NEW YORK CITY — In February of this year, the Danish newspaper Politiken issued a formal apology for republishing a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed clad with a turban shaped like a bomb with a lit fuse. Politiken’s sister newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, had originally published the cartoon in 2005, along with 11 others of Mohammed. The publication of the cartoons was notoriously followed by violent protests and death threats from Muslims the world over.
In issuing an apology, Politiken was in effect settling a lawsuit brought against them by 94,923 alleged descendants of the prophet.
The newspaper published its apology underneath a photo of editor-in-Chief Tøger Seidenfaden smiling and shaking hands with Saudi attorney Faisal Yamani, who represented the alleged descendants.
Terrorism financing expert Rachel Ehrenfeld said the newspaper’s apology “came as no surprise.” In fact, the newspaper’s publishers had visited Ehrenfeld in 2006, just a few months after the violence had erupted.” Discussing my own embroilment with an unjustified libel suit by a Saudi against me in London, the publishers opined that settling was the optimal approach to a potentially expensive suit,” Ehrenfeld wrote. “Four years later, Politiken seems to have taken its own advice, caving into Saudi pressure and apologizing for its exercise of free speech.”
An Israeli who immigrated to the United States, Ehrenfeld is a well-known terrorism financing expert who was thrust into the spotlight over her legal countersuit against the Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz. Ehrenfeld has dubbed Mahfouz the “Libel Tourist” for his frequent use of London courts to exact retribution against authors and publishers who allege he was a terrorism financier (Mahfouz died last August).
Ehrenfeld’s tribulation began with the publication of her most recent book, Funding Evil, which traces networks of terrorism financing, and lists allegations against bin Mahfouz. Specifically, Ehrenfeld cites documents and statements from the U.S. Treasury Department, the Department of State, U.S. financial analysts, legal cases, and the Washington Post. For example, Ehrenfeld writes:
“The former chairman of the National Commercial Bank (NCB) in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, for example, is alleged to have deposited tens of millions of dollars in London and New York directly into terrorist accounts—the accounts of the same terrorists who were implicated in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in which 224 people were killed, including twelve Americans, and more than four thousand were injured. Mahfouz denies that he had funded terrorism.”
That information came from a State Department fact sheet dated November 8, 2001: “White House on Halting Flows to Terrorists.”
After the book’s publication, bin Mahfouz sued Ehrenfeld in England over the citations of allegations in her book. England is now known as the “libel tourism capital” of the world because many foreigners take advantage of its strange, plaintiff-favoring libel laws (see sidebar “Libel Tourism”). Ehrenfeld did not defend herself there because of the expense of a trial and what she saw as the unfairness of English law, and bin Mahfouz obtained a judgment of £225,000 against her.
In response, Ehrenfeld filed for a judgment that the English ruling should not be enforced in the United States. After various appeals, the court ultimately decided that it had no jurisdiction over bin Mahfouz but encouraged Ehrenfeld to try to change the law in New York. Her efforts eventually led to the passage of the Libel Terrorism Protection Act in 2008, also known as “Rachel’s Law,” giving the state court jurisdiction over those who sue New Yorkers overseas and preventing libel judgments in other countries from being enforced in New York (if the country provides less protection of free speech than the United States, which commentators have said is always true). Similar laws have been passed in Illinois, Florida, California, and Utah. Arizona and Maryland are also considering the bill.
"I have to fight for this."
In addition, the "Free Speech Protection Act of 2009,” proposed by Senators Joseph Lieberman, Arlen Specter, Chuck Schumer, and Ron Wyden, is now pending in the U.S. Congress.
The tenacious bin Mahfouz succeeded in using the London courts (and his significant resources) to procure over 40 apologies and retractions from authors and publishers who alleged he had ties to terrorism. Bin Mahfouz’s website features a catalogue of these cookie-cutter legal documents from companies including Cambridge University Press and Routledge, many of which promise to destroy remaining copies of the work in question and refrain from speaking out against bin Mahfouz in the future. Some of bin Mahfouz’s legal actions led to a “domino effect:” think tanks or publications that had based their allegations upon the allegations of other entities, wound up issuing retractions once the original sources had retracted their own claims—also in the wake of legal action by bin Mahfouz.
