CHICAGO - (KRT) - The U.S. government on Tuesday placed on its official list of terrorist supporters a wealthy Saudi Arabian businessman who established a charity in the Chicago area to help fund Muslim fighters in some of the world's most volatile areas.
The Treasury Department said Adel Batterjee "has ranked as one of the world's foremost terrorist financiers" by helping bankroll al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. The department froze his U.S. assets and said it would ask the United Nations to require other countries do the same.
"A worldwide asset freeze, including in his home country of Saudi Arabia, will deal a serious blow to this key terrorist facilitator," said Stuart Levey, a high-ranking Treasury official.
The U.S. also designated as a terrorist supporter Saad al-Faqih, a leading Saudi dissident in London who has called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family. Treasury officials said that Batterjee and al-Faqih were not linked.
Batterjee's life story was detailed for the first time by the Chicago Tribune in February as part of its yearlong series "Struggle for the soul of Islam." A 59-year-old living in Jiddah, Batterjee was intimately involved in jihad, or holy war, for two decades, financing Muslim fighters in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chechnya and Sudan.
Various government and court documents show that he was a hands-on financier who inspected troops and was kept abreast of mundane matters, such as whether recruits had warm coats. He once even hand-picked fighters for battle.
Reached by telephone in Saudi Arabia, Batterjee said he was unaware of the Treasury Department's actions and declined to comment further. In the past, he has declined interview requests.
In a book published in 2002, he wrote that "the pinnacle of Islam" is jihad, which he defined as the use of force for religious purposes. He stated that the West is morally bankrupt and that its war on terrorism is just an excuse to try to stop Muslims from spreading Islam.
Adel Al-Jubeir, spokesman for Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, told the Tribune earlier this year that the kingdom had investigated Batterjee and found nothing improper. "Why do you want us to convict someone who you ... don't have evidence on?" he asked at the time.
He could not be reached Tuesday. A Saudi spokesman in Washington, who requested anonymity, said the kingdom would abide by any future UN decision on the matter. Late Tuesday The Associated Press reported that Saudi Arabia had joined the United States in asking the United Nations to impose sanctions on Batterjee.
Batterjee has long been of interest to U.S. law enforcement officials, but efforts to investigate him were largely unsuccessful before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A report this year by the independent Sept. 11 commission stated that FBI agents sought information about Batterjee through the bureau's legal attache in Saudi Arabia in 1999.
"As of 9/11 they still had received no response," the report stated.
Batterjee's jihad efforts were financed in part by his charity, Benevolence International Foundation, which opened a U.S. office in suburban Palos Hills in the early 1990s. Many donors gave money to the Palos Hills office, which in turn aided Islamic fighters.
The Saudi financier's right-hand man, Enaam Arnaout, ran the office until federal agents raided it in December 2001. Arnaout, a native of Syria, was charged with aiding terrorists and defrauding donors. The Treasury Department froze the charity's assets and designated it a terrorist supporter.
But in a blow to the government's war on terrorism, a judge made several rulings that indicated the case was not going in the prosecution's favor. Arnaout eventually cut a deal and pleaded guilty to defrauding donors, and the terror charges were dropped. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Batterjee was an unindicted co-conspirator in that case. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who personally tried the case, has declined to say why he did not go after Batterjee.
In announcing its actions Tuesday, the Treasury Department did not disclose new evidence against Batterjee. The department's press release mirrored statements previously made by prosecutors.
Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise would not say why the department decided to list Batterjee now. "Our timing is the result of balancing strategic, tactical and diplomatic considerations, to determine the most effective time for a public designation," she said.
Noted terrorism expert Rita Katz suggested that U.S. officials did not previously list Batterjee because they could not secure Saudi backing. "I think they needed Saudi support, and now it seems to be in place," she said.
When the Treasury spokeswoman was asked if it was fair to freeze Batterjee's assets when the United States has been unable to make a criminal case against him, Millerwise referred the inquiry to Justice Department officials. The U.S. attorney's office in Chicago would not comment.
Batterjee is one of a handful of Saudis designated a terrorist supporter by the Treasury Department. The agency's allegations against Batterjee include that his charity in the 1980s aided fighters in Afghanistan associated with bin Laden and fundamentalist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
But the U.S. government also supported Islamic fighters in Afghanistan at this time as the nation was at war with Soviet forces that had invaded the country. And America aided Hekmatyar in the Afghan civil war that followed.
Later, Batterjee's charity aided fighters in Bosnia, Chechnya and Sudan. At one point, bin Laden told an associate that Batterjee's charity was helping finance al-Qaida, the Treasury announcement states.
After Sept. 11, searches of the charity's Bosnia offices uncovered a purported list of donors and fund-raisers for Afghan fighters. The name appearing most on the list of fund-raisers was bin Laden. Next was Batterjee.
The other man whom the Treasury Department designated a terrorist supporter, al-Faqih, heads the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, the best-known Saudi opposition group.
Last week, his organization, through its television channel and Web site, called for street demonstrations in Riyadh and Jiddah in support of ousting the regime. Saudi security forces reportedly prevented protesters from gathering.
"The Saudis would be very happy for us to go after al-Faqih," said Gregory Gause, a political science professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington. "He's the best known of the exiled dissidents."
Since September 2001, the U.S. government has designated 396 individuals and entities as terrorists, their financiers or facilitators.
(Chicago Tribune correspondent Stephen Franklin contributed to this report.)
© 2004, Chicago Tribune.