The Faisal mosque in Islamabad is one of the most visual examples of Saudi Arabia’s influence – and money – in Pakistan. The imposing orphanage looms on the edge of Islamabad, housing 250 poor boys from across Pakistan who receive tuition, board and meals, and daily instruction in Saudi-style Islam. A plaque over the doors identifies the generous benefactor: the International Islamic Relief Organisation, a government-sponsored charity from Saudi Arabia that the US accuses of spreading extremism and funding al-Qaida. America may be widely despised in Pakistan – a new poll gives it 12% approval, but there is far greater tolerance for Pakistan’s regional ally, Saudi Arabia, in all its controversial manifestations. Saudi influence is pervasive, from the soaring minarets of Islamabad’s Faisal mosque – the largest in Asia – to the corridors of power, where Saudi officials enjoy privileged access. In the past decade Riyadh has subsidised Pakistan’s oil supply, offered gilded exile to the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, and even attempted to solve its extremist woes. When trouble erupted at the hardline Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007, the Saudi ambassador was drafted in to broker peace. But Saudi money and influence have attracted hostile scrutiny from western countries, particularly the US. Worries centre on a flood of charity donations, mainly earmarked for education, some of which finds their way into weapons and military training. A senior western official in Islamabad said the main worry was Saudi funding for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani militant group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Funding appeared to have stopped since the Mumbai attacks, he said, but the group continues to solicit private money from conservative Saudis under the guise of charitable donations. The IIRO has also come under scrutiny. In 2009 the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, privately warned that US intelligence had discovered the IIRO and two other state-backed charities “continue to send money overseas and, at times, fund extremism overseas”, according to diplomatic cables released through WikiLeaks.
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The IIRO is an affiliate of the Muslim World League (MWL) which was established in 1962 as a means for the propagation of Saudi “Wahabbi” Islam. Muslim Brothers played an important role in its founding and, to date, the League has been strongly with the Brotherhood. The MWL, together with the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), are Saudi organizations believed by U.S. government officials to have helped to spread Islamic extremism around the world as well as sponsoring terrorism in places such as Bosnia, Israel, and India. In 2006, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Philippine and Indonesian branch offices of the IIRO as well as one of its executives in connection with fundraising for al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliates. Previous posts have discussed the history of the IIRO in the US, its ties to the US Muslim Brotherhood as well as the recent registration of its new US office in Florida, and its new international image campaign.