Bin Mahfouz had steadfastly asserted that he never supported terrorism, nor bin Laden’s terrorist activities, and that he and his family “abhor terrorism in every way.” The website binmahfouz.info presents updated information on litigation underway. Bin Mahfouz released this statement via the website:
The Bin Mahfouz family has suffered for over a year from unsubstantiated innuendo and inaccurate reporting (much of it corrected or withdrawn too late to be helpful). It is, naturally, distressed that it now faces many of the same untrue allegations in filed civil actions. The family repeats that it abhors and condemns all acts of terrorism and that there is not a shred of evidence to justify the actions and lengthy legal process involved. It will, of course, vigorously contest them.
Ehrenfeld stands firm in her fight for speech protections: “I have to fight for this,” she says. “We are at war and these are our enemies, and we have to do whatever we can in order to defend ourselves.”
Ehrenfeld recognizes that terrorism involves both mental and physical components: promoting an ideology and attacking those considered enemies. Although she advocates fighting terrorism on these fronts—with ideas and with force—she thinks that stopping its funding is vital to winning the war on terror.
"We are at war. These are our enemies."
Through her research on drug trafficking, Ehrenfeld came to realize the importance of money in perpetuating illegal activities, especially terrorism. “If we could separate the terrorists from their money, we could keep most of the terrorist ideology at home in their country,” she says. “Saudi Arabia has built mosques all over the world. They are spending hundreds of billions of dollars in order to print books and corrupt public officials in many countries. They do it with money.” The way to stop terrorism, Ehrenfeld claims, is first to uncover those who support it, and this was her goal in writing Funding Evil.
Once information about terrorism financing is publicly available, Ehrenfeld hopes that it will change the behavior of both private citizens and government officials. “Many citizens of the United States are funding terrorism,” Ehrenfeld says. She claims that terrorists partly receive their financing from charities that serve as “fronts,” oil profits, and the drug trade (for more information, see Ehrenfeld’s earlier book, Narcoterrorism: How Governments Around the World Have Used the Drug Trade to Finance and Further Terrorist Activities).
Ehrenfeld’s book is also intended to bolster national security. She says that official government jobs are often too compartmentalized to allow policymakers to do the necessary research and obtain a large-scale picture of the situation. “Because of the investigative work that we do, we are able to help the government. We are not limited by a job description,” Ehrenfeld explains. She would also like to see Saudi Arabia designated as a country that sponsors terrorism, which she speculates has yet to happen because of business connections, including the rise of Islamic banking in the U.S. (see sidebar) and dependence on foreign oil.
Ehrenfeld asserts that the actions of bin Mahfouz and others have discouraged many authors from speaking out against terrorism funding. “There was huge self-censorship,” Ehrenfeld explains. “Nothing that implicates Saudis or Muslims in general in any terror activity is published.” Ehrenfeld says that some newspapers did not even publish information about her lawsuit or the Libel Terrorism Protection Act because they did not want to mention bin Mahfouz. Many major publishers remain concerned about their assets overseas, which are not protected by the Act.
"There was huge self-censorship."
While Ehrenfeld recognizes the risk of publishing information about terrorism financiers, she remains adamant about exercising free speech and encouraging others to do the same. “I think that the most important value that our founding fathers had in mind was really free speech, the First Amendment,” Ehrenfeld says. “I cherish the freedom in America, and I think that it is very important to protect.” She urges Congress to pass the Free Speech Protection Act, not only in support of an abstract right, but also because of its practical implications for national security. “Newspapers are refraining from reporting about issues that can cost many, many lives and our independence,” Ehrenfeld says.
Despite the threats and legal judgment against her, Ehrenfeld continues to speak and write about terrorism funding. She is currently working on a second book about the issue, and regularly testifies before committees and government officials. “Americans have a lot to say,” Ehrenfeld insists. And with her help, they may just find the courage to say it.
Update: On August 10, 2010, President Obama signed the SPEECH Act, the name of the final bill that was designed and promoted by Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld.