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Saudi Funds Raise New Fears on Hill

Lawmakers question whether other nations may be unknowingly, or willingly, officially 'facilitating the next wave of terror' in U.S.

November 25, 2002|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With ties already strained between the United States and Saudi Arabia, a growing number of congressional leaders stressed Sunday that unresolved questions about money from the Saudi royal family that ended up with two Sept. 11 hijackers "raises the stakes" that future terrorists also may be getting help from other sources for yet another attack in this country.

"We don't have any reason to believe that there are not still infrastructures of support and cooperation here inside the United States facilitating the next wave of terror," Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, agreed, saying that the FBI should "relentlessly pursue" the trail of thousands of dollars that Saudi Princess Haifa al Faisal apparently gave to the families of two Saudi men in San Diego. Those men in turn provided financial assistance to two other Saudis in San Diego who were hijackers on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

Shelby noted that the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia is not as warm today as in past years. "They have a lot of oil. We need the oil. We've done a lot of things for them," he said.

"But, if you look at the overall support of the so-called charities that fund a lot of terrorist groups, they've got a lot of answering to do."

The Saudi government acknowledged over the weekend that the princess, who is married to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, was making what she thought were charity payments to a woman with serious medical problems.

But it turned out that much of the money made it into the hands of the woman's husband, Osama Bassnan, and a friend, Omar al Bayoumi. Both men, who were neighbors in San Diego, befriended San Diego hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi; Al Bayoumi helped them relocate in San Diego and make their initial rent payments.

The FBI has said it has thoroughly investigated the matter and concluded that the royal family was not intentionally trying to assist any of the 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi citizens.

Nevertheless, the issue has raised fears on Capitol Hill on two fronts: that Saudi Arabia is not completely in league with the United States in the war on terrorism, and that other countries may be unknowingly -- or even willingly -- officially supporting future terrorist operations.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a co-sponsor of legislation creating an independent commission to investigate the terrorist attacks, suggested on ABC's "This Week" that the Saudi royal family may be going the way of the shah of Iran, who so alienated his people that he eventually was forced from power.

"The Saudis have been engaged in a Faustian bargain with the radical Islamic fundamentalists for many, many years in order to stay on the throne," McCain said. "And it is clear that huge amounts of money have gone to [terrorist] organizations ... that take the kids off the street, teach them to hate and destroy us.

"And you know, like any Faustian bargain, it comes time to pay up. And unless the Saudis change this, then I believe they will meet the fate of the shah of Iran."

He said the royal family should be pushing through changes that bring more freedom to its people. "The Saudis have got to start on the process of democratization," he said. "They've got to stop this business of funding these radical Islamic organizations, which are intent on destroying the West and the U.S."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), McCain's co-sponsor on the Sept. 11 commission legislation, noted on CBS' "Face the Nation" that President Bush's statement to the nations of the world -- "You're either with us or with the terrorists, and if you're with the terrorists, you will feel our wrath" -- should apply "not just to enemies, like Iraq and Afghanistan under the Taliban or Iran ... [but also] to our friends, like Saudi Arabia."

"And either they have to change, or the relationship that we have with Saudi Arabia is going to change dramatically," he added.

Adel al Jubeir, the foreign policy advisor to Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, denied Sunday that the princess had intentionally financed the hijackers and said his government sharply decries any form of terrorism, whether it comes from within its borders or from abroad.

Appearing on both "This Week" and "Face the Nation," he said that the princess "is a very generous woman who goes out of her way to help people in need" and that her charitable contributions only indirectly made it to the hijackers.

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