In June, the US Treasury Department listed the entire the Saudi-run “charity”, the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a specially designated global terrorist entity for its active and longstanding role in financing international terrorism. Between 2002-2004, thirteen different Al-Haramain branches had been individually designated, including the US branch based in Ashland, Oregon, charged with providing funds to Al-Qaeda. This new announcement applies now to the entire organization worldwide.
One important element to note in connection with the recent Al-Haramain designation is that on at least two separate occasions it had used legal threats against US media organization to coerce retractions following reports of its ties to the international terror network – ties that are now considered well-established by both the US government and the media.
These incidents are instructive on how Islamic extremists have previously used lawfare strategies to silence those asking questions about their activities, and give us insight into how these legal theats are being used today to scuttle media investigations.
In the first case, Al-Haramain unleashed their attorneys on the PBS Frontline program, produced by PBS Boston affiliate, WGBH, after Frontline had mentioned in an April 1999 report entitled, “The Terrorist and the Superpower”, that the CIA had investigated Al-Haramain offices in Africa prior to the August 7, 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In fact, the CIA had investigated Al-Haramain and its connections to Al-Qaeda prior to the embassy bombings as early as a year before the attacks. And acting on intelligence provided by the CIA, Kenyan authorities arrested nine Al-Haramain officials from their Nairobi offices in October 1997. These facts had already been reported by the New York Times in January 1999.
But Al-Haramain’s attorneys later demanded a retraction from WGBH over those claims. In March 2000, WGBH capitulated to their demands and agreed to remove references to Al-Haramain in future broadcasts. Al-Haramain’s attorneys hailed their victory in the following press release:
SAUDI CHARITY REACHES SETTLEMENT OVER FRONTLINE PROGRAM CLAIMS
The Al Haramain Foundation, an Islamic charitable organization based in Saudi Arabia, today announced that it has reached an out-of-court settlement with WGBH-TV, the Boston affiliate of the Public Broadcasting Service, concerning a 1999 broadcast of the news program Frontline. The Frontline program, produced by WGBH-TV in conjunction with The New York Times, was entitled The Terrorist and the Superpower and dealt with the investigation of the terrorist bombings of the United States Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya in August 1998. Frontline reported that the CIA had conducted an investigation of employees of a Saudi-financed charity for their possible involvement in the bomb plot and identified the Al Haramain Foundation as the charity involved. The Al Haramain Foundation maintained that the references to the Foundation in the Frontline broadcast were inaccurate and misleading.
Under the terms of the settlement announced today, WGBH has agreed to edit the program, scheduled for rebroadcast on PBS stations March 21, 2000, to remove any reference to the Al Haramain Foundation. The edited program will be broadcast with a statement that the producers of Frontline did not intend to suggest, in the April 1999 program, that the Al Haramain Foundation participated in any plot associated with the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. The same statement will appear on a continuous basis on Frontline's internet web site.
On signing the settlement agreement with Frontline, Soliman al-Buthi, Chairman of the U.S.A. Committee of the Al Haramain Foundation said, "The good works of the Al Haramain Foundation have suffered as a result of the misstatements made by Frontline in its broadcast. Our work is teaching Islam and, under our charter, we stand against terrorism, injustice or subversive activities in any form. Al Haramain has never had any relationship with any terrorist group. We hope that this settlement and the steps that WGBH-TV is taking will fully correct the record."
The Al-Haramain Foundation was represented in this case by the Washington, D.C. law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, L.L.P.
In January 2004, the US government designated the Tanzanian and Kenyan branches of Al-Haramain as terrorist organizations based on evidence connecting them to Al-Qaeda and the 1998 US embassy bombings and the November 2002 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Nairobi. The US also designated the Al-Haramain branch in the Comoros Island after it was discovered that they had helped some of the US embassy bombers escape Kenya after the attack. By that time, CBS News, the Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets were widely reporting what WGBH had been forced to retract just a few years before.
After the respective designations, the Al-Haramain attorneys did not issue a press release retracting their prior legal victory against WGBH.
