Document links Saudi charity to Somalian arms

A Defense Department intelligence document on weapons trafficking in Somalia suggests a prominent Saudi government charity supplied arms and other aid to a Mogadishu warlord whose forces killed 18 U.S. soldiers in the notorious Black Hawk Down battle in 1993.

The heavily redacted memo said that the Saudi High Commission, a Saudi government agency, had been a conduit for arms shipments to forces allied with Mohamed Farah Hassan Aideed, and that the arms had come from both Iraq and Sudan.

Fighters allied with Aideed engaged in a fierce street battle on Oct. 3-4, 1993, with U.S. troops on a mission to capture top Aideed lieutenants believed to be blocking efforts to stabilize the country.

The document was provided to The Inquirer by lawyers for plaintiffs in a huge lawsuit that alleges the government of Saudi Arabia bears responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks because, over a period of a decade or more, it financed Islamic charities that in turn helped fund al-Qaeda. The lawsuit alleges the Saudi government knew it was funding charities that supported terrorism. Saudi Arabia denies the allegation.

"The Saudi Arabian High Commission has received humanitarian supplies from Sudan and Iraq; however the crates from the Sudan and Iraq have also contained military weapons, ammunition and supplies, usually hidden in false bottom containers," the intelligence report said.

The intelligence document does not make clear when the arms shipments took place or whether the weapons were employed in the Mogadishu battle. It also warned that its findings were raw, "not finally evaluated intelligence."

A U.S. District Court judge in Manhattan ruled in 2005 that the Saudi government and members of the Saudi royal family could not be sued for promoting terrorism under U.S. law; that decision was upheld last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide shortly whether to hear arguments in the case.

The Defense Intelligence Agency memo was obtained as part of a Freedom of Information Act request by the Federation of American Scientists in the mid-1990s, when researchers had been examining the impact of an international arms embargo on Somalia. The Defense Department forwarded the records to FAS in 1997, and they went largely unnoticed until they were discovered by plaintiffs' lawyers on an FAS blog.

"Based on evidence we have gathered through our own investigation into the Saudi High Commission's links to al-Qaeda, including testimony provided to us by an admitted al-Qaeda member, we are hardly surprised to see an intelligence report linking it to the arming of Gen. Aideed," said Sean Carter of the Cozen O'Connor law firm in Center City, which has sued Saudi Arabia on behalf of dozens of insurers seeking to recover billions in losses at ground zero.

"Unfortunately, this report only serves to underscore that the American public has been deprived of access to evidence relating to Saudi Arabia's support for al-Qaeda for far too long."

The Saudi government denies that any of its agencies knowingly provided funds to al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group.

A lawyer for the Saudi High Commission did not respond to a request for comment by The Inquirer.

According to the affidavits of Saudi officials filed in the litigation, the Saudi High Commission was formed in 1993 to assist refugees displaced in the Balkans war among indigenous Muslims, Croats, and Serbs, and has distributed about $448 million for relief efforts.

The agency's executive director, Saud Bin Mohammad al-Roshood, said that the commission was the primary instrument of Saudi government policy in the Balkans, but that it also had undertaken relief efforts in Egypt and Somalia. Elsewhere in the litigation, the agency is described by a senior Saudi official as a branch of the Saudi government.

Two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades during the 1993 battle in Mogadishu; hundreds of Somalian civilians and fighters were killed in the battle, which was reported in a 1997 series in The Inquirer by reporter Mark Bowden. The series was made into a book in 1999 and a movie in 2001.

Seventy-three U.S. soldiers were wounded in addition to the 18 who were killed.

"Given [Osama] bin Laden's affirmation of al-Qaeda involvement in killing American troops in Somalia in 1993, and the accumulated evidence of the Saudi High Commission's support for al-Qaeda, this report certainly raises to the forefront the issue of whether the bullets that killed the 18 American troops in the battle of Mogadishu were Saudi sponsored," said Robert Haefele, a lawyer with the South Carolina plaintiffs' firm of Motley Rice, which is representing thousands of individual victims of the 9/11 attacks and family members in the litigation.

The Saudi High Commission is not the only Islamic charity that has been accused of promoting terrorism, but it is a particularly sensitive issue for the Saudis because it is a government agency and is headed by a senior member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz.

Three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, NATO forces hunting for terrorists raided the commission's office in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to congressional testimony. They seized before-and-after pictures of the twin towers, pictures of bombed U.S. embassies in East Africa, photos of the U.S.S. Cole after a bomb had ripped a gash in the destroyer's side, killing 17 U.S. sailors, and materials for forging State Department identification badges.

In addition, a former al-Qaeda commander during the Balkans war testified during a U.N. war-crimes trial that his unit was funded by the Saudi High Commission. Ali Hamad, the al-Qaeda commander, said the commission had poured tens of millions of dollars into mujaheddin units led by al-Qaeda operatives who had fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Hamad also was deposed by a lawyer for Cozen O'Connor in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Hamad gave much the same account.

The arrival of U.S. and U.N. peacekeeping troops in Somalia in 1992 was deemed a provocation by bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, and according to the July 2004 report of the 9/11 Commission, al-Qaeda leaders sent weapons and trainers to help Somalian warlords battling U.S. forces. The operation was directly supervised by al-Qaeda's military leader, the commission said.

Al-Qaeda trainers later were heard boasting that their assistance had led to the downing of the two Black Hawk helicopters and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia in 1994, the 9/11 Commission report said.


Go to http://go.philly.com/cozen to read The Inquirer's special report on "Suing the Saudis."


Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.