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Saudis Call Any Aid to Terrorists Unwitting

November 24, 2002|Richard A. Serrano, Doyle McManus and Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Saudi officials acknowledged Saturday that the wife of their ambassador to the United States may have unwittingly provided money that eventually helped support two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, but they insisted that Princess Haifa al Faisal never purposely meant to assist the terrorist conspiracy.

Nail al Jubeir, chief spokesman for the Saudi Embassy here, stressed that "the assertion that the princess has supported terrorism is simply untrue and irresponsible."

He added, "She has provided general assistance to people in need only."

Justice Department officials here and in Southern California said Saturday that they have not uncovered any evidence suggesting that the princess or any Saudi government officials knowingly provided financial help to the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Rather, a California official said, the 19 hijackers were the beneficiaries of money wired directly to them from abroad. "These guys had access to hundreds of thousands of dollars from overseas," the official said.

The question of what role, if any, the Saudi government may have played in the events leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, surfaced Friday in a draft report of a congressional investigation.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and two of those hijackers who lived in San Diego received money from two other Saudis in San Diego whose families received financial assistance from Haifa.

The report by the joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee suggests the FBI and CIA did not probe the matter vigorously enough. But law enforcement officials responded by saying the matter was thoroughly reviewed.

On Saturday, one high-placed Justice Department official noted that while the two hijackers received money to pay their rent from the Saudis who had received money from the princess, the hijackers repaid them in cash the same day.

From a strategic standpoint, the official said, the FBI concluded that it just seemed illogical that a Saudi agent -- or the government of Saudi Arabia itself -- would assist the plans of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

"Why would the Saudi government knowingly support a terrorist organization that would attack the U.S.?" the official said. "It would just destabilize their own government even more. It just doesn't make any sense."

Haifa is the youngest daughter of the late King Faisal and is married to Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Al Jubeir, along with an advisor to Prince Bandar, said the embassy has been scrambling since Friday night to try to reconstruct the princess' records of payments to needy Saudis in the United States.

Specifically, embassy officials were trying to explain how money from the princess went to Saudi nationals Omar al Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan, and how they in turn gave financial assistance to two of the hijackers: Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi.

Saudi officials said the princess maintains an account at Riggs National Bank, the old-line Washington financial institution that has long maintained a special VIP division to handle discreet money transfers for diplomats and aristocrats.

Her office provides Riggs with a list of beneficiaries, some of whom receive monthly stipends. The list includes both individuals and charitable organizations.

Al Jubeir said Haifa has given out college tuition to some 12 students and medical assistance to another half a dozen Saudi immigrants, and she has helped 25 needy people "on a regular monthly basis for various things."

The applicants submit requests, and if they are approved, Riggs sends cashier checks based on the princess' list.

A Request for Aid

In April 1998, Bandar and the princess received a letter from Bassnan saying he was in deep trouble and needed money. He wrote that his family was living in Virginia and had four children, and his wife was pregnant and needed thyroid surgery.

The embassy sent them $15,000 and paid the surgical bill.

In November 1998, Bassnan's wife wrote a letter asking for more help. Soon thereafter, the princess authorized a monthly payment by Riggs bank of $2,000 a month to the wife. The checks were apparently made out to her as Majeda Ibrahim Ahmed. Her full name appears to be Majeda Ibrahim Ahmed al Dweikat. She is a Jordanian citizen.

Many of those checks were then endorsed to Osama Bassnan. Some were endorsed to Janet Bassnan, who is believed to be his daughter. Some were endorsed to a woman named Manal Bajadr, who is believed to be Al Bayoumi's wife. The families were apparently neighbors in San Diego.

Al Jubeir said Ahmed was treated at UC San Diego beginning in April 2000 and most recently in March, but he would not say what for.

The advisor said of the princess that "it's not clear how much personal knowledge she had of this case."

"She personally reads the letters that come in appealing for help, but she asks the staff to check the cases out," the advisor said.

Al Jubeir said the princess and prince are often flooded with requests for assistance.

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