Their attorneys did, however, threaten legal action against the Washington Times in November 2003, after the Times reported that the US Al-Haramain branch was being investigated for terrorist ties. They also complained about a Times oped that had run two months earlier observing that the Oregon branch continued to operate despite their known Al-Qaeda ties. The Washington Times retraction read as follows:
The Times, in its Sept. 15, 2003 editions, reported that Al Haramain was listed in a Presidential Order in 2001 allowing the United States to block the resources of individuals and institutions determined to be involved in possible terrorists acts, and that Al Haramain allegedly has ties with al Qaeda. The Times, in its September 19, 2003 editions, had an editorial discussing the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, Inc. (USA) as an example of "suspicious Saudi charities." Al Haramain (Saudi Arabia) has had branches at various places around the world. The branches in Somalia and Bosnia were closed at the demand of the United States, which asserted that those two branches were tied to al Qaeda. On March 11, 2002, Treasury Secretary O'Neill stated that the Saudi headquarters is dedicated to promoting Islamic teachings. The Ashland, Oregon-based Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, Inc. (USA) was not mentioned in a Presidential Order in 2001 or any other Presidential Order regarding possible terrorists acts. The Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, Inc. (USA) has not been identified as being involved in actual or possible terrorists acts or with having any ties to al Qaeda. The Times regrets any inference to the contrary in the article.
On the same day that this retraction appeared, an oped by Al-Haramain’s attorney Lynne Bernabei and Georgetown law professor David Cole, “Stereotyping hurts the war; Little cooperation in finger-pointing”, was published by the Washington Times complaining that Al-Haramain was the victim of “profiling”:
Profiling of Muslims and Arabs, and the hidden costs of profiling, extend far beyond the government. As an example, the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, Inc. of Oregon has been unfairly accused of links to terrorists. Al Haramain Oregon is a Muslim charity dedicated to distributing Islamic information and Qur'ans to Muslims throughout the United States, and to educating the public at large that Islam is opposed to terrorism in all forms. Its mission, in part, is to spread the word that true Muslims abhor violence against the innocent. It would, therefore, seem to be a natural partner in the war against terror. Its articles of incorporation, filed with the Oregon Secretary of State in 1998, provide that it is dedicated to peace and the fight against terrorism. One of the group's most vocal supporters is a local rabbi, with whom Al Haramain has engaged in joint public education activities. As an Islamic charity, however, Al Haramain (Oregon) has been suspected and labeled as a terrorist by many who accuse first, and find out the truth later. (emphasis added)
The truth was, however, that contrary to the representations made by Bernabei and Cole, Al-Haramain was at the time the subject of an active investigation. Just weeks later, the Al-Haramain compound in Oregon was raided and had its assets blocked by the US Treasury. In September 2004, seven months after the raid, the US branch and its US director were designated by the US government.
The legal threats against the Washington Times, despite their vindication just a few months later, by Al-Haramain’s attorneys is all the more galling in that in their press release trumpeting the retraction by the Times, they cited their previous victory against WGBH:
Such allegations are not new, according to AHIF board member Soliman Albuthi. "In 1998, the PBS news show Frontline retracted a story when presented with the facts that Al Haramain was not linked to any terrorist act in Africa," stated Albuthi. "While the actual settlement with PBS is confidential, it was a victory not just for AHIF and our charitable work but for the truth," he added.
As far back as September 2003, before the US branches of Al-Haramain were designated and closed, FrontPage Magazine was informing readers of the dangers from this so-called “charity”. Michael Tremoglie questioned why no action had been taken against the group, even after the families of 9/11 victims cited Al-Haramain’s role in the Al-Qaeda network in a lawsuit filed in New York state.
FrontPage also carried the first published article by former Al-Haramain employee, and now noted anti-terrorism analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (he later detailed his experience at Al-Haramain). And more recently, FrontPage editor Jamie Glazov interviewed the Center for Security’s Policy’s Alex Alexiev on the ongoing dangers posed by terror-tied Saudi charities just two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Al-Haramain continues to have its defenders, as seen in an article in Salon back in May defending the terrorist charity and characterizing its leaders as innocent interfaith moderates under siege by the big, bad Bush Administration. Undoubtedly, Salon will not be receiving any legal threats from Al-Haramain attorneys for daring to mention the group’s ongoing legal troubles (one director will face tax fraud charges in October for sending $170,000 to a terrorist front charity in Chechnya).
Al-Haramain’s actions against WGBH and the Washington Times are important to remember. In both cases, the media outlets were later vindicated in their reporting. But sadly, they had both knuckled under to the terrorist charity, giving further encouragement to their lawfare intimidation strategy and making it more difficult for other media outlets to continue reporting by inviting further legal threats. Paradoxically, this tactic makes the media more reliant on government terrorist designations to cover themselves against potential legal action, thus robbing them of their independence.
The same tactic continues to be used today to stop media investigations into the activities of other Islamic extremist groups. This should remind us that not only are our enemies well-funded and have the best attorneys that their terror-tainted money can buy, but that their lawfare campaign against uncooperative media is yet another front in the war on terror – a front that needs manned.