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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Ten Years Later, U.S. Freezes IIRO Assets

By J.M. Berger

More than 10 years after learning that the International Islamic Relief Organization was funding terrorism for al Qaeda, the U.S. government has moved to freeze its assets.

The IIRO is a Saudi Islamic charity organization with offices around the world, operating under the umbrella of the Saudi-based Muslim World League. Two IIRO operations -- the Philippines and Indonesian branches -- were identified today as "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" entities by the Treasury Department, a move that empowers U.S. agencies and cooperating global agencies to freeze the organization's assets.

The IIRO was founded in the Philippines during the late 1980s in by Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, according to Philippines government incorporation documents and police records.

Philippines police say that Khalifa funneled money and personnel from al Qaeda to Philippines-based terrorist organizations such as the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Khalifa set up several charity organizations in the country that authorities say were used to launder money from bin Laden and to fund terrorist attacks.

In 1994 and 1995, Khalifa helped fund a terrorist cell that in Manila included Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, according to U.S. and Philippines authorities. During this period, Yousef and Khalid Shaikh developed initial ideas for a terrorist attack that would crash airplanes into U.S. targets.

Longtime bin Laden confidante Wali Khan Amin Shah was also a member of the cell. Khalifa's Philippines-based charities were also linked to members of the terrorist cell responsible for the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. (See story.)

In 1994, U.S. authorities arrested Khalifa in San Francisco. Despite substantial intelligence suggesting Khalifa was linked to both Yousef and the World Trade Center bombing, the Saudi national was instead deported to Jordan to face a terrorism charge there, after a series of back-room maneuvers by the State and Justice Departments. (See story and original documents obtained by INTELWIRE.)

In Jordan, Khalifa was acquitted and released. He now lives freely in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he frequently gives interviews about bin Laden while strenuously denying his own role in any terrorist activities, including numerous and very specific charges leveled by the U.S. government. (See Khalifa affidavit denying terrorist links.)

The U.S. was aware of the IIRO's links to bin Laden as early as 1994, but the Treasury Department has not previously moved to freeze the operation's assets.

Two State Department cables from 1994 cite the IIRO's links to terrorism. A November 1994 cable from Manila -- issued just one month before Khalifa's arrest -- informed the Secretary of State that the IIRO had been funding Islamic radical movements in the Philippines:

A Saudi Arabian-based relief agency operating in Manila had been coordinating with and helping Muslim Secessionist factions in Mindanao and the ASG [Abu Sayyaf Group]. The head of the Agency (Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO)), is identified as a Saudi named Muhamad Jammal ((Khalifah)).

A second cable sent from the Secretary of State to Khartoum in December 1994 linked Khalifa to bin Laden after the arrest:

FYI, Osama Bin Laden's brother-in-law, Muhammad Jamal Khalifah [sic], was arrested in California on 12/16. REFTEL refers to Khalifa as a "known financier of terrorist operations" and an officer of an Islamic NGO in the Philippines that is a known Hamas front. He is under indictment in Jordan in connection with a series of cinema bombings earlier this year. A Saudi Arabian-based relief agency operating in Manila had been coordinating with and helping Muslim Secessionist factions in Mindanao and the ASG [Abu Sayyaf Group]. The head of the Agency (Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO)), is identified as a Saudi named Muhamad Jammal ((Khalifah)).

Both cables were disclosed during Congressional testimony in 2002. (See testimony, PDF.)

Bin Laden's name had come to the attention of the FBI during its investigation of the World Trade Center bombing. The cables reveal that the State Department was also aware of bin Laden, but most official accounts claim virtually no one in the U.S. government had heard of the organization al Qaeda in 1994. (There are good reasons to doubt this claim.)

Although the State Department cable documents Khalifa's connection to bin Laden, who was then based in Khartoum, Secretary of State Warren Christopher personally wrote to the Justice Department within a matter of days to request that Khalifa be deported to Jordan.


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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