The earliest roots of the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF) date back to 1987, when Sheik Abdel Abdul Jalil Batterjee established Lajnat al-Birr al-Islamiah (the Islamic Benevolence Committee, or IBC), with offices in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The nascent IBC’s purpose was twofold: (a) to supply weapons and funds to the mujahideen who, at that time, were battling the Russian military in Afghanistan, and (b) to facilitate the immigration of jihadists into that conflict zone. In 1992, IBC merged with a Philippine-based group known as Benevolence International, which had been formed by Osama bin Laden‘s brother-in-law Mohammed Jamal Khalifa. The new entity, known as BIF, was incorporated as a tax-exempt nonprofit in Illinois on March 30, 1992. Its headquarters were set up in the town of Plantation, Florida by Adham Hassoun, a local Palestinian activist.
Publicly, BIF stated that its mission was to “hel[p] those afflicted by wars”—with “short-term relief such as emergency food distribution” and “long-term projects providing education and self-sufficiency to the children, widowed, refugees, injured and staff of vital governmental institutions.” But in reality, the Foundation was heavily involved in making financial transactions on behalf of al Qaeda. In its Arabic-language fundraising appeals, the nascent BIF openly characterized itself as a “trustworthy hand for the support of [both] the mujahideen and refugees” fighting in the Bosnian war of 1992-95.
In May 1993, Saudi Arabia, wary of BIF’s ties to al Qaeda, closed down the Foundation’s operations in his country and detained its leader, Abdel Batterjee. This was likely the only pre-9/11 instance of the Saudis shuttering an Islamic charity.
Soon thereafter, Abdel Batterjee stepped down as head of BIF and took a behind-the-scenes role. Succeeding him as the Foundation’s top leader was Enaam Arnaout, who had maintained a close relationship with Osama bin Laden since the mid-1980s, having served as an administrator for the al Qaeda linchpin, occasionally disbursing funds on his behalf.
During the brief period (in 1993) when BIF was headquartered in Florida, the aforementioned Adham Hassoun met Jose Padilla, the so-called “dirty bomber” (who was employed at a location near the BIF office), and introduced Padilla to Islam. It was around this time that the U.S. government began to scrutinize BIF’s operations for possible terrorist ties.
Later in 1993 BIF moved its base of operations to Chicago, in order to be closer to terrorist fronts that Hamas had established in the United States. From Chicago, BIF helped the newly emerging al Qaeda network establish its presence in Sudan, Bosnia and Chechnya, providing support—in the form of food, clothing, money and communications equipment—for mujahideen fighters in those places. Further, BIF actively solicited donations from Muslim Americans and other sources in order to fund terrorist operations by Abu Sayyaf Islamic rebels in the Philippines; BIF’s Philippine operations are believed to have been headed by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
In the mid-1990s, BIF opened an office in Chechnya and served as a conduit for financial and material support to al Qaeda and the Chechen mujahideen that were active there. Further, BIF worked closely with Sheik Fathi, a Jordanian of Chechen descent, who had fought in Afghanistan during the ’80s.
In late 1994, the aforementioned Mohammed Jamal Khalifa traveled to the United States to meet with Mohamed Loay Bayazid, who was BIF’s president at the time. Both men were arrested in Mountain View, California in December of that year—Khalifa on charges related to his suspected role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. When FBI agents searched Khalifa’s belongings, they found Arabic-language manuals that discussed such topics as terrorism training, bomb-making, and other violent pursuits. They also found a personal organizer that listed the phone number of Wali Khan Amin Shah—a member of a Manila, Philippines terrorist cell that was plotting Operation Bojinka, a (foiled) plot to blow up 12 passenger airliners in mid-flight as they made their way from Asia to the United States. Khalifa, who had been funding the Bojinka project, was deported to Jordan by the INS in May 1995. A Jordanian court ultimately acquitted him of the terrorism-related charges.
In May 1995, the Military Security Service of the Bosnian Muslim Army not only warned its superiors that known members of the Arab-Afghan mujahideen in the Balkans were “connected with the activists from [the] Arab humanitarian organization ‘Benevolence International Foundation,’” but also indicated that BIF had demonstrably “abused” its position as a dispenser of humanitarian aid by making the acceptance of Islam a precondition for the receipt of that aid.
A number of BIF employees in Illinois became disgusted by their organization’s focus on promoting jihad rather than on the “humanitarian” work it professed to be doing. In a handwritten note that was later recovered by the FBI, one BIF employee stated: “That is our mission—Lying to the people.”
Other BIF staffers, by contrast, enthusiastically embraced their organization’s jihadist goals. Onetime BIF operations manager Suleman Ahmer, for example, zealously favored cooperation with radical Islamic movements around the world. In an October 1997 letter to fellow BIF administrators, Ahmer suggested that the Foundation’s claim that it engaged in relief activities was a complete fabrication: “We have never worked in the countries which are affected by natural disasters and … we may never work in this area. But somehow in so many of our publications we have [said] that BIF works in areas affected by wars and natural disasters. I wonder where it came from and so on.” Ahmer subsequently persuaded his colleagues to draft two separate BIF mission statements. One, for public consumption, would detail the group’s supposed “relief work”; a second, for the benefit of BIF’s Islamist board members, would emphasize the Foundation’s goal of “making Islam supreme.”
In 1998, al Qaeda military commander Saif al-Islam served as a BIF officer in Chechnya. Meanwhile, BIF’s office in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, maintained close contact with the al Qaeda cell in Kenya that eventually carried out the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government froze BIF’s assets and initiated legal action against one of its founders and leading directors, the aforementioned Enaam Arnaout. Further, the government was able to find evidence that the funds which BIF was raising were being sent to al Qaeda for the purpose of buying weapons and transporting terrorists all over the world. In a December 2001 raid of BIF’s Illinois offices, federal investigators uncovered documents that included: (a) handwritten Arabic notations acknowledging that BIF’s headquarters in Croatia had been established “for relief operations and support of jihad in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” and urging supporters to “[c]ontribute with your mujahideen brothers to repel the Crusader-Zionist attack on Muslim lands”; (b) a handwritten note revealing BIF’s “unwritten law”—that “no matter how poor/sick” the civilians in a given location might be, the “first priority” is to channel aid to the “mujahideen”; and (c) receipts (from 1994 and 1995) for supplies (such as blankets, boots, shoes, uniforms, tents, “mass communication stations,” and a combat ambulance) that BIF had donated to the Bosnian military. After these findings had been made, the U.S. government shut down BIF’s American operations.
In March 2002, law-enforcement authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina raided BIF’s Sarajevo offices, seizing weapons, booby traps, false passports, bomb-making instructions, computer hard drives, CD-ROMs, a list of the Foundation’s Saudi Arabian sponsors, handwritten letters that Aranout and Osama bin Laden had sent to each other, and documents showing that Arnaout had purchased weaponry to distribute to camps operated by al Qaeda and other mujahideen fighters. Moreover, Bosnian police detained the manager of BIF’s Sarajevo office, former Bosnian intelligence agent Munib Zahiragic, who turned over nearly 100 top-secret documents about suspected fundamentalist terrorists operating in Bosnia, including transcripts of communications between BIF management and senior al Qaeda commanders based in Afghanistan.
In August 2002, more than 600 relatives of victims who had died in the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks filed a 15-count, $116 trillion lawsuit against various parties they accused of having financed and abetted not only al Qaeda, but also Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which had provided safe haven for Osama bin Laden and his organization. Among the defendants in the lawsuit were: BIF; the International Islamic Relief Organization; the Muslim World League; the National Commercial Bank (one of Saudi Arabia’s largest financial institutions); the SAAR Foundation; the Saudi Binladin Group (a conglomerate owned by the bin Laden family); the World Assembly of Muslim Youth; and the government of Sudan (which had permitted Osama bin Laden to live in that country until 1996).
On November 19, 2002, the U.S. Treasury Department formally designated BIF as a financier of terrorism. In addition to the evidence already cited, the Department said that BIF had “lent direct logistical support in 1998 to Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a bin Laden lieutenant present at the founding of al Qaida”; that BIF “is also linked to Mohamed Loay Bayazid, who was implicated in the U.S. embassy bombings trial for his efforts, approved by Salim, to obtain weapons components on behalf of bin Laden in 1993-1994”; and that “in the late 1990s, Saif al Islam el Masry, a member of al Qaida’s [consultation council], worked as an officer in BIF’s Chechnya office.”
After pleading guilty in U.S. Federal Court, BIF’s then-chief executive officer Enaam Arnaout began serving a ten-year sentence for racketeering in 2003.
Because of its clear record as a front for al Qaeda, BIF is now banned worldwide by the United Nations Security Council Committee.
Over the course of its history, BIF was active in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sarajevo and Zenica), Canada, China, Croatia, Georgia (Duisi and Tbilisi), the Netherlands, Pakistan (Islamabad, Peshawar), the Palestinian Territories, Russia (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Moscow), Saudi Arabia (Riyadh and Jeddah), Sudan, Tajikistan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Yemen.