jamal Khashoggi, a young Saudi working at a daily newspaper in Jiddah. One day, a dignified-looking man came to the reporter's office and said he enjoyed his stories. He wondered whether the reporter would like an inside tour of the Afghan war zone.
"Come with me, and you'll get some scoops," he said.
The man was philanthropist Adel Batterjee.
Joining the fight
The Batterjee name was well-known in Jiddah, as the family owned a wide variety of businesses: health-care companies, a computer firm, an ice cream factory. One business, Saudi German Hospitals, was on a long boulevard called
Like many wealthy Saudis, Adel Batterjee left home as a teenager to study in
He also became interested in one of the great Muslim causes of his day: the Afghan-Soviet war. For generations, Muslims had suffered devastating military defeats, but the war offered an opportunity to recapture past glories by waging jihad, or the armed struggle against Muslim oppressors.
Thousands of Arab men were descending on
At first, Batterjee only listened to news reports and donated some money. But after hearing a moving speech by a prominent Muslim fighter in nearby
The reporter accepted Batterjee's offer of a tour of
The charities were busy aiding the thousands of war refugees streaming into the city, but they were also helping train, house and transport the Muslim fighters, or mujahedeen. Batterjee's charity, which had dozens of employees, was no different. In fact, Abdullah Azzam, the inspirational leader of the Afghan jihad, hailed Batterjee's organization as being "at the forefront" of the jihad movement, according to a report Azzam wrote for an aid group he operated.
Batterjee showed Khashoggi around his charity, telling the reporter that he frequently flew in from
As a charity leader, Batterjee, then in his early 40s, commanded respect. Many employees called him "sheik," a term of honor, while some of his workers ironed his clothes and addressed him only when spoken to first.
One young mujahed who admired Batterjee was Enaam Arnaout, a Syrian who was drawn to Muslim causes ever since his older brother, a noted Islamic militant, was gunned down by Syrian police in 1980.
The young fighter met Batterjee one day when Arnaout picked him up at the
It was the start of a long relationship.
The Mountain Camp
For Batterjee, waging jihad involved more than taking on superpowers. It also entailed mundane tasks and headaches: Did the fighters have coats? Was a new car needed?
These were the day-to-day details the Saudi financier often confronted, particularly at a remote training center he financed in
Batterjee's camp opened about 1990, shortly after Muslim forces drove the Soviets out of
Batterjee sided with the most anti-Western faction, the Party of Islam, headed by fundamentalist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The
With the help of Batterjee's charity, Hekmatyar's guerrillas established the camp to train their special forces. It consisted of tents for about 150 fighters, an infirmary, a mosque and a bakery.
Chosen to oversee all this was Enaam Arnaout--the young Syrian driver Batterjee liked so well. When the camp needed money for supplies, Arnaout or other leaders would phone or write Batterjee in
In one letter, Arnaout asked Batterjee to send $20,000 and to talk with the new recruits coming from
During a particularly troublesome week in which fighters quarreled with the cooks and three soldiers deserted, Batterjee came to inspect the troops, stayed a few hours, then left.
Over time, Batterjee became disheartened with the Afghan civil war, which pitted Muslim against Muslim, Khashoggi recalled. "He didn't want to be part of that butchering," he said.
Fed up, the Saudi financier decided to quit
Billions of dollars
The financial system that allowed Saudi philanthropists such as Batterjee to do their work was vast, complex and extremely well-funded.
Billions of Saudi charitable dollars changed hands, with the money originating from a variety of sources, including the king himself, thousands of members of the royal family, numerous millionaires and millions of average Saudis. Most of these people donated for religious reasons, fulfilling the Islamic requirement that Muslims give 2.5 percent of their annual net worth to charity.
But for the oil-rich Saudi royal family, the motives for giving were also political. Donating generously to Islamic causes abroad not only increased the kingdom's stature in the world but also helped win allies against periodic threats to the Saudi crown.
The Saudis feared that the Soviets would encroach on Middle East oil fields; that the push for a secular, pan-Arab nation in the 1960s would spell the end of monarchies; that the revolution sweeping Iran in the 1970s would hurt Saudi Arabia's bid to become Islam's worldwide voice; and that religious zealots within the kingdom would try to overthrow the Saudi government.
To gain control over the mounting charitable donations, Saudi government officials became heads of some of the charities. Other groups, such as Batterjee's, remained private ventures.
When the money was distributed abroad, it often went to needy Muslims in nations at war. But some funds went to those who simply asked. When a Muslim student organization in
The Saudis would eventually help establish at least 1,500 mosques abroad. They would also aid 2,000 Islamic schools, sponsor summer camps for children, supplement the salaries of many prayer leaders and spend millions of dollars on Muslim research centers and endowed teaching positions at some of the world's top universities, including Harvard and
So much money went out, from so many Saudi sources, that even Saudi leaders did not know how much was spent and exactly who was on the receiving end. Estimates on the total would be put in the tens of billions.
And while the Saudis would insist that strings were not attached to their giving, some Muslim groups would think otherwise.
Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina would become upset when the Saudis tried to impose dress codes. The mosque in
"They wanted to tell me what to teach in the schools and what to use as curriculum," recalled W. Deen Mohammed, the former head of the association. "Our leaders won't accept that."
Others would assail the Saudis for publishing hate-filled books. One religious encyclopedia, published by a Saudi charity, called Jews "humanity's enemies; they foment immorality in this world."
Over time, the Saudis' freewheeling spending and strident beliefs made the kingdom vulnerable to criticism that it was systematically encouraging Islamic extremism.
And that made someone like Batterjee an increasingly logical target.
When a despondent Batterjee left
Bosnia-Herzegovina was the focus of this rapid growth, with Batterjee taking on a clear military role.
Beginning in 1992, after
Like other Islamic charities, Batterjee's group helped Muslim refugees and orphans. But it also provided boots, uniforms and walkie-talkies to units of the Bosnian army, including the Black Swans, an elite Islamic fighting force that prayed daily and barred alcohol and swearing.
On one occasion,
Overseeing the charity's operations in
With Batterjee's charity growing, he increasingly looked to
But with rapid growth came problems, some of them ominous.
In the spring of 1993, as part of a wider crackdown on extremists, Saudi authorities brought Batterjee in for questioning and closed his charity's headquarters in Jiddah.
Exactly why the Saudis were concerned about Batterjee remains unclear, but
About the same time he was questioned in
With Arnaout now officially in charge, Batterjee was forced to oversee operations from behind the scenes,
Charity officials also became uneasy about the increasing gap between their stated mission and their actual activities.
While the charity's public literature implied that it was strictly a relief group, one internal record said that "from its first day, [the charity] aimed to support jihad and mujahedeen." Another said the mission was "to make Islam supreme on this Earth."
One top charity official, Suleman Ahmer, feared that the organization was misleading donors. In a 1999 e-mail message to director Arnaout, he complained that the group was claiming that 100 percent of a special fund was going to orphans when the figure was actually much lower.
The statement was dishonest, he said, and he did not agree with what Batterjee had "taught" Arnaout about such practices. "May Allah forgive him," he wrote.
Despite the concerns, Batterjee's charity continued to prosper, collecting $3.3 million in donations in 2000--more than ever before.
Then came 9/11.
Patrick Fitzgerald had just arrived on a flight from
Fitzgerald was only one week into his job as the
As much as Sept. 11 horrified him, he said he would not personally try a case in
The charity was not unknown to
When Fitzgerald began poring over documents in the Batterjee case, he recognized some of the same names from his previous terrorism investigations: Salim. Bayazid. Khalifa. "Those names jumped off the page," he recalled.
With the heat on Muslim militants, managers at Batterjee's charity started scrambling.
One e-mailed Arnaout in November 2001 to say that about half of the charity's expenditures in
Arnaout decided to handle the problem in person, but shortly after he left for
He flew back to the
Arnaout phoned his top aide in
The aide answered yes.
"And your father's house?"
"And your mother's house?"
"And your in-laws' house?"
In a call to his brother, Arnaout said he feared
"By God, he does not understand me," Arnaout told his brother. "It appears he is becoming senile a little bit sometimes."
Weary and frightened, Arnaout was not sure what to do. In a phone conversation, Batterjee suggested that Arnaout move to
But it was too late. On April 30, 2002, Arnaout was arrested.
Connecting the dots
That fall, U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft arrived in Chicago to announce terrorism charges against Arnaout--the first time in a decade that an attorney general had come to the city to announce an indictment.
Before a packed news conference at the
Ashcroft pointed to "an archive of incriminating documents," including a purported list of donors and fundraisers for Afghan fighters. The name appearing most on the list of fundraisers was bin Laden. Next was Batterjee.
But for the time being, authorities named Batterjee only as an unindicted co-conspirator.
