There’s a Knicks game on at the moment, but during a commercial, one of the men flips through the channels, and President Bush briefly appears on the screen. “Wait! Go back!” someone yells. It’s a White House press conference on MSNBC, and Bush is rebuking the press corps for recent coverage criticizing the CIA’s methods of interrogating terror suspects. Bush notes that information gleaned from these practices helped thwart terrorist attacks abroad and at home. “Despite the fact that our professionals use lawful techniques, the CIA program has come under renewed criticism in recent weeks,” says Bush.
A chorus of jeers erupts from the couches.
“Those who oppose the war on terror need to answer this simple question: Which of the attacks I have just described would they prefer we had not stopped?” Bush adds.
Al Buthe rummages around and finds an “IMPEACH” bumper sticker that Tom Nelson, who’s also here, has brought from a Portland anti-Bush rally. “By the way, this is very important. I’m not anti-American,” al Buthe says. “I don’t have a problem with American culture or freedom or American way of life. But I do have a problem with the Bush administration. I’m anti-Bush.”
What I’ve brought al Buthe is a satchel containing photocopies of all of the government’s exhibits from Seda’s hearing. Since he’s a co-defendant, I ask if he can speak to the charges. He invites me to sit down on a chair across from him and pulls a file at random. It’s the excerpt from the Noble Qur’an and the “Call to Jihad” appendix that Gartenstein-Ross had recited to the court.
“What does the American Constitution say?” asks al Buthe. “That Congress cannot interfere with the free exercise of religion. What does Mr. Cardani know about the call to jihad? This doesn’t mean you wage a war. The West and America have this phobia, fear of jihad, fear of mujahideen. They don’t know what’s the jihad. It’s the service struggle, the internal struggle between doing good or evil. Mr. Cardani cannot judge these things.”
I continue to push him, but more often than not, his answers depend on mere degrees of interpretation. When I ask him flat-out if he’s a terrorist, he asks, “Do you think if I’m a terrorist, my government will let me live a happy life?” Then he notes that his government wouldn’t have hired him to police the environmental health of some 5 million people in Riyadh if he were a terrorist: “If I want to do something, I can damage the whole city.” When I point out that the Noble Qur’an’s militaristic interpretation of jihad—which calls for “tanks, missiles, artillery, airplanes”—can hardly be deemed as an internal struggle of conscience, al Buthe claims he didn’t know about that passage at first, and that in 2001, he replaced the Noble Qur’ans that al Haramain was distributing with a more mainstream translation.
As for the conspiracy and money-laundering charges, al Buthe tells me that as treasurer, he felt it was his responsibility to collect the donation, given its size, and to personally bring it back to Riyadh, where he deposited the checks into his own bank account and then handed the money off to al Haramain’s financial director, Khalid bin Obaid Azzahri, who forwarded the Egyptian’s donation to a Russian agency set up to distribute aid to refugees in Chechnya.
‘Not every designated terrorist is a bomb-thrower. They’re financial types. White-collar guys.’
Al Buthe hands me an affidavit signed by Azzahri and a copy of the agreement establishing the Russian aid agency signed by the Saudi Kingdom’s deputy prime minister, but I have no way of gauging the authenticity of the documents—or, for that matter, verifying anything he has to say in his defense. Much like the U.S. government’s case against al Buthe and Seda, everything al Buthe says sounds plausible, but there’s little in the way of actual proof. As for failing to declare the money, he says it was an honest mistake—that he wasn’t even aware that he was supposed to fill out the customs form, since the documents aren’t distributed prior to boarding.
And that botched tax return Seda filed? Al Buthe attributes the error to an honest mistake as well. “He is a very simple man,” says al Buthe. “That guy, he have a clean heart. He can sit down with anyone and joke. He doesn’t have any problem with anybody. If you know Pete, you love him.”
I ask al Buthe how well he knows Aqeel Abdul Aziz al Aqil, al Haramain’s founder and general director, who also served as president of Seda’s chapter and was added to the terrorism blacklist, for allegedly using al Haramain to benefit himself and al Qaeda.
“I used to spend only one or two hours a day with him,” al Buthe says. “If you want to know somebody, you have to travel with him. You have to eat with him.”
Over the course of four days in Riyadh, I do just that with al Buthe. We hang out at coffee shops and restaurants, drive into the desert and onto rust-red sand dunes. I watch him play basketball in a city tournament on a court that’s still owned by the family of Osama bin Laden, and each day ends with a feast in his tent, where we stay up until 2 in the morning, high on sweet Arabic coffee, debating religion and politics and watching CNN and the Arabic news network al Jazeera. I’ve traveled with Soliman al Buthe. I’ve eaten with Soliman al Buthe. But still, I don’t know him.