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Central Asia/Russia

THE ROVING EYE
Anatomy of a 'terrorist' NGO

By Pepe Escobar

ISLAMABAD - The Pakistani-based Al-Rashid Trust is one of the key organizations included in America's black book of terrorist groups. American intelligence - for many a cynic a contradiction in terms - may think that the elusive Osama bin Laden is the main source of hard cash for Al-Rashid. But in fact it is the other way around: Al-Rashid is one of Osama's many sources of income.

Asia Times Online has learned from a key source how the trust is "very much part of Osama's international work" and that it is closely linked with the Taliban and with separatists fighting in Kashmir. The source says that "they [members of the trust] are financially helping the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Jaish-i-Mohammad". The latter is a jihadi group active in Kashmir, while Al-Qaeda is bin Laden's worldwide network. However, the source is adamant that Al-Rashid "does not distribute any kind of funds for military purposes".

In fact, Al-Rashid's supreme objective is to get Western NGOs out of Afghanistan. It is unlike any other NGO, with some of its cadres trained in Afghanistan's military camps and with close links to jihadi organizations. But charity and relief work are its main goals - not jihadis against "infidels". Al-Rashid says that its activities include providing financial and legal support to jailed Muslim militants around the world, and that all of its actions are purely humanitarian.

For obvious security reasons, members of Al-Rashid are not willing to speak on the record, following the trust being listed by the United States as a terrorist organization last month. However, it has been possible for Asia Times Online to establish how the organization actually works. Mufti (religious leader) Mohammad Rashid founded the trust soon after the Taliban took over in Afghanistan in 1996. He is the amir (leader) of the trust. Mufti Abu Lubaba is the ideologue, while Maulvi Sibghatullah of the Dar-ul-Uloom (religious school) in Karachi is the director of the trust in Kandahar, the southern Afghan city that serves as the headquarters for the Taliban. Only the two muftis have direct access to bin Laden, whose last-known address was somewhere in Afghanistan.

From the outset, Al-Rashid was involved in charity and welfare projects, primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its most recent project was one to provide food for the poor in Afghanistan. The project was conceived after the United Nations and the Taliban engaged in a shouting match over the running of bakeries. So Al-Rashid set up its own bakeries in Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif. The trust also took over 155 bakeries vacated by the UN's World Food Program (WFP) when it pulled out following the September 11 attacks in the US. The annual budget for this program is more than US$4 million. It plans to provide bread to 25,000 people, and it aims to set up bakeries in another 14 provinces in the near future. Al-Rashid would then be able to provide for 350,000 poor Afghans in total - with a program totally independent from UN relief work.

The trust has many other running projects in Afghanistan. It sent 1,000 sewing machines to the country in June to help the so-called "widows of war", and it plans to send another 1,000 for the same purpose.

Al-Rashid has also been involved in the establishment of a network of madrassas in Afghanistan. It has built mosques across the country. Before the American carpet bombing, it was building 20 mosques around the lunar landscape of the Kabul-Kandahar highway, and five mosques on the Kandahar-Chaman highway. Along with the mosques, it was also digging wells to provide drinking water.

Al-Rashid has also set up computer centers in Afghanistan. One of them, in Kandahar, caters for about 300 students, and it recently opened the first computer center in Kabul, with 28 students in theory still attending courses - to the sound of American bombing.

Al-Rashid also recently opened a clinic in Kandahar, operated by two male doctors and one female doctor, and clinics in Kabul and Ghazni with female doctors - proving that Taliban regulations are not so harsh when Westerners are not involved. It is planning to open a dispensary in Kandahar. Al-Rashid regularly sends relief goods to Afghanistan. Up to last month it had sent more than 70 truckloads. The goods included blankets, old and new clothes, shoes and jackets. The trust is also particularly active on the eve of Id -ul-Azha (when Muslims sacrifice animals). On the occasion of the last such event, it sacrificed almost $900,000 worth of goats, sheep and cows. Sources confirm that the number of sacrificial animals this year was higher than ever.

In Pakistan, Al-Rashid is especially active among vulnerable minorities. It has hundreds of offices in Pakistan, practically in every city. It recently opened a clinic in Chenabnagar to provide medical treatment to Muslim patients. Chenabnagar is the center of Ahmedis in Pakistan and the majority of the population is Ahmedi, and they are strongly opposed to the treatment of Muslim patients by Ahmedi doctors. Ahmedis consider themselves Muslim, but orthodox Muslims view them as heretical.

The trust actually runs many madrassas and mosques in Pakistan. The biggest is perhaps Arabia-Islamia, on the Karakoram Highway, in Mansehra, spread over two acres of land.

In Afghanistan, Al-Rashid closely coordinates its activities with an Arab NGO, Wafa Khairia, which plans to launch a bread-for-poor program in cooperation with Al-Rashid. Arab-Afghans - including bin Laden - founded Wafa Khairia in gratitude for being given Afghani hospitality, and it is largely funded by bin Laden, who himself has enjoyed hospitality in Afghanistan since renouncing his country of birth, Saudi Arabia, several years ago.

Al-Rashid is also closely linked with the Jaish-i-Mohammad, a Pakistan-based militant religious organization, which is now also on the US terrorist list. Al-Rashid and Jaish-i-Mohammad share office buildings across the country, although some are strictly for the use of the Jaish-i-Mohammad. The groups also have common cadres, who undertake fundraising activities for both organizations. Indeed, it is often difficult to distinguish between the two outfits. Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-i-Mohammad regularly writes for the weekly newspaper of Al-Rashid, the Zarb-I-Momin. Al-Rashid will soon publish its own daily paper - Islam - out of Karachi.

Zarb-i-Momin, a weekly, reports the jihadi activities of the Taliban and the Jaish-i-Mohammad. It was closely associated with the Harakat-ul-Ansaar (another one on the US terror list) before the Jaish-i-Mohammad was founded in early 2000. Zarb-i-Momin is considered to be one of the most sectarian publications in Pakistan - which is quite an achievement. The paper spews ultra-venomous propaganda against Hindus, Jews and Christians. But attacks on the minority Shi'ites are rare and indirect - something that even the Shi'ites themselves find weird. Another favorite subject for the weekly is the "enviable" history of Muslims. Obviously, the paper is totally anti-American and anti-Western.

Pakistani banks, after President General Pervez Musharraf's spectacular pro-US realignment, froze Al-Rashid's bank accounts, but this does not seem to pose a problem: the trust opened new accounts in the names of individuals. The biggest source of funds for Al-Rashid are the Middle East and everywhere where Pakistanis can be found, especially in Britain. The trust also has a network in South Africa. Al-Rashid also raises a lot of money in Pakistan. And Osama bin Laden, even if he cannot access an ATM in Kandahar, obviously remains an elite financial recipient.

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