When Fitzgerald began piecing together the evidence, he saw a charity that had many contacts with alleged members of Al Qaeda's network. One alleged member once headed the charity's office in
But as the court case progressed, it became increasingly clear that Fitzgerald was having trouble connecting the dots.
One link Fitzgerald cited involved Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, the friend of Batterjee's who participated in the Afghan-Soviet war. In a news release, Fitzgerald pointed to an FBI affidavit that linked Khalifa to the 1993
The main evidence the prosecutor offered tying Khalifa to Batterjee's charity was that several years before, someone in the charity's Palos Hills office called a telephone number that was, according to the affidavit and news release, "associated" with Khalifa.
While Fitzgerald viewed this example and others as solid evidence, the judge handling the case did not. She made several rulings that indicated the case was not going in the prosecutor's favor.
Fitzgerald decided to cut a deal. Arnaout agreed to plead guilty to a racketeering charge, admitting he had defrauded donors by diverting almost $316,000 to fighters in
Arnaout was sentenced to 11 years in prison. At a news conference afterward, Fitzgerald did not mention the man who was truly in charge of the charity: Batterjee.
`A touchy subject'
Forty-five minutes north of Jiddah, just off a long desert highway, is Sultana's, a large outdoor fish restaurant with neon signs, small fountains and kiddie rides. It is run by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, whom Fitzgerald characterized as a prominent terrorist operative linked to Batterjee's charity.
On this night, Khalifa greets diners, monitors the kitchen and sits down to the house specialty: barbecued parrotfish. He mocks
"They don't like to admit they are mistaken," he says. "They don't like to accept all the evidence in the world."
Since Sept. 11, the
The Saudis say they have audited all of their charities, banned them from sending money abroad and closed Al-Haramain offices.
One person who has faced increased scrutiny since Sept. 11 is Batterjee. At the request of the
Nothing improper was found, the Saudi spokesman said. "Why do you want us to convict someone who you . . . don't have evidence on?"
Today, Batterjee lives in Jiddah in a large white house surrounded by palm trees, flowering bushes and a 6-foot-high wall. A gold plaque next to the iron gates says: "The home of Adel Al-Jalil Batterjee."
His charity activities have been curtailed, with Arnaout in prison and the U.S. Treasury holding the group's assets. Batterjee, 58, spoke only briefly to the Tribune, saying, "This is a touchy subject, and there are a lot of things you don't know about."
In his 2002 book, Batterjee writes that the West is morally corrupt and that its war on terrorism is just an excuse to try to stop Muslims from spreading Islam. He says Muslims have tried to peacefully expand Islam throughout the world, but those attempts have always met armed opposition. So Muslims have a right to fight back.
More and more clashes with the West are inevitable, he writes, predicting that they will culminate in a final military encounter. "Does any doubt remain that the great confrontation . . . is certainly coming?"
- - -
Saudi philanthropist's aid to Muslim fighters
Adel Batterjee, a wealthy businessman in Saudi Arabia, founded a charity in the mid-1980s that became Benevolence International Foundation. The charity has provided food, shelter and medicine for needy Muslims around the world. It also has supported Muslim fighters in several nations, according to documents and interviews.
Adel Batterjee, a wealthy businessman in
Foundation. The charity has provided food, shelter and medicine for needy Muslims around the world. It also has supported Muslim fighters in several nations, according to documents and interviews.
Profession: Businessman, author and philanthropist
- Batterjee incorporated Benevolence International Foundation in
Early 1990s: During the Bosnian war, Batterjee's charity gives military supplies to the Black Swans, an elite Islamic unit of the Bosnian army. The charity also helps transport Muslim fighters from
1992: Batterjee handpicks several soldiers for battle.
Mid-1990s: The charity establishes operations with the help of Batterjee's contacts with a top Islamic leader. The charity provides uniforms and anti-mine boots to Chechen rebels fighting the Russians.
1998: The charity hires Saif ul Islam to run its
1980s: During the Afghan-Soviet war, Batterjee and Osama bin Laden are among the top fundraisers for Muslim fighters, documents indicate.
Early 1990s: During the Afghan civil war, Batterjee helps finance the Mountain Camp, an Islamic military training center where he also inspects troops.
1991: Batterjee's charity aids bin Laden supporters who are training Sudanese soldiers to battle Christian rebels, according to court filings by Enaam Arnaout, Batterjee's right-hand man. The
Sources: Tribune reporting, court records
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